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Florida Panthers 2023 Free Agency Grades: Rodrigues to OEL



Panthers free agency
Colorado Avalanche center Evan Rodrigues, pictured here in a game on April 13, signed a four-year contract with the Florida Panthers on Sunday morning. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski

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.

Complete Florida Panthers Free Agency Tracker: The Comings & Goings

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

Grade: A

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

Grade: C-

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.

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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

Grade: B

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

Grade: B+

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

Grade: A

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

Grade: A-

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

Grade: B+

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

Grade: B

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.


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Cats and Leafs

Overall some solid moves within significant cap constraints. A couple of things that left me wondering. Why pay more for a 3rd goalie ( 1.1 mil) than they could have had Lyon for ( he signed at 900k/ yr). Maybe the Cats didn’t want to commit to 2 years or maybe Lyon felt he had more opportunity to play in Detroit. The other one was Duclair. They signed Rodrigues for the same price as Duclair’s contract, and Duke is the better player. Either they didn’t think they could sign Duclair for the same 3 mil on his next contract, or… Read more »


Denisenko is Duclair’s replacement. Rodriguez is Cousins v 2.0, but with a much worse contract.


By the way on a side note, how stoked are you that the leafs signed Reeves, a bodyguard for Matthews perhaps?? They’re not wrong. Reeves is one of those guys that every fan thinks is an a-hole goon until he plays for your team, then he’s awesome. Lol

Last edited 2 months ago by surveyjay
Cats and Leafs

After the Cats pushed them around, they needed toughness. Surprised they couldn’t hold to Acciari.


Rodriguez is an F. He’s a 30 yr old bottom six player who just signed a 4 year contract. That’s asinine. 6’4″ and 185 lbs defenseman? That’s adding length. Not size. And not what the Panthers needed. Gudas was 6′ 1″ maybe, but 210. Panthers were needing two 6’3″ or taller (preferably) physical defensemen weighing plus 220 lbs. OEL is done. He’s looked bad every year in Vancouver. Kulikov and Reilly are redundant to Mahura and Forsling and do not address any needs. Are the Panthers looking to trade Forsling? Because he’s the only one of value that’s tradable on… Read more »

Cats and Leafs

Many of the moves in this free agency period has more to do with ‘24-‘25 season than the upcoming one. The cap will increase but they will have so many people to sign that deserve significant raises. Montour and Forsling to name two. Not sure how much Bertuzzi would have been, but if he comes in at 4-5 mil and the Panthers had a shot, it would have been worth the sacrifice to get him instead of Rodrigues.


Colorado Avs fan here. Rodrigues is a solid signing. While there can be stretches where he disappears, he always gives a full effort. Very good shot and excellent skating skills. Not afraid to mix it up in the corners and play physical. Good presence in the locker room. I’m glad he got a long term contract. Rodrigues played on the top line with Colorado, at times, and played well with MacKinnon. You shouldn’t be disappointed with this signing, IMHO.


It appears your GM does not share your opinions on him. I hope your the correct one.


SakFarland liked Rodrigues but not at that price and term. They were looking for a short term deal in the $2M/year range. We’ll see how it works out. I still like Rodrigues and think he will play hard for you.

Jon Baldwin

The grade on the Duke trade may be generous. I get that they had the cap space and we needed it, but that player and a 5th? You couldn’t at least get a higher draft pick for a player of Duclair’s caliber? My only minor criticism of Zito—who I really like—is that he seems to be Miami Heat-like with his approach to draft picks (i.e. deadline deals with Montreal and to a lesser extent Philly the season before). I get that like the Heat we are in win-now mode, but seems he undervalues picks.


It’s a shame we weren’t more involved in this particular draft as most experts has taught this is the strongest draft in the last 20 years. Although our first draft pick is pretty impressive as he was slated to be a top 40 pick and all but a few mock drafts, we got him at 63 (I think) there’s definitely value there and the Russian we took in the fourth round, had he not been signed to the KHL he’s a top 20 player hands down. We certainly got value there although would have really been nice to somehow weasel… Read more »


Spot on Colby, except the Rodriguez signing, I don’t like the amount nor the term. I believe we would have been much better off allowing Duclare to play out his contract, knowing that it’s basically a show me year for him then we could have made the decision based on that to either allocate those funds back to him or try to pick up another forward at about the same price, as it turns out, as you stated in the article, we got a less talented player for the same price as Duclare. One has to think the duclare move… Read more »

Cats and Leafs

I still think this is more about cap preservation for the following year. In ’24-’25, the cap will rise significantly, and players will command higher salaries than they are today. Duclair ( or comparable) may be able to get a $5mil contract then, and with having so many free agents of our own to sign, they locked in what they could afford, even if it was an inferior player.

Last edited 2 months ago by Cats and Leafs

I hear what you’re saying and agree that most of what Zito did in the last few days does have an eye on the 24/25 season, for all those reasons you mentioned, I just don’t think this deal falls in line with that, because they did give him a 3-year contract, had it been about next year’s cap they would have just given him a one year deal like they gave most everyone else they signed, I still have to believe that we were in on the bertuzzi sweepstakes and just couldn’t get it done and Zito then had to… Read more »

Jim G

Anybody that watched Duke saw him disappear in tight checking playoff type games. Yes, he has good speed but his go to one move is to take it to the outside and go behind the net and many times I was screaming for him to take it strong to the net. I like Duke but Rodrigues plays the way the Panthers want to play


The fact that for Bertuzzi signed for 5.5 for only one year makes his whole thing even more perplexing, we had that amount, I wonder if he simply chose Toronto over Florida because he only took one year, you would think he would be looking for longer term.. it’s a steal for Toronto going to make them that much tougher can you see the theme that they’ve done….added grit.


horrible moves, overall. The Duke trade is really a head scratcher- especially when Bertuzzi signed for 4.5 x 1 in Toronto. Maybe Bertuzzi didnt want to play here. The D is in shambles … we need a guy like Hannifin and end up with OEL and some other no-name players. What about using Duke as a possible trade for Hanny or DeBrincat. Also, it is quite strange how little Carlsson us valued by this organization… he needs a shot. Tallon and Q did not like him, and same with Zito, Bruno, and PoMo. There must be other things going on.… Read more »


Zito was a bit handcuffed by the injuries to Montour and Ekblad, he had to fill those holes on D but had to still alot for both Aaron’s and Brandons salaries, as they both still count against the cap. That hindered what he could do. I totally understand your frustration with the Duclare deal, we essentially swapped him for Rodriguez, and that is obviously a step back, have to think Zito had other things cooking that maybe didn’t pan out (maybe Bertuzzi).

Jim G

I liked Bertuzzi’s offense but he had some atrocious giveaways that led to Panther scoring chances / goals in the playoffs. I like Carlson on D and hope he gets a chance. Loved Gudas for his physicality but he left his D partner hanging a bunch of times while taking runs at the opposition. Between the limited cap space, injuries you mentioned, I like the Panthers offseason so far. Is it perfect, No but in Zito I Trust!!

NC Cats fan - not the football ones

I like most of the moves. Our biggest issue last year was depth. The cats ran out of steam in the finals, as our 3rd and fourth line were not strong overall. I like Duke the person, but, he seems like he is not himself without Huberdeau – but will command more next year when the salary cap jumps.

Lyon is a career AHL goalie, Stolarz may be as well, but has way more NHL experience.

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