Lucas Wallmark was one of the big pieces of the Florida Panthers’ deadline trade with Carolina last February but on Wednesday, the team did not make him a qualifying offer.
Wallmark, one of four players Florida got in return for Vincent Trocheck, is now a free agent and can sign with any other team — including the Panthers — starting Friday at noon.
If Wallmark and Erik Haula leave the Panthers as a free agent in the coming days, Florida’s four-player return for Trocheck will be down to two: Defenseman Chase Priskie and forward Eetu Luostarinen.
The Panthers did make qualifying offers to six of their restricted free agents by the Wednesday deadline including defenseman MacKenzie Weegar, goalie Sam Montembeault as well as forwards Aleksi Saarela and Henrik Borgstrom.
Aside from Wallmark, Florida also did not make offers to Dryden Hunt and Dominic Toninato allowing them to become free agents.
The Panthers were not the only team to allow contributing players hit the free agency market Thursday as a flat salary cap has teams worried about potential award settlements through arbitration.
While not addressing his own team’s reasoning, Florida GM Bill Zito spoke of teams having an unwillingness to go to arbitration this season especially because salaries are set by an arbiter and not neccesarily the market.
Weegar has taken the Panthers to arbitration twice and settled once. The defenseman, who was playing in a top pairing role at the end of the season, has played on one-year deals the past three seasons.
He will likely end up the highest paid player of all of Florida’s RFAs including the ones the team did not make offers to.
“You have to be mindful that arbitration is artificially going to inflate the market as opposed to what the UFA market is,” said Zito, who spoke before the Panthers made their list of qualifying offers public.
“Traditionally, the UFA market in most instances will yield a higher salary than that of what you could earn in arbitration. Now it seems as if, in some instances, an arbitration award would yield the higher number than that of which you would find on the UFA market.
“I think teams are saying they would rather explore the market than be forced to pay an RFA award and it could be for two years. … It’s a little different time.”
Wallmark, like Haula, did not offer much offense to the Panthers during their seven games following the trade and before the season was halted due to the pandemic.
When Haula and Wallmark met the Panthers in Arizona following the trade, they slid in as the team’s second and third-line centers, respectively.
Right now, at least, the Panthers are low on depth at that position. Toninato also played a fair bit of center.
It is still possible Haula and/or Wallmark return to the team. Right now, however, it looks like both players are heading toward free agency.
“They both give you some predictability in the middle,” coach Joel Quenneville said at the time of the trade.
“(Haula) is a guy, with his speed, can win some races and be strong in the puck areas. Wallmark gives us a real good centerman, is smart, reliable, can make plays. It helps up have more options in the middle. The depth will help this organization.”
Florida is not the only team that did not qualify players who contributed to its team last season — and could have interest in some of those players.
In a bit of a surprising move, Ottawa did not offer Anthony Duclair following a season in which he scored 23 goals with 40 points and made the All-Star team.
Florida could be a team which could have interest in the speedy forward due to his past ties to Zito.
In 2018-19, Duclair signed a minimum deal with Columbus and had a respectable season (when he wasn’t in John Tortorella’s doghouse), scoring 11 goals with 19 points in 53 points before the Blue Jackets traded him to the Senators for Ryan Dzingel at the deadline.
Edmonton also did not qualify Andreas Athanasiou — a player they acquired at the deadline from Detroit — or defenseman Matt Benning.
Florida drafted Benning’s brother Mike in the fourth round of the draft a few hours after it was learned Matt was not being offered by the Oilers.
Brian Benning, father to Mike and Matt, was an original member of the expansion Panthers in 1993.
Of the players Florida did qualify, Weegar told Florida Hockey Now last week that he hoped to avoid another one-year deal with the Panthers and secure a long-term pact.
Whether that happens in this market remains to be seen.
“I have been with the organization for eight years now so this is home for me,” Weegar said. “I don’t know what it would feel like if I had to leave Florida and I don’t want to find out. I want to remain a Florida Panther as long as I possibly can and I tell that to everyone.
“I truly do love it here, I love the team and we have a bright future. Hopefully this remains the case.”
Borgstrom had a disappointing season for the Panthers last year, playing in just four games before Quenneville sat him and the team later sent him to the minors.
Borgstrom got hurt at the end of the AHL season and has signed to at least start this season with HIFK in his native Finland although he has been sidelined because of the injury.
Last week, Zito said he thought Borgstrom getting some early playing time was a positive and that the Panthers have high expectations for the 2016 first-round pick.
“It is awesome that he can get playing,” Zito said. “We are behind him and really want him to maximize his potential.”