Florida Panthers: After Elimination from Play-in Series, Where do they Go from Here?

After officially being eliminated from their play-in series, the Florida Panthers find themselves at yet another crossroads.

The 3-1 series defeat to the New York Islanders should not have come as a surprise to anyone. All season long, the Isles had the Florida Panthers’ number, showcasing their dominance over the Cats in sweeping fashion. In the qualifying round, nothing changed, and the Isles approached the Panthers the exact same way as the season, with the results hardly changing for both sides.

Now that the Panthers’ season is over, they have some reflecting to do, but they also have a ton of work that needs to get done. So, the question heading into the offseason remains: where do they go from here?

To start, the Panthers need a change in the front office. With Dale Tallon’s contract now officially expired, there are reports that have confirmed the Panthers will parts ways from him. Originally arriving in Sunrise ten years ago, Tallon has managed Florida to two playoff berths as well as one play-in series, but all of those appearances have resulted in first-round exits.

Tallon is responsible for drafting the Panthers’ core (Barkov, Huberdeau, Ekblad, etc.), but he’s equally responsible for some of the questionable decisions he’s made pertaining to trades (leading to poor returns), botched draft picks, and poor prospect developing/handling. Not every problem that the organization faces directly lies on him, but there’s a fair share that he should be responsible for.

At this point, it’s been ten long years with lots of hope but no return and the blueprint he originally set out to follow has been completely abandoned. Ideally, it was only a matter of time until we reached this point, but the time for inevitable change has come now. It’s time to bring in someone new, with a fresh outlook on the game who can draft well, develop properly, and get the most out of his stars in a set window. That individual is not Eric Joyce. That said person is going to have to be an outside hire who sticks to a plan and is ready to make uncomfortable changes. If the Panthers are serious about changing their culture for the better then their next GM hire cannot be a cheap, in-house replacement. Until the right individual is picked out for the job, you can kiss the Panthers’ chances of icing a playoff-caliber team goodbye.

After (and if) the Panthers make the correct GM hiring, their next focus should be directed over to the D core. The defense, as it stands, is nowhere good enough to propel Florida into a playoff position. As we’ve seen all year, and just witnessed in the qualifying round, the defense just doesn’t have what it takes to play sound, defensive playoff hockey. The pieces that make up the group just don’t fit or mesh well when they take to the ice. Having Yandle and Matheson play as a pair was a living nightmare that felt like it was never going to end.

This offseason, at least one of those two has to be shipped out. Considering that Yandle has a No-Movement Clause (NMC) attached to his deal, it’s going to be tricky for the Panthers to obtain his consent towards a trade of some sort. And even once Yandle’s agrees to said trade, money is surely going to have to be retained with three years remaining at $6.35M.

Matheson, while younger and cheaper, has faced a decline in his game over the last couple of seasons, and with his recent performance during the qualifying round evident of that, there’s not going to be a lot (or any) suitors willing to touch him with a ten-foot pole. His term is the biggest concern with six years remaining at $4.87M. Money will also have to be retained in any trade surrounding the left-handed defenseman.

The Panthers have put themselves in a financial hole just based off of two defensemen. That’s not even getting into contracts like Anton Stralman, Brett Connolly, and Sergei Bobrovsky (questionable). All of this has put Florida in cap constraint, unable to re-sign impending free agents like Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov – with at least one (maybe even both) expected to walk.

Florida currently only has two defensemen capable of playing reliable, defensive hockey in Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar – who too is up for renewal (RFA). With a cupboard bare of defensemen with top-four potential, it’s critical that the Panthers select at least a couple in this draft to help alleviate their current cap situation as well as to prevent themselves from having to overpay on the open market to find said defensemen.

After they tackle the two most glaring issues in management and on defense, they can then worry about filling in the rest of their forward core. As previously mentioned, they are going to lose one of Hoffman or Dadonov, and with an in-house replacement ready to step in immediately for Hoffman in Owen Tippett, the Cats should be able to get by with him as his replacement for the time being. Grigori Denisenko could also step in and fill Dadonov’s shoes if the latter decides to leave for greener pastures. What’s needed in this upcoming draft as well as defense is a second-line center after the Panthers dealt Trocheck for expiring contracts.

With an ever-so-long laundry list of tasks needing to be checked off, there’s just not enough time for the Panthers to address every single concern in such a short period of time. It’s going to take them at least a couple of offseasons to restructure this group entirely. But before they even look towards player transactions, they need to get what’s considered their biggest move right first, which is addressing management and finding a new GM who can stick to a set blueprint.

Until the Panthers can demonstrate that they can stay out of their own way and find/retain capable and competent personnel, then they’re always going to be hovering around mediocrity. The culture won’t change until management changes, which entails stripping it down and replacing existing personnel with new outside hires.