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Florida Panthers Brew Up Competition, Opportunity in Free Agency



Panthers free agency
Dmitry Kulikov of the Florida Panthers carries the puck against the Columbus Blue Jackets' during a game on Feb. 27, 2016. Kulikov, traded to the Sabres a few months later, resigned with Florida on Saturday. (AP Photo/Paul Vernon)

SUNRISE — Less than a month after making the Stanley Cup Final, the Florida Panthers have, once again, become a springboard of opportunity after free agency opened up around the NHL on Saturday.

That was part of the price they had to pay in order to make a deep playoff run.

Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour are expected to miss the start of the season with injury and Panthers general manager Bill Zito had to fill the holes they left on the back end.

With both expected to be back at some point during the regular season, it presented a challenge for Zito.

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Unless he puts one or both players on long-term injured reserve, there is no salary relief to replace them.

So, Zito had to use the $10 million Florida had to fill the four missing spots on its back end from injuries and the departures of Marc Staal and Radko Gudas while also addressing other needs.

”There is going to be attrition, but competition is good,” Zito said.

”We think we are going to have opportunities for everybody that are real, which is the most important part so that people feel fulfilled. We are going to do are best to supplement the holes and, at the same time, providing opportunity for people to show up and continue to grow.”

On the first day of free agency, the Panthers did just that, signing five defensemen, two forwards and a goaltender with roughly $4 million still available per PuckPedia.

With numerous key players needing contracts at the end of next season — including Anthony Duclair, whom they traded to San Jose in attempt to alleviate their salary cap issue — they did not have the flexibility to commit to signing players long-term either.

“We didn’t have a choice for this year,” Zito said.

“We have a limited amount of money, we have to get some defense to help us keep the ship afloat until we get the reserves coming back and then we need the flexibility moving forward if we want to try to keep the team together.”

Florida Panthers Free Agency: The Comings and Goings

Those conditions became a proving ground for multiple players on one-year deals to battle it out for a spot on the team.

Of the six free agents Florida picked up on the open market, five of them are on one-year contracts.

Niko Mikkola, who was given a three-year deal with a $2.5 million cap hit, is the only one who is set to be under contract past 2024.

The others — left shot defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dmitry Kulikov and Mike Reilly, forward Kevin Stenlund and goalie Anthony Stolarz — will get one year to prove themselves.

With Ekblad and Montour set to return at some point during the season, the opportunity created by injury doubles as competition to stay on the roster long-term.

And Lucas Carlsson, who signed a one-year, two-way deal after a strong offensive campaign in the AHL, looks to be another left-handed defenseman who can compete for one of the open spots.

With only so many roster spots available one of those guys, including 25-year-old Carlsson, who is unlikely to pass through as he did last season, may have to be placed on waivers to start the season.

”Waivers is always a consideration, but sometimes there is a situation where the best guys are going to play and then you sort it out and deal with it,” Zito said.

“Every team does it and we have been the beneficiary of it a couple of times where someone else had a curse of riches and they put someone on waivers and they came in and played with us. That’s always a risk that you run but we are excited about the guys that we have and the opportunities that we have.”

The same mentality of “the best guys are going to play” applies in net to.

While Zito said Spencer Knight would return to the team after spending time away from the team with the NHLPA’s player assistance program, his NHL roster spot is not guaranteed.

Anthony Stolarz, who put up a .917 save percentage in 12 starts with the Anaheim Ducks, has a chance to compete for the back-up role behind Sergei Bobrovsky next season.

If Stolarz earns the job, Knight could start the season with AHL Charlotte despite his three-year extension with a $4.5 million cap hit coming into effect.

“It’s evolving,” Zito said of Stolarz’s role. “The best goalies are going to go in the net and we are going to worry about all the other stuff later. We are going to play to win, especially now more than ever.

“We owe it to the fans, we owe it to the room and the best guys are going to play.”

Spots in Florida’s forward core are seemingly up in the air after Duclair’s departure via trade and with Colin White and Eric Staal expected to not return after becoming free agents.

Stenlund likely fills the hole Staal left down the middle on the fourth line and on the penalty kill after signing on Saturday.

The Panthers suddenly have multiple openings on the wing, however.

While it seems like they are not done addressing those holes, it does seem like they are willing to give Grigori Denisenko the chance to fill one of them.

Florida’s 2018 first-round pick signed a two-year, one-way deal after becoming a restricted free agent.

After seeing his development stunted by the pandemic and an injury sustained in 2022, he may finally get an opportunity to prove himself in the NHL.

“He is an interesting guy because he was an elite player within the context of his age group,” Zito said.

“High pick in the draft, very skilled and had some pretty significant injuries for two years, fought back, rehabbed an came back and played a really great season. We see him as a possibility of somebody who could make the team and get his chance and we’re really excited to have him.”


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