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What’s Next for the Florida Panthers? A Lot

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Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito speaks at the end of the 2023 NHL Draft at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville on Thursday afternoon. // Photo @GeorgeRichards

NASHVILLE — The Florida Panthers saw their season come a close just 17 days ago when they lost in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The next season is now officially upon us.

On Thursday, the Panthers made five picks at the 2023 NHL Draft in Nashville.

Now it is time for immediate business.

And there is a lot going on in Pantherland.

“It seems as if it is a constant flow. There’s no break,’’ general manager Bill Zito said on Thursday at the conclusion of the draft.

“We’ll be at it, probably (Thursday) afternoon. We sat down with the pro (scouts) yesterday and went through different iterations of ‘could we get this guy, could we get that guy.’

“We’ll see what’s possible. It should be an interesting and exciting free agency period. There are a lot of teams up against the cap. There are a lot of players. It’ll be interesting to see what happens on Saturday.’’

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Free agency opens up on Saturday at noon and the Panthers have a little bit of money to spend and some roster spaces to fill.

As we reported on Thursday, it looks as if Radko Gudas is at least going to test the free agency waters although it does appear he is going to leave for a longer-term (and higher salary) than the Panthers are willing to offer.

“We would like to have him back and we are trying,” Zito said. “At the same time, you cannot begrudge a guy with free agency. We’ll just have to, literally, see what happens on July 1.”

Zito did say on Thursday that the two sides are continuing to talk — as was the case in 2021 when Brandon Montour appeared to be heading elsewhere but ended up signing a three-year deal with the Panthers just before free agency opened.

“Reflecting back, it is similar,” Zito said. “If we were not still talking, I would tell you. We are. … You can’t keep everyone when you have success. At the same time, we’re going to try. We have restraints put on us by the cap and now with the injuries. There just isn’t as much money to go around as we would like.”

Speaking of Montour, Zito all but confirmed both he (labrum) and Aaron Ekblad (shoulder) had surgery to repair injuries sustained during the team’s long playoff run.

Zito says he does not have a timeline for either player’s return which affects what Zito can do when it comes to spending money in free agency.

Although Montour and/or Ekblad could end up on long-term injured reserve, unless they are out for the entirety of the season, the Florida Panthers would have to absorb the new salaries when the LTIR money comes off when the injured players return.

“It’s a huge pain in the rear end,” Zito said. “We have to account for the dollars, but still have to fill the roster spots until they are available. I’m quite sure on Saturday no one will call and say ‘yeah, I can come down for two weeks or two months.’

“It’s going to be hard. We have to figure out a Band-Aid, for lack of a better term, to manage the cap. We have been doing it so long we are undetered by it. But it will be a drag on what we can do.”

As for the timelines of Montour and Ekblad?

“They are the type of players where (rehab) comes in stages,” Zito said. “Stage 1 is a month, Stage 2 could be two. We won’t know until we get there. That’s a tough one. I’m told Tkachuk is going to be fine; Montour and Ekblad are the only ones we’re concerned about for the start of the season.”

Panthers Hope Patric Hornqvist Stays with Organization in Some Capacity

Now, what are the Panthers looking for?

It does not sound like the Panthers will be in the running for big money free agents such as Tyler Bertuzzi due to financial constraints.

Florida will be in the market for veteran players on defense — Marc Staal could return — with a number of options out there.

Zito also said he felt pretty good about pending free agent Lucas Carlsson returning to the Panthers.

The Panthers, as always, will also be looking at low-risk, high-reward forwards of which they have had success with over the past few seasons.

Anthony Duclair, one of those success stories, remained with the Panthers on Thursday as rumors swirled that Florida was trying to move him to Calgary as part of a deal for defenseman Noah Hanifin.

Zito confirmed that he had not spoken to Duclair about a contract extension but that there are a few players due extensions whom he had not talked to.

Montour is not one of them; although Zito said no extensions were expected to be announced on Saturday, the Panthers are believed to have been in talks with Montour’s camp about a new deal for the past few months.

Duclair, Sam Reinhart and Gus Forsling are also eligible to sign contract extensions — they all have one season remaining on their current deals — starting on Saturday.

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