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The Florida Panthers Have Been Juggling D-Men. Expect More

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Dmitry Kulikov was one of a handful of defensemen to sign with the Florida Panthers as a free agent this past summer — and one of eight on the active roster right now. // Photo courtesy @FlaPanthers

With Dmitry Kulikov a healthy scratch for a couple games before getting back in Thursday, the Florida Panthers have a surplus of defensemen.

That is not a bad thing, especially as the season rolls along.

Yet, as we move closer to the NHL trade deadline in March, GM Bill Zito may look to not only look to shed surplus talent on the back end — but add to it as well.

One move came on Friday afternoon as Uvis Balinskis was loaned to Florida’s AHL team in Charlotte.

With eight healthy defensemen, the Panthers have been making two a healthy scratch for some time.

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According to PuckPedia.com, the Panthers have just over $1.9 million available in cap space even with Josh Mahura coming off IR.

During the offseason, Zito knew he had to make rapid acquisitions on defense to make up for the loss of hard-hitting Radko Gudas, steady Marc Staal and the unavailability of top defenders and power play unit quarterbacks Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour.

Zito created cap space by placing Ekblad on LTIR and, it was thought, he would still be there. Instead, both Ekblad and Montour returned to the lineup sooner than originally thought.

Using the surplus, but knowing it was temporary, Zito stocked up on low-priced, low risk-free agents who had a reasonable chance of making the team.

Reilly, Kulikov, Niko Mikkola and Oliver Ekman-Larsson were brought in — with Balinskis signed during the spring but given a great opportunity during camp.

Larsson may have been the biggest prize of them all. 

Because of declining production, Ekman-Larsson was bought out of his contract by the Vancouver Canucks and signed a 1-year, $2.25-million deal with the Panthers.

A win-win here.

Zito has a way of finding struggling skaters and seeing them restored to their former glory in a Florida uniform.

Ekman’s goal production this year already equals his two seasons in Vancouver.

Balinskis has been a frequent healthy scratch this season despite excellent play.

His first trip to the AHL was a short one, but because he is waiver-exempt as a first-year NHL player, Balinskis going to Charlotte is the easy move to make.

Cap or not, Zito and coach Paul Maurice wants their players to play rather than sit in the press box.

Of the new acquisitions, only Ekman-Larsson and Mikkola — who signed a three-year deal and has flourished upon finally given a real chance — have played in every game.

With Mahura back, Florida is now at seven defensemen.

With Balinskis off to Charlotte, he will continue to get some games in although the Panthers have said because of Balinskis’ age (27) and pro experience, getting playing time is just to keep him sharp.

Kulikov has been playing well but knew how crowded the blueline would be when he signed.

The Panthers wouldn’t get much in return for a 33-year-old on an expiring contract. He may just find himself buried in the minors or with his eighth NHL team before the season ends.

Zito has to be thinking about the Panthers being deadline buyers this year and will need cap room if he is to consider some marquee names possibly being available, especially scorers.

Barring injury, the Panthers will be fine on defense, but scoring is lacking, as evidenced by two consecutive shutouts.

If Calgary fades, look for Elias Lindholm or Mikael Backlund to be shopped. Jack Roslovic of Columbus is another possibility. 

If Pittsburgh doesn’t improve its pace, Jake Guentzel may be available — ditto for the Minnesota Wild and Mats Zuccarello.

There are endless possibilities because this year has one of the richest groups of free agents in years.

Late-season rentals are risky and expensive – remember Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot – but if you go all out, a little gambling is necessary.

Florida, of course, does not have much high-end draft stock to trade so whatever moves the Panthers swing, they will not likely be of the high-end variety.

Regardless of how this equation works out, there will be changes.

ON DECK

FLORIDA PANTHERS @ EDMONTON OILERS

  • When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
  • Where: Rogers Place, Edmonton
  • TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida, ESPN+
  • Radio: WAXY 790-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL App
  • This Season (Florida Leads 1-0) — At Florida: Panthers 5, Oilers 3 (Nov. 20). At Edmonton: Saturday.
  • Last Season: Edmonton won 2-0
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Oilers lead 23-15-0, 3 ties
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