The Florida Panthers had their work cut out for them when the NHL’s free agency period opened on Saturday afternoon.
With Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour expected to miss the beginning of the season and multiple other free agents heading elsewhere, Florida general manager Bill Zito had to make several moves to bolster the core of the defending Eastern Conference Champions.
In total Zito made five free-agent signings and one trade on the first day of free agency.
With $10 million of cap space to work with at the start of free-agency, the Panthers signed seven total players and traded for another.
On Sunday, the Panthers made another dive into the free agent pool, signing forward Evan Rodrigues to a four-year deal worth $12 million.
That leaves Florida with roughly $1 million remaining.
Here are FHN’s grades for each of the moves the Panthers have made since the start of free agency:
F Evan Rodrigues: 4-years, $12 million
The Panthers were looking for long-term stability in their forward group with a large chunk of players heading into free agency in 2024 and they got it with Rodrigues.
Florida flipped Duclair (see below), who had one year left at $3 million and signed Rodrigues for three more years at the same price.
Is Rodrigues as good of a player as Duclair? No.
Only he has the intangibles to get there: Rodrigues is fast, has shown flashes of scoring ability with a shade under 20 goals in each of the last two seasons, and is a committed forechecker.
It should be interesting to see how he gels with the Panthers’ system and whether he can step up and replace the offense they lost from Duclair’s departure.
Trade F Anthony Duclair to San Jose for F Steven Lorentz, 5th-Round Pick
The Panthers had plans to make more moves in free agency by making this trade, clearing up almost $2 million by sending Duclair and his expiring contract to San Jose.
Zito had some tough decisions to make with all but eight players on his roster having contracts that expire in 2024, but a fourth-line player and a fifth-round pick is not top-notch value for a 30-goal scorer.
Signing Rodrigues was that move.
Lorentz proved to be a capable penalty killer on a bad Sharks team but his offensive production does not come close to filling the void Duclair leaves — although no one expects him to.
The Panthers utilized that cap space to sign Rodrigues (see above), which softens the blow, but one would think they could have been able to get more value for Duclair.
D Dmitry Kulikov: 1-year, $1 million
Florida brought back an old friend in Kulikov, who played 460 games for the Panthers from 2009 to 2016, on a one-year veteran deal.
The Panthers need temporary help on the back end with Ekblad and Montour dealing with injuries and Kulikov is here for more than just a reunion.
In the seven years since he left Sunrise, the 32-year-old has proven to be a solid depth defenseman who can put up around 20 points a year.
He was a defensive standout on an Anaheim Ducks team that gave up the most goals in the league and earned a chance to compete for a playoff spot after being acquired via trade by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline.
Kulikov is a low-risk depth singing who is capable of holding things down while Florida’s defense core nurses itself back to full health.
G Anthony Stolarz: 1-year, $1 million contract
Like Kulikov (and many other names to follow), Stolarz is a low-risk signing with shades of a high reward.
Stolarz put up a .917 save percentage in 12 career starts behind the worst defensive team in the league in Anaheim.
The 29-year-old has a career .912 save percentage and a 2.93 goals-against average in 59 career starts.
It is very possible Spencer Knight beats him out for the backup role after returning from the NHLPA’s player assistance program, but if he needs to start the season in the AHL, Stolarz has proven to be more than capable to play in the NHL.
The 2012 second-round pick has yet to get a long-term chance in the NHL and could prove to be a hidden gem for the Panthers if it comes to that, but it is just as likely he goes through waivers if Knight is ready to go to start the season.
D Mike Reilly: 1-year, $1 million
This deal has many of the same implications as Kulikov’s — same cap hit, similar role — but Reilly sticks out because of the way he fits into the Panthers’ system.
Reilly, 29, is a solid puck mover who is keen on jumping in on the rush when the time is right.
Florida has had success with developing defensemen of a similar play style (Gus Forsling and Josh Mahura) and could see similar success with Reilly, who was bought out as a victim of the Boston Bruins’ cap crunch.
He served in a depth role for Boston, appearing in just 10 games during their Presidents’ Trophy-winning 2022-23 campaign, after playing 70 games for them the previous season.
Again, low-risk, high-reward, but he seems to be a solid fit.
D Niko Mikkola: 3-years, $7.5 million
Mikkola was the first of two unrestricted free agents the Panthers committed to for more than one season and it is justified.
The 6-foot-4, 209-pound defenseman gives Florida some much-needed size and physicality on the back end while still being a plus-skater who makes smart plays with his stick.
Mikkola’s unique ability to keep up with speedy forwards combined with his long reach makes him a headache for even some of the NHL’s top players.
The 27-year-old has the potential to be a mainstay on Florida’s second pair for the duration of his three-year deal on a team-friendly $2.5 million cap hit.
With the going rate for a lot of the top defensemen on the market ranging from $4-to-7 million, snagging a solid second-pair guy at that price is pretty good.
C Kevin Stenlund: 1-year, $1 million
With Eric Staal unlikely to return, the Panthers needed to find a fourth-line center who could play meaningful minutes on the penalty kill.
Stenlund does that while being a better skater than Staal and more effective in his own zone at even strength.
For a Florida penalty kill which struggled mightily at times during the regular season, Stenlund could provide some stability.
Again, like the other one-year, $1 million contracts Zito signed this offseason, there is not much risk involved here and if he does not pan out in Florida, he can easily be moved during the season.
But, Stenlund fills a big need at a solid price while being a good fit for Florida’s system.
D Oliver Ekman-Larsson: 1-year, $2.25 million
The Panthers needed a temporary power play quarterback with Ekblad and Montour both expected to miss time in 2022-23 and Ekman-Larsson looks like a solid option to fill that role.
Once one of the league’s top offensive defensemen, Ekman-Larsson saw his production on both sides of the ice slip since he was traded to the Vancouver Canucks in 2021.
There is hope he can return to form on a structured Panthers team, but $2.25 is a hefty fee for a prove-it deal given to a player who was just bought out.
Still, the upside is high. Ekman-Larsson has scored the second-most power play goals by an NHL defenseman since his first full season in the league.
Either way, it is not too risky of a move on a one-year deal.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
- Now: Free agency open
- July 9-15 (approximately): Development camp, Coral Springs
- Mid-September: Training Camp, South Florida
- Sept. 25: Preseason starts, doubleheader v. Nashville @ Sunrise
- Oct. 7: Preseason ends, vs. Tampa Bay Lightning
- Mid-October: Start of 2023-24 Regular Season