The Florida Panthers found themselves in a rough cap situation with franchise stars Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar both set to hit unrestricted free agency next July.
Florida would have had just over $25 million following the 2022-23 season to lock up the two superstars.
Huberdeau could have been worth north of Sasha Barkov’s $10 million annual cap hit while Weegar could have brought in over $7 million.
It would have left Florida general manager Bill Zito in a rough spot cap-wise moving forward.
Enter Matthew Tkachuk.
The 24-year-old star refused to sign a long-term contract with the Calgary Flames and held a set list of teams he was willing to sign with.
Florida was on that list, as was Nashville, St. Louis, Vegas and Dallas.
In the end, the Panthers pounced at the opportunity and sent Huberdeau and Weegar to Calgary in exchange for the 6-foot-2 power forward.
Upon his arrival to South Florida, Tkachuk signed an eight-year deal carrying a $9.5 million cap hit.
He will be 32 — just three years older than Huberdeau is now — when the contract expires.
Florida’s cap situation remains tough this season.
The Panthers found themselves just over $3 million above the salary cap heading into the 2022-23 season.
With Anthony Duclair likely to be placed on LTIR at the start of the season with a torn Achilles, they would be right at the ceiling.
Huberdeau and Weegar’s contracts coming off the books created $8.15 in cap space for Tkachuk’s extension, putting Florida over the cap by $4 million per PuckPedia.
Once they put Duclair on LTIR, they will be $1 million over the salary cap.
While another trade to become cap compliant is not out of the question, that number could be remedied by sending an extra skater or two down to the AHL.
Where the cap flexibility really settles in is beyond next season.
In July 2023, the Panthers will get $5.3 million in dead cap off the books with Keith Yandle’s buyout number going down and Scott Darling’s buyout coming off the books completely.
They will also have another $12.2 million in cap space freed up with the expiry of Patric Hornqvist, Radko Gudas and Colin White’s contracts among others.
That brings Florida’s projected 2023 cap space total to around $15 million with only pending restricted free agent Spencer Knight being due a significant pay raise — barring a breakout season from White.
It was a situation the Panthers saw play out with Mason Marchment last season before he signed a four-year deal worth $4.5 million annually that they could not match, so that is not out of the question.
With that type of money available down the road and most of the core now locked up, there is not much that is out of the question moving forward.
Even with Sergei Bobrovsky’s $10 million on the books until 2026.
Free agents potentially available next offseason include Nathan MacKinnon, Patrick Kane, David Pastrnak, Vladimir Tarasenko and Matt Dumba.
Huberdeau and Weegar have also yet to sign an extension with the Flames and could also hit the open market.
While it is unlikely they return after being traded — as is MacKinnon signing with the Panthers after winning the Cup in Colorado — there are a lot of options in play.
It is likely the Panthers could be searching the market for a possible Weegar replacement at some point in the next two years.
With limited cap space, Gus Forsling will likely step up and play alongside Aaron Ekblad on the top pairing and a significant hole will be left on the bottom two pairs.
Boca Raton native Jacob Chychrun has been rumored to be a player the Panthers are interested in acquiring, but they are about out of draft capital.
The likely way Florida will be able to capitalize on its future cap space is via free agency or taking on an unwanted contract from a team near the cap ceiling.