Jan. 9, 2012: Sunrise, FL, USA; Florida Panthers right wing Kris Versteeg (32) checked Vancouver Canucks defenseman Dan Hamhuis (2) into the Panthers bench during the first period at the BankAtlantic Center. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

An Early Look At Free Agency: Summer 2012

With a four day break between games for the Florida Panthers, I thought it would be a good idea to take a step back from the playoff race and look to this coming summer’s free agency pool.  Don’t expect Dale Tallon to make another huge splash of signing a dozen players like last summer, however I think that you can look for a more strategic approach to further improve the hockey club.  The good thing is that the Panthers have some pieces in place with players like Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Brian Campbell,  and future captain Erik Gudbranson on the books for the next 2-3 seasons.

With prospects like Jonathan Huberdeau and Quinton Howden potentially ready to make their NHL debut’s next season,  the work that Dale has to do isn’t as feverish as last summer. It will be more like adding the missing pieces, some big and some not so much.  Looking at the current roster of the Panthers, the following players are RFA’s (restricted free agents):

Kris Versteeg, Wojtek Wolski, Dmitry Kulikov, Keaton Ellerby and Jon Matsumoto.  It’s easy to say that at least three of those players will be resigned, as long as the market doesn’t price itself out of our budget.  Although when seeing contracts like the one Mikhail Grabovski signed yesterday, anything is possible.  Being a restricted free agent means that the Panthers must make an offer based on the rules (which you can find here), or lose that player to another club.  The tough decisions will be how much of a raise to give Versteeg, and does Wolski fit into the picture both financially, and as part of the overall blueprint.

The players listed below will become UFA’s (unrestricted free agents), and unless signed by July 1st will be allowed to hit the open market and sign with the highest bidder, or sign with the team they feel has the best fit:

Jason Garrison, Mikael Samuelsson, Marco Sturm, Krys Barch, John Madden, Scott Clemmensen.  In all honesty, I could see at least two of these six players returning, or none of them.  With these players it will definitely come down to money and length of contract.

Now comes the fun part, who’s available?  As of today here’s the list of UFA’s, and here’s the list of RFA’s. 

My top five UFA’s that I’d like to see the Panthers go after from this list are:

1) Zach Parise.  A player coming into his prime that you can build your team around. He’s going to command around $7 million per year which may be an issue for many teams including us.

2) David Jones.  A hard working forward with good size who can score.  Definitely an affordable salary.

3) Ryan Suter.  Everyone will go after Ryan.  It will come down to two things for him.  Money, and market.

4) Niklas Grossman.  Stay at home defenceman.  Affordable, dependable.  We need that.

5) P.A. Parrenteau.  Guy has come from nowhere.  Will he be overpriced?  Depends.  Could be a risk worth taking.

As for RFA’s beyond the one’s that we have to work with, I’m not big on signing players to offer sheets.  It can cause some unrest amongst the general managers and it’s a great way to make an enemy.  Much like when Brian Burke wanted to kick the snot out of Kevin Lowe in a barn fight  regarding the offer to Dustin Penner.  That said, there are a few players that might not get an offer from their club, and one of them could be Lars Eller from Montreal.  An original first round pick of the St. Louis Blues in 2007, he was the centerpiece on the return for Jaroslav Halak.  He’s only 22, and has size to make us bigger up the middle, and potential to be a solid forward for many years.

Insurance:  With Scott Clemmensen likely to hit free agency, and Jacob Markstrom slated to share the duties next season with Jose Theodore, the Panthers will need a goaltender just in case.  You probably need to grab an experienced NHL guy who’s starting days are over, and who’s backup days are numbered.  This goalie would most likley get the bulk of his playing time in the AHL, but if needed could be called up in a pinch to handle a few games while one of Theo or Marky is out.

* Alex Auld.  Don’t laugh.  He’ll come cheap, and at 31 years old and having had a rough couple years, maybe he finds his game again in the AHL.  Remember, he’s purely insurance, and you have to find a player willing to sign a two way deal.  He could be out of suitors, so this could be a good fit.

* Dany Sabourin.  Again, cheap, and most likely willing to sign a two way deal.

In my wildest dreams, we sign Parise, Huberdeau makes the team, and Ryan Suter is paired with Brian Campbell on the blueline.  One thing for sure, we need to get bigger and more physical up the middle and on the wings.  With Erik Gudbranson maturing on defence, next year his presence will be felt even more, but a if we can’t persuade Suter to come here, then a guy like Grossman could be perfect.

In my best scenario, we don’t have to worry about this for awhile, and we make a nice long playoff run, and revisit this sometime in May.   That would be good news.

Want some great news?  The cap hit for Ville Koistinen finally comes off after this season!  One of the last remnants of the Uncle Jack era will be gone, freeing up $466,000!

Thanks for reading.  We welcome your comments and opinions.

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Tags: Barn Fight Brian Burke Dale Tallon Florida Panthers Kevin Lower Nhl Free Agents Ryan Suter Zach Parise

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