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Off-Season Game Plan - Florida Panthers Written by habsfan93 - May 5th, 2011

Inspired by Scott Cullen at TSN, I'm going to look at the off-season situation of some of the teams in the CMHL, starting at the bottom with the Florida Panthers.

Since chriscmb took over the Florida Panthers, he has been set on rebuilding this team from the ground up and was willing to sacrifice a few years of competitiveness to do it. So knowing that, its no surprise that Season 7 represents the worst season in Panthers history.

But while the Panthers have struggled, the rebuild has been working. The team's ICHF affiliate, the Whelan Bay Bombers won the ICHF Stanley Cup in Season 6, and are considered heavy favorites to repeat after claiming the Eastern Conference title this season.

Forwards

The Panthers were led this season by two veteran forwards - Alex Kovalev and JP Dumont. Kovalev led the Panthers in goals, points and minutes played among forwards. Although statistically the season represented a career worst for Kovalev, it is also only the second time Kovalev has played for a team that did not go to the playoffs. Both players are signed through Season 8, and Panther GM chriscmb will have to make a decision to keep them around in leadership roles while the young star players are developed or move them to open up spots for more young players.

The rest of the Panthers forward core represents a rag-tag mix of veterans just happy to have a place to play (like Freddy Sjostrom and Ray Whitney) and young players being given a chance to show what they're really capable of (like Peter Mueller, Colin Wilson and Anthony Stewart). Mueller may have been the bright spot on this year's team as he finished with 18 goals, good enough for third on the team. Whitney is a strong candidate for an NHL rerate this summer, given his 60 point NHL season as is Bobby Butler, who scored 20 points in 30 games in a late season appearance for the NHL's Senators.

Most of the forwards are under contract for next season and beyond with a few exceptions - Claude Giroux, Blake Wheeler, Colin Wilson, Chris Durand, Tom Fristche and Bryce Swan will be RFAs this summer. Don't expect Durand, Fritsche or Swan to return unless they're willing to accept their qualifying offer with no guarantee of a pro team spot. Wheeler, Giroux, and Wilson on the other hand will likely all be priorities for GM chriscmb. Wilson has shown that he has the necessary skills to be a productive CMHL player at the pro level, while Giroux and Kennedy are expected to transition into first or second line players as soon as next season.

The real question in Florida is which forwards will make the jump from Whelan Bay next fall, and its expected that the Panthers' training camp could be one of the more exciting in the CMHL. Derek Stepan, Tyler Kennedy, Logan Couture, Blake Wheeler, and Claude Giroux are all expected to fight for spots on the squad next year. The Panthers also hold the rights to Josh Bailey, Taylor Hall and Tyler Seguin, who have all shown tremendous development over the course of Season 7. Bailey must be signed or released this summer, so expect to see him in training camp, while Hall and Seguin can stay on the prospects list for an additional two seasons. While the smart move will likely be to leave Seguin on the list for another year of free development, don't be surprised to see the Panthers sign Hall this summer and give him a chance to earn a spot on the pro squad.

Defense

Where the forwards core was mostly comprised on young stand-ins, the defense was built around 4 grizzled veterans in Wade Redden, Adam Foote, Mathieu Schneider and Adrian Aucoin. All four of them had productive seasons that were consistent with their career averages. For Schneider and Foote, this represents their final CMHL season as both are slated for retirement this summer.  Redden and Aucoin are signed through Season 8 and are thus likely to return given that the vast majority of the Panthers prospect depth is at forward, if only to provide some veteran stability for what will likely be a very young forward corps next season.

Derek Joslin and Yuri Alexandrov played well in half-season stints and are both restricted free agents this summer. As long as their asking price is not prohibitive, both are strong options for the Panthers as #5-6 defencemen going into Season 8.

The departures of Foote and Schneider leaves two spots open on the Panthers defence heading in Season 8. Looking to Whelan Bay, Steven Kampfer and Andreas Lilja are both signed and both represent options, though neither is particularly well suited to a #3-4 defenceman role. Another option would be to sign Nick Leddy off the prospect list though they can leave him there for another year, and he is also not particularly well suited to a #3-4 spot yet.

The Panthers do have one blue chip prospect at D though in Victor Hedman and all indications are that he will be signed this summer, and should easily be able to fill one of the two vacancies on the Panthers blueline for Season 8.

Given the Panthers depth at forward right now, don't be surprised to see GM chriscmb try to swap a forward or two for a young defencemen who can fill the remaining top 4 spot right away. Given this year's shallow UFA pool, a trade is the most likely way the Panthers are going to fill their void at D.

Goaltending

Midway through the season, and consistent with their rebuilding plans, the Panthers acquired rookie goaltender Tuukka Rask to fill their starting role. Rask was the subject of a contract controversy this summer as the Blue Jackets let him walk on an offer sheet, and this was probably a wise move as Rask did not exactly live up to his contract. While his numbers were solid given that he is a rookie, they did not justify his price tag. Rask is a restricted free agent this summer once again and it will be interesting to see if last summer and Season 7 have changed his mindset at all come contract. All said and done, if the Panthers can come to reasonable terms with Rask, he represents a solid goaltender for the future.

Riku Helenius served as the backup to Rask, finding his way into 37 games this season, posting an absolutely horrific 4-21-4 record. Given Helenius' desire to return to Europe, it is not expected that he will be returning to the Panthers for Season 8 and this may be a good thing for them!

The Panthers are severely lacking depth in nets, with Ben Bishop being the only true prospect in the system with pro potential. Bishop could be a good option as backup for Season 8, or the Panthers could pick up a cheap veteran over the summer as there are usually a number of veteran goalies looking for jobs every summer.

Draft

Consistent with GM chriscmb's rebuilding plans, the Panthers hold a bevy of future draft picks, including 3 top 10 picks this summer. Their own pick will either fall #1 or 2 overall depending on the results of the draft lottery, while they hold MIN and SJ's picks which will both fall into the 5th-8th overall range. Beyond the first round, the Panthers hold 3 2nd's, a 3rd and 4th rounder. Don't be surprised to see GM chriscmb take the best player available at the time of his picks, but as discussed earlier, the Panthers have a ton of depth at forward and could do with a focus on D and goaltending. 

Salary Cap

Given that most of their young players are still on entry-level deals or early career contracts, the Panthers have a lot of salary cap flexibility. Schneider and Foote retiring opens up 7.5 million immediately, and dumping Kovalev or Dumont would open up another 5 million per player if needed. Getting their 4 key RFAs onto reasonable contracts will be key, and otherwise, the Panthers have a lot of room to move around. The salary cap should not be an issue for the Panthers in Season 8. But good planning will be critical moving forward as these entry-level deals and early career contracts will not last forever.

Offseason Priorities

1) Strengthen goaltending depth starting with a solid pro-level backup.

2) Acquire a top 4 defenseman.

3) Resign their 4 RFA's to reasonable contracts - Tuukka Rask, Claude Giroux, Blake Wheeler and Colin Wilson.

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