Panthers are in good hands, but face big challenges in taking next step

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Get ready for a sentence I couldn’t imagine writing (unironically) not all that long ago. The Florida Panthers appear to be in … good hands?

For years, the Panthers blundered through some real mistakes. To be fair, Panthers GM Dale Tallon deserves the occasional bit of credit. Back in 2013, picking Aleksander Barkov ahead of Jonathan Drouin and Seth Jones was mildly shocking. Today, it looks brilliant.

Unfortunately, Tallon made error after error around Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and a select few other positive standouts. Even when the Panthers found a gem out of the blue, they’d sometimes just sour on them for reasons. (Trading Jonathan Marchessault to get rid of Reilly Smith, possibly to keep Alex Petrovic, remains a profound head-scratcher.)

If you recall, Tallon’s response to regaining power over the short-lived Panthers “computer boys” prompted the veteran exec to utter “Thank God.” It’s early in the Bill Zito era, but after a single season, Panthers fans should be uttering that reaction.

Very positive early results

As a rule, I don’t love buying out players. While I’m sure the Panthers were champing at the bit to get rid of Keith Yandle, the savings from buying him out seem mediocre.

Even then, those quibbles melt away pretty quickly. If buying out Yandle simplified the Panthers’ expansion draft protection plan, then understood. If that was necessary to hand out potentially shrewd extensions to Anthony Duclair and Gustav Forsling? Then even better.

In a way, Duclair’s redemption arc almost matches that of the Panthers as a whole. A player and a team on a dramatic upswing:

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But both contracts could serve up serious value for the Panthers.

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Truly, retaining Duclair and Forsling feeds into a larger feeling around the Panthers.

This is a team that added a bunch of new players, almost of whom were not particularly highly regarded. Credit Zito, Joel Quenneville, others, or a combination of factors, but the Panthers integrated new talent with aplomb.

Duclair and Sam Bennett probably stand as the most dramatic examples. In particular, it was astounding how seamlessly Bennett fit with Florida despite an in-season trade.

For a deeper look at how the Panthers mixed the right ingredients together with the right system, check out this from Jack Han.

While the Panthers fell to the Lightning in six games, there were times when it seemed like they were capable of something rare: making Tampa Bay a bit uncomfortable. Squint your eyes a bit, maybe picture a more stable goaltending situation, and you could imagine an even better Panthers team going forward.

3 Big obstacles as the Panthers hope to continue their climb

… There’s also some concern that the Panthers might struggle with an encore. Consider three key reasons why.

1. Ghosts of contracts past

As clever as Zito is, it’s tough to imagine the Panthers wiggling out of Sergei Bobrovsky‘s disastrous contract. At age 32, Bob carries that $10M cap hit through 2025-26 (five more seasons).

Such a contract is already taking up 12.3-percent of Florida’s space, and that’s assuming they’d ponder hitting the salary cap ceiling. It’s also a contract that can make other moves tougher. Would the Panthers be as willing to let Chris Driedger go if they weren’t stuck with Bobrovsky?

Adam Gretz broke down Yandle’s buyout details on Thursday:

2021-22: $2.34 million salary cap hit ($4 million salary cap savings)
2022-23: $5.3 million salary cap hit ($1.05 million salary cap savings)
2023-24: $1.24 million salary cap hit (-$1.24 million savings)
2024-25: $1.24 million salary cap hit (-$1.24 million savings)

Between Yandle, Roberto Luongo, and Scott Darling, the Panthers carry about $4.5M in dead money for at least 2021-22. If Bobrovsky’s a drag, that’s another $10M poorly spent.

For a team that has to be cost-conscious, that stings.

… And the Panthers would be wise to make any upcoming commitments either cap-friendly, or short-term.

2. Scary contract negotiations in the future?

When you’ve signed one of the best bargain contracts in the league, you gain quite the luxury. But then there’s the hangover-like feeling when the party’s over.

Aleksander Barkov, 25, carries a $5.9M cap hit for 2021-22, then he could become a UFA. It’s been a glorious six seasons, but payday’s approaching for the reigning Selke winner.

If I were the Panthers, I’d seek clarity regarding Barkov’s next contract. Frankly, I’d probably also want to extend Carter Verhaeghe (25, $1M for one more season, would be an RFA) sooner rather than later. If Verhaeghe sticks with Barkov and Duclair for another season, he could put up the sort of numbers that would make him far richer than his current steal-of-a-deal.

Two years down the line, there are other big potential stumbling blocks.

Like Barkov, 28-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau carries a mere $5.9M cap hit. He’ll need a new contract after 2022-23 (two seasons). Considering Huberdeau’s age, that might be complicated.

While the conversations were mostly limited to analytics circles, MacKenzie Weegar emerged with some dark horse Norris chatter in 2020-21. At 27, he’s a bargain at $3.25M (even if you’re not ready to ponder him as a borderline star) through 2022-23. Obviously, the Panthers wouldn’t mind if mainstream hockey people take longer to realize what they have in Weegar.

Promising goalie Spencer Knight, 20, will burn through his rookie contract after two more seasons, as well.

Now, the Panthers have some money coming off the books that should mitigate some challenges. Anton Stralman‘s just not who he once was, so it should be a relief to see that $5.5M evaporate after next season.

Overall, it might be crucial for the Panthers to remain sneaky-good (or better) in 2021-22. Doing so would maintain and potentially grow their fanbase. It may also be pivotal in convincing ownership to invest in keeping people like Barkov, Huberdeau, Weegar, and Knight in the fold.

(It might also be needed in bribing someone to take Bobrovsky off their hands … though that would be an easier sell down the road.)

3. A potentially deadly division

Look, it’s too early to truly know that the Atlantic Division will be brutal in 2021-22. That seems like the educated guess, however.

Consider what the Panthers could face:

  • Naturally, there’s the defending champions. This offseason could strike the Lightning hard, yet they have the core elements to contend again.

  • Despite some playoff heartache, the Bruins have a chance to be very, very good again. It’s not totally clear if Taylor Hall will be back, but Boston has room to remain among the elite.

  • Can the Maple Leafs get over the hump in the playoffs? Unclear. You’d be negligent to assume that they won’t be in the playoff mix, though.

  • Don’t count the Canadiens out after their Cinderella run to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final. Even beyond that run, they’ve consistently been a competent-to-great team five-on-five. If Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield make them more dynamic, then look out.

  • The Senators, Red Wings, and Sabres are lesser concerns, no doubt. Every now and then, a rebuilding team makes a quicker leap than expected. Perhaps Ottawa could start to put things together?

Looking at the Atlantic Division, the Panthers might find themselves mainly eyeballing wild-card races.

Really, there would be no shame in that. The top five (Panthers included) looks pretty daunting a day before Seattle Kraken expansion draft protection lists are due.

For years, it often felt like the Panthers beat themselves. With some newfound hope, they seem a lot more competent, at least today. Unfortunately, taking the next step from competent to true contender won’t be easy.

Do you think they can pull it off?

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Panthers are in good hands, but face big challenges in taking next step originally appeared on NBCSports.com