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Bill Zito Wants to Keep the Florida Panthers Together. Can He?

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Barkov gudas
Radko Gudas, left, celebrates with Sasha Barkov after the Florida Panthers beat the host New York Islanders in overtime on April 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

SUNRISE — Two days after the Florida Panthers saw their magical run through the playoffs come to an end, coach Paul Maurice admitted he “fell in love” with his team.

Maurice stressed that once training camp opens in September, he cannot have those feelings about the players who brought so much joy during the postseason.

Last season is just that. It is time to move forward.

General manager Bill Zito finds himself in a similar frame of mind.

As much as he has strong relationships with his players, Zito has to make decisions — hard decisions — on the direction of the franchise moving forward.

Those decisions are going to come to a head in the coming days as Zito and his staff prepares for next week’s NHL draft in Nashville which is the start of trade season as well as the beginning of free agency a few days later.

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“It is hard,” Zito said on Wednesday afternoon at an arena which has already been scrubbed clean of all references to the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.

“What makes it a little more difficult in this instance is the gel of the team and wanting to keep the core of that team together because of what they were able to do together.”

With the Panthers having a vast majority of their players under contract for the coming seasons, Zito wanting to keep the Panthers intact as much as possible is a realistic goal.

Although the Panthers have work to do on its blueline, most of their forwards are locked in for the 2023-24 season and beyond.

One big question is whether defenseman Radko Gudas will be back.

The Panthers are believed to have fielded offers for the pending free agent at the trade deadline but Zito wanted to give his team a chance to not only make the playoffs, but make some noise in it.

That was certainly accomplished.

“We have spent a lot of time and a lot of effort trying to get our culture moving forward in the right direction,’’ Zito said after the trade deadline came and went.

”We did not want to quit on the group. We are in a tenuous situation, no doubt. But the room believes and I believe in the room. We’re not going to quit on the team, we’re not going to quit on the fans who believe in us.

“If there was a deal to be made to help our team — short term, long term — we would have done it. We evaluated each one and we’re OK holding.”

But now Gudas is a free agent who is expected to have a number of options moving forward.

Gudas spoke numerous times of wanting to remain with the Panthers — “I have nothing but great feelings about this organization and it is where my heart is right now” he said in February — but when free agency comes, his tune may have to change.

At 33, Gudas does not have many NHL contracts left in him. He needs to cash in while he can.

While Zito and the Panthers would love to have Gudas come back, they may not be able or willing to match the kind of money and term he may command on the open market.

There are a number of teams who would like to have a player of Gudas’ standing both on and off the ice. His play in the postseason only helped his free agent status.

Zito said he did not know whether Gudas planned on testing free agency.

“I owe it to that room to do everything I can to keep everybody together,’’ Zito said on Wednesday. “I think it’s daunting, I think it’s possible. I’m hopeful. At the same time, individuals have to worry about themselves and we only have so much that we’re able to do. We’re pursuing it, talking to everybody and hopefully we can get a good result.’’

The Panthers have about $11 million of salary cap space to try and improve their team and fill some spots, but with a number of players who will have to miss the start of the season due to injuries sustained during the playoffs, things are going to be complicated.

While some players may start the season on long-term injured reserve freeing up some valuable cap space, the Panthers would have to be able to absorb those cap hits upon their return.

Meaning the Florida Panthers may not have as much cap space to use on July 1 as it appears.

A number of young players — such as Grigori Denisenko, Aleksi Heponiemi, Lucas Carlsson and Matt Kiersted — may have to carry a heavier load at the start of the season than previously thought.

“We’re going to have a real challenge this year as we know some of our players are hurt and they miss parts of the early season,” Zito said. “We can’t replace that money. If we spend it, we have to be able to absorb it when they return. If we spend it, and they return, we can’t do it. So now our cap is effectively even lower because we have to go through this timeframe.

“But we’ll get it done. We will have a team on the ice on opening night and we’re excited.”

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