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NHL Free Agency: Florida Panthers on Outside Looking In

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Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito speaks to the media from a patio outside BB&T Center in Sunrise following the first day of NHL free agency in 2021. — Photo @GeorgeRichards

When the NHL free agency period opened last summer, the Florida Panthers were not expected to do a whole lot.

After all, general manager Bill Zito had done a lot of work leading up to free agency by locking down players already in Sunrise — like Anthony Duclair, Gus Forsling, Sam Bennett, Carter Verhaeghe and Brandon Montour — while trading for Sam Reinhart.

When the market opens today at noon, it looks like the Panthers will be quiet again.

Only for different reasons this time.

The big salary cap hit in last summer’s buyout of Keith Yandle as well as a substantial raise to captain Sasha Barkov and Verhaeghe kicking in this year has left the Panthers in salary cap purgatory going into the biggest shopping day of the NHL calendar.

While other teams are chasing down the whales of this year’s free agent class, the Panthers do not have much cap space to work with — and may end up watching from the sidelines.

It’s not like the Panthers want to go out and hit the market.

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As was the case last summer, Florida would be content with keeping what it had.

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Or, at least, keeping some of what it had last season.

The Panthers gave up a lot of acquire Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot at the NHL Trade Deadline in an all-out attempt to try and win the biggest prize in their game.

Florida ended up having the best and most exciting regular season in franchise history, but a second-round sweep at the hands of the Lightning left an empty feeling.

One that continues today.

As it stands on Wednesday morning, the Panthers are about $4 million under the salary cap after Duclair’s $3 million is subtracted upon being placed on long-term injured reserve.

When Duclair comes back, so does his money; that means whatever moves the Panthers do using that cap space will have to be corrected down the road.

That is a problem for another day, but it will factor into any decision Florida makes this offseason.

Florida did not make a buyout offer to Patric Hornqvist so the veteran (and his $5.3 million deal) is expected to return to Sunrise for a third season.

Zito still has time to make a trade before the market opens at noon, but moves made in the hours before free agency starts are rare.

The Panthers had hoped to have been able to work out some way to keep not only Giroux or Chiarot, but also to keep Mason Marchment as well.

UPDATE: Giroux was the first to leave, his announcement to Ottawa coming moments after noon. Marchment is off to the Dallas Stars with a four-year deal and Chiarot is reportedly off to Detroit. 

Florida also lost Andrew Brunette on Wednesday.

Noel Acciari is also gone, signing a one-year deal with the St. Louis Blues.

Carry on.

Unless one of them is willing to take a seriously discounted deal for one year, it appears all three will be playing for different teams next season.

One player who was lightly linked to the Panthers is Evgeni Malkin — who agreed to a four-year deal to return to the Penguins late Tuesday night.

If the Panthers end up looking for nice bargains when the market opens, players such as former Blue Jackets Sonny Milano and Gabriel Carlsson (who both played for Zito in Columbus and its AHL team in Cleveland) may be options.

Florida Panthers Roll Call was a recurring feature at Florida Hockey Now leading into the start of trade and free-agent season.

The NHL Draft was held last week in Montreal; free agency opens today. 

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