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Injuries, Contracts Could Slow Florida Panthers in Free Agency



Panthers free agency
The Florida Panthers not only have injury problems which could affect how they spend money when the free agency period opens next Saturday at noon, but players such as Radko Gudas, Sam Reinhart, Gus Forslins, Anthony Duclair and Brandon Montour are either free agents or can be following this coming season. // Photos by AP, @FlaPanthers and Roger Lee Photographer (561) 866-2000

SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers find themselves in a sticky situation heading into the 2023 offseason with free agency just over a week away.

Fresh off of an unlikely Stanley Cup Final run, general manager Bill Zito has tough decisions to make with five players — including Radko Gudas — hitting free agency on July 1.

Zito does have roughly $10.2 million to spend — but things are more complicated than they appear.

The Panthers will likely be without several key players to start their upcoming season after a large contingent of the roster played through injuries to get to the Stanley Cup Final.

That is the price they had to pay to get that far.

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The big issue is that while some may miss some significant time, Florida cannot just place them on Long-Term Injured Reserve (LTIR) and use the cap space granted to them to replace them as they did with Patric Hornqvist.

It does not sound like any of Florida’s injured players would miss the entire season which puts an even harder cap on what the Panthers can do during free agency this offseason.

“Some are projected to be back Oct. 15, you could probably live with that. Feb. 15? Now you’re saying ‘Oh, what are we going to do’?” Zito said on Wednesday afternoon.

“If someone goes on LTIR and you replace them with someone else, you have to account for those dollars when they come back. So, in some instances, someone will be out the whole year and you can replace them because you are not handcuffed by the return.

“When it’s a shorter term or unknown, you could spend the money but then you really are going to be in one when they come back. So that is going to be an added drag coefficient to our spending and on our cap and what we’re able to do.

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“But we’re going to be as creative as we can and some guys are going to get chances.”

Injured players are just one of many factors the Panthers have to account for when entering free agency this offseason.

Florida’s contract situation is also hindering them from spending big money with term.

Barring any contract extensions signed between now and next June, Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair, Eetu Luostarinen, Gus Forsling, Anton Lundell and Brandon Montour will all be in need of new contracts.

Aaron Ekblad, Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Bennett will hit unrestricted free agency in 2025.

The only four players under contract past July 2025 are Sasha Barkov, Matthew Tkachuk, Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight.

With that in mind, Zito will have to tread carefully when it comes to this free agency period to avoid hindering the ability to re-sign key players further down the line.

Of course, Zito is not allowed to officially talk about extending current players until July 1 so some heavy lifting may already be done.

“It’s a daunting challenge when now we have a problem here. We don’t know when we will be getting players back so can we fill those holes or not?” Zito said.

“In regards to next year, certainly we will be talking to the agents for all the players and trying to get players signed but we are going to have the same type of problems the Tampa Bay Lightning have when people get paid.”

With all of the success the Panthers have had in recent years, they have joined that crop of teams like the once back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Lightning had to deal with when winning: Losing some depth.

Zito will try all he can to bring those guys back — and he will likely get some help with the salary cap expected to increase by $4-6 million in 2024 — but his desire to keep the room intact is something that could hinder the Panthers from finding key reinforcements for this season.

This leaves a space amount of options heading into the 2023-24 season.

They could either find low-risk free agents who would be willing to take a short-term, low-money deal with Florida at a chance at winning, or they could trust their prospects to hold things down while the injured players are recovering.

And looking at the Panthers’ defense core — Ekblad and Montour are expected to miss the start of the season while Marc Staal and Gudas are pending unrestricted free agents — they are going to need help from both directions.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who is being paid a healthy sum by the Vancouver Canucks up until the 2028-29 season after getting bought out, could be someone Florida could look at to run their power play while their two star defensemen are injured.

Travis Hamonic and Erik Johnson could be cheap options to add depth to a right side inundated with injuries.

All Zito knows, for now, is that he is going to have to sell the prospect of playing for the Panthers real hard.

With no state income tax, beaches which newcomers rave about and their established success, Florida is becoming an easier sell by the day.

“I’ll be the guy with the little squiggly down on the side of the street by the car wash,” Zito joked.

“But it’s an interesting dynamic. The opportunity we will have this year is literally invaluable. Do you want to come and play with us? Here’s our need, so let’s play in there. And there is a pretty good chance that whoever plays in that spot has success almost by default.

“If you are a good player, you’re gonna play with good players. So I’m mindful that could be where some players might be making a short-term financial sacrifice so we can do it and there’s a significant opportunity by coming and being a part of this.”

Is Florida becoming one of those desired landing spots for veterans looking to help out a team?

“We’re about to find out,” Zito said with a laugh.


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