For the Florida Panthers, the first day of NHL free agency was defined by their inaction. While the team made some minor acquisitions, it was the moves that the they did not make that stood out. More specifically it was one move the team did not make that stood out. The failure to re-sign Stephen Weiss and his consequent signing with the Detroit Red Wings stole all the headlines in the Panther-verse on Friday. In the aftermath of Weiss’ departure, the question that emerges is, did the Florida Panthers make the right move by not re-signing Stephen Weiss?
Let’s start by looking at the deal Weiss signed. The Detroit Red Wings signed Stephen Weiss to a deal worth $24.5 million over five years. That is a $4.9 million dollar cap hit per season. That might be a number the Red Wings can stomach but probably not one the Panthers would be chomping at the bit to add to their payroll.
Consider this, according to Capgeek.com, the Red Wings currently have $41,961,212 invested in their forwards for the 2013-14 season. The Panthers have only $29,864,167 invested in their forwards. You might see the discrepancies here and conclude that the Panthers have tons of money to spend of offensive players but the truth is, the Red Wings and the Panthers operate in different universes when it comes to payroll. The Panthers whose salary payroll currently sits around $46.5 million will attempt to operate around the $44 million dollar cap floor while the Red Wings whose salary payroll is currently$66.2 million will consistently be pushing the limits of the salary cap.
The point is this, Stephen Weiss is a risky player. He is 30 years old and coming off an injury plagued season. When healthy he could play at a level that justifies his $4.9 million dollar price tag but that is a big if. When you are the Detroit Red Wings you have a much higher risk tolerance than a team like the Panthers, and you can sign a player like Weiss for five years knowing that there is a chance he will not live up to his contract. If the Panthers are going to invest that kind of money in a player they have to be confident that the player will produce. In short, a $5 million albatross on the Red Wings payroll is waaaaaayy less damaging than a $5 million albatross on the Panthers’ payroll.
The Panthers also have a number of players signed to $4+ million dollar contracts who have not produce at a level that justifies their salary (I’m looking at you Kris Versteeg and Ed Jovanovski). Would they really want to add another potentially wasteful contract? For the Panthers to be successful they have to maximize their payroll and that means they have to be efficient as hell when it comes to signing players. Instead of re-signing Weiss, the Panthers made it a priority to lock up RFA Shawn Matthias. The Panthers will be paying the 25 year old center $1.75 million a season and I personally believe that it is a safe bet that he will out-produce the much older and more expensive Weiss. Even without Weiss, the Panthers have six players currently on their roster capable of playing the center position. Shawn Matthias, Drew Shore, Nick Bjugstad, Marcel Goc, Sasha Barkov and even Jonathan Huberdeau are all capable of handling the position and all are much cheaper and younger than Weiss.
From the Panthers point of view, it would have been nice to have Weiss back, but they had no incentive to make a strong push to re-sign him. There was zero need to commit a lot of money over a long period of time and risk the teams future financial flexibility. Therefore it was not surprising one bit how things played out on Friday. Dale Tallon and the Panthers paid lip-service to the fact that they were attempting to re-sign Weiss and they publicly stated that they wanted him back. They did this because Weiss was the face of the franchise and even though a deal was a long shot, you cannot let the face of the franchise walk without making a visible effort to bring him back. Its like whisper-yelling “Wait don’t go!” to someone after they are already 100 yards down the road.
Weiss’ departure was inevitable. After more than a decade with the Panthers and only one playoff appearance Weiss deserves to go to a contender. Re-signing with the Panthers was not the right move for either side and while it is sad to see him go, Panther fans had months to prepare themselves for his departure so the shock should have been mitigated. On the plus side, the Red Wings will be in the Panthers division next year so Weiss will be returning to Florida a number of times. It will be interesting to see how the Panther fans react to his return.