The Stanley Cup Playoffs are the talk of the NHL right now, but soon, after the cup has been handed out and all the blood and sweat has dried, the league will switch its focus to the decidedly less glorious free agency. One of the tasks that awaits NHL general managers this offseason is the question of what to do with their restricted free agents. The Florida Panthers have a number these decisions to weigh and we will dive into them shortly, but before we do here is a quick refresher of the ins and outs of RFAs in the NHL. (For a more in depth description, wikipedia has an excellent detailed description of the ins and outs of restricted free agency.)
Basically, a player becomes a restricted free agent when their entry-level contract expires and if they are under 27 or have not played in the league for at least seven years. If you are over 27 or have played seven years in the league, you become an unrestricted free agent which means you can negotiate with any team you want.
The current team of a restricted free agent has exclusive negotiating rights and in order to maintain those negotiating rights, the current team must extend the player a qualifying offer. If no qualifying offer is made, the player becomes an unrestricted free agent. If an offer is made and the player declines the offer, he remains an RFA. If the player does not sign by December 1st, he becomes ineligible to play that season.
Sounds simple enough right? Well there’s more. Other teams around the league can extend an RFA an offer sheet. If a player signs an offer sheet with another team, his current team has two choices, accept of decline. If the current team accepts, then they agree to sign their RFA to the exact terms agreed upon in the offer sheet, if the current team declines, then the team that extended the offer sheet acquires the RFA and the player’s former team is compensated with draft picks, with the specifics of the number and prestige of the draft picks depending of the salary of the player involved.
Also, during the negotiations between a team and their RFA, either side can send to process to arbitration (providing that the player has been in the league for more than four years). If this occurs, both sides then propose a salary that they believe is accurate and an arbitrator decides on the fairest price.
While there is more esoteric minutia, our purposes should be served by this basic understanding of the restricted free agent process. So with that out of the way, let’s take a look at the Panther players who will be RFA’s this offseason.
Florida Panther RFA’s
There are a few more non-roster players that will be RFA’s this offseason but we will focus on those listed above.
When the Panthers signed Mueller last off-season to a one year deal worth 1.75 million, they knew they were getting a very talented player who, thanks to multiple concussions, has struggled to stay on the ice. With the one year deal Florida was entering a low-risk, high-reward situation. In the worst case scenario Mueller would continue to be crippled by health issues and the Panthers would let him go after the season. In the best case scenario Mueller would stay healthy and live up to his potential as a 20+ goal scorer.
What the Panthers actually got was something in between those two scenarios. While Mueller proved he can stay healthy, playing in 43 of 48 games this season, he did not shock the world with his production. Mueller managed eight goals and nine assists this season, totals that are a bit disappointing however the case for him re-signing with Florida remains strong. Mueller is young and talented and can probably be signed for under 2 million dollars. There is no reason to let guys like that walk especially when you are a cost conscious team like the Panthers. I would be surprised if Mueller is not wearing a Panthers jersey at the start of the 2013-14 season.
Shawn Matthias had a breakout year of sorts in 2013 scoring 14 goals and 7 assists while playing in every game this season. He also became a human highlight reel scoring goals like this, this and this. Oh yea, he is also 25 and only made $900,000 last season. According to restricted free agent rules, teams’ qualifying offers to players with a salary between $660,000 and $1,000,000 must include a 5% increase in salary so the Panthers can go as low as $945,000 with their qualifying offer to Matthias. I think Florida will have to give Matthias closer to 1.5 million if they want to keep him but whatever price they could potentially sign Matthias at will almost certainly be a bargain. The same argument made for Mueller is true for Matthias, you cannot afford to not re-sign young talented and relatively cheap players.
At 26 years old and a former first round draft pick, Jack Skille is another player who falls into the young and talented category but what separates Skille from players like Mueller and Matthias is, Skille has never proven that he can produce in the NHL. Since coming to Florida in the 2011 trade that sent Michael Frolik to the Blackhawks, Skille has only managed eights goals in 99 games. Skille is a player that always skates as if his feet were on fire and is someone who is not afraid to throw his body around. That being said, you cannot resign everybody so even though his base qualifying offer would be $866,250 per year, I do not expect Florida to make a hard push to re-sign Skille.
The Florida Panthers acquired defenseman T.J. Brennan on March 15 of the 2013 season from the Buffalo Sabres. In return for the 24 year old defender, the Panthers sent Buffalo a 2013 5th round draft pick. Brennan impressed in his short stint with the Panthers scoring two goals and seven assists in 19 games. To be honest, I am baffled by how the Sabres could let Brennan go for just a 5th round pick. Last season while playing for the Rochester Americans, Buffalo’s AHL affiliate, Brennan averaged almost a point per game. In 36 games for Rochester, Brennan had 34 points on 14 goals and 20 assists.
Brennan’s NHL salary was $550,000 last year which means the Pathers’ qualifying offer must include a 10% raise. The base qualifying offer the Panthers could offer Brennan is $605,000. The only issue is, the Panthers blue line is becoming crowded especially with the likes of Alex Petrovic and possibly Colby Robak waiting in the wings. Blue line spots could open up in a hurry with Tyson Strachan an unrestricted free agent and Ed Jovanovski‘s career approaching its end. I think the Panthers could let the 28 year old Strachan walk and have Brennan fill his place. Brennan is definitely an offensive upgrade but the team may value Strachan’s defense more than whatever Brennan would bring to the table. I think Florida will try to keep either Brennan or Strachan, not both, and since Brennan is younger and an RFA I think he will be the choice.
The Jacob Markstrom situation is fraught with peril. Markstrom will require a base offer of $1.3 million and as far as I can tell, the Panthers have three options. If they do not think he is going to be their goalie of the future they can either not give him an offer or see if a team signs him to an offer sheet. This option is highly unlikely. The second option is the wait and see approach. Florida can sign Markstrom to a one or two year contract and see if he develops into the cornerstone they hope he will become. Here Florida runs the risk of alienating one of their top prospects by not showing him their confidence and support which would be option three, showing Markstrom that the organization believes in him by signing him to a long term deal.
I really have no idea how this will all play out but I think the Panthers will be conservative and sign Markstrom to a short-term deal. Only 23 years old, Markstrom would still be a restricted free agent at the end of a one or two year deal and at that point Florida will have a much better idea of what kind of player Markstrom is and will be better equipped to make a decision regarding a long term contract.
Colby Robak will require a qualifying offer of $826,875, and at only 23 years old I do not see why the Panthers would not bring him back. According to Hockey’s Future, Robak is the Panthers’ third ranked defensive prospect. Robak played in 16 games for the Panthers last season and although he may struggle to crack the lineup right away next year, if the Panthers re-sign him, he should be at the very least an early injury fill in.