While some others are still competing, the Florida Panthers need to be looking at ways that they can be competing at this time next year.
The Florida Panthers enter the 2018 offseason north of $8 million in cap space, with the only UFA’s being Connor Brickley and Radim Vrbata (who is set to retire). To where the Panthers can spend as much as they want, a division rival (the Detroit Red Wings) do not have the luxuries that the Panthers have.
A big difference between the Panthers and Wings is that the Cats have their young core locked up for the next four-five seasons on team-friendly deals, while the Detroit Red Wings are at risk of losing some of their core. The Wings have been locked into some bad contracts under GM Ken Holland.
Holland was set on ‘winning now’ in a tight Eastern Conference for the past five seasons, but now is the time it comes back to haunt him. Players such as Henrik Zetterberg, Frans Nielsen, Danny DeKeyser and Jimmy Howard are all being paid $5 million per year or more for multiple seasons, which leaves the Wings in a very tight cap situation.
This offseason, the Wings have a whopping seven skaters under their final year of their respective contracts. The two UFA’s, veterans David Booth and 2018 All-Star Mike Green, look to be on their way out of the Motor City, but the five RFA’s is where things get really interesting. All RFA’s are forwards under the age of 24, and amongst those are some real stars that Detroit may not be able to pay.
To start, Andreas Athanasiou, a 23-year-old centerman is a player getting mixed messages from the Red Wings front office. The Mississauga native actually didn’t start this season with the Wings, as they didn’t want to pay the $2.5 million asking price on Athanasiou’s head, trying to lowball him with a $1.25 million deal. Fortunately, Athanasiou had been stuck with agent Darren Ferris in Switzerland, who actually had zero leverage in the situation, as the Wings weren’t going to overpay and didn’t care about their record.
Athanasiou reluctantly took a one-year deal at $1.85 million, and continued to average around a point per two games, with 33 points (16 goals, 17 assists) in 71 games. For the Panthers, this may not be somebody that Dale Tallon looks into, as the Cats have enough depth down the middle with Jared McCann and Henrik Borgstrom, both who have great potential to live up to. For Ken Holland, however, Athanasiou might be someone he may sign long-term due to losses of other players.
One of those previously mentioned players would be former All-Star center Dylan Larkin. The 21-year-old is being held behind Henrik Zetterberg and Frans Nielsen as becoming the star center of the franchise, and may look to be apart of a win-now franchise. Larkin is at his best playing with a much faster line setting up chances, with 47 assists this campaign, leading the Wings in assists and points (63).
The ‘X factor’ of Larkin’s game has actually been his improvement as a defensive player, being used a lot on the penalty kill and to good effect, tied for the most shorthanded goals on the team and decreased his +/- from -28 all the way down to -9.
As a pass-first player who can play wing and is improving on defense, Larkin almost seems like a perfect partner for Vincent Trocheck on line two. As solid as Frank Vatrano was upon arrival, a line of Huberdeau-Trocheck-Larkin would easily be one of the best, if not the best, second lines in the entire NHL. If Florida can give Larkin enough money, the Red Wings may refuse, or be financially unable to match, sending the former Michigan Wolverine down south.
My personal favorite of the Detroit RFA’s is right-winger Anthony Mantha. Mantha comes in at 6’5 with 24 goals and 24 assists, a career-high in both stats and at just 23 years of age. Mantha was also brilliant on Detroit’s power play, notching 9 goals and 3 assists.
His 9 goals on the man advantage led the entire Detroit team throughout the 2017-18 campaign. Like Athanasiou, Mantha isn’t in the best terms with GM Ken Holland, as Holland refused to let Mantha play in the postseason two years ago when Detroit were knocked out by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Holland said this on the issue:
"“If he’s going to play eight minutes, what’s the use of it? Anthony Mantha was a spare part in the (AHL) Calder Cup playoffs a year ago. Why does anyone think he is going to be the answer in Detroit?”"
Mantha is a tall, young winger with a deadly shot, capable of much more with a better winger than Darren Helm. Sticking Anthony Mantha next to Aleksander Barkov and Evgeni Dadonov would greatly increase his numbers, allowing Bjugstad to possibly play on the lower lines as a depth piece. This would completely throw the Panthers into one of the most deep teams across the NHL, having the luxury of being able to play Nick Bjugstad (a 20-goal scorer) on the third line!
Whether the Panthers want Mantha for his effectiveness on the man advantage, or Larkin for his speed and passing, or even Athanasiou for his skill and speed, the Wings will likely be unable to keep all three.
The Florida Panthers played these three players, three times this year. What they do know is their capabilities of putting the puck in the net. If the Red Wings are unable to unload one of their big contracts (i.e. DeKeyser or Nielsen) via trade or buyout this offseason, the Florida Panthers should be the first ones on the scene!