How the Florida Panthers Faired After Free Agency Opened

Sam Reinhart scoring during the Eastern Conference Finals. (John McCall/South Florida Sun Sentinel)

Following their Stanley Cup win, the Panthers had more than a handful of free agents up for a contract. The biggest one being Sam Reinhart who would’ve been highly sought after on the open market following a career-high season. As is always the case Florida wasn’t able to keep all of their free agents, however, they were able to keep significant pieces and bring in new talent to help fill in the gaps. GM Bill Zito said prior to free agency starting that they would try to keep as many players as possible and that they were going to spend to the cap. Some of the acquisitions were to help fill out rosters in their affiliate teams. There were plenty of moves made for the main Panthers roster, which leaves them in a favorable position to fight for back-to-back Cup wins.

Extensions:

Sam Reinhart was the one player the whole hockey sphere was waiting to see what would happen. He had expressed his desire to stay in South Florida throughout the playoffs, and Zito and the organization said the same. There were nerves among fans when there hadn’t been any type of extension announcement as free agency got closer and closer. That announcement finally came the morning free agency opened with the Panthers putting out posts sharing that Reinhart had extended for another eight years at $8.625M AAV, making him the fourth highest-paid Panther behind Barkov, Bobrovsky, and Tkachuk. A sigh of relief could be felt throughout the fanbase at the announcement, and that also means that Barkov, Tkachuk, Forsling, and Reinhart are all signed by at least 2030. 

Dmitry Kulikov was the next extension announced, with him getting a four-year deal with a $1.15M AAV, adding more stability to the blue line. Kulikov had a great playoff for the Panthers and was very solid on the bottom defensive pairing and on the penalty kill. He certainly made a game-saving play in Game 7 of the Cup Final by using his stick to keep a loose puck out of the net and out of the reach of any Oilers’ players, which then turned into Reinhart’s game-winning goal. He’s not the biggest defensive name on the Florida roster but he does make big plays when needed. Kulikov had twenty points during the regular season and sat at a respectable +15. Initially drafted by Florida, he has the chance to close out his career with the Cats, as he’ll be 37 by the time this extension is done. 

Anton Lundell was the final extension announced during free agency. An underrated player coming into the Playoffs that I said was worth keeping an eye on. He proved me right by having a fantastic postseason. Lundell got a six-year extension at $5M AAV, this also extends him to at least the 2030 season keeping a big part of Florida’s core players together. Lundell came up big for the Cats when Sam Bennett was out with injury, and he needed to play up on the second line with Tkachuk and Verhaeghe. He had 17 points during the postseason with three goals and 14 assists. Lundell was second on the team in +/- behind Forsling, the second-best center in faceoff win percentage at 52.5% behind Barkov, and tied with Barkov for second on team assists at 14. Lundell shares many similarities with Barkov in how he plays; at only 22, he’s only going to get better as he gets more experience. 

Departures:

The biggest loss for the Panthers on the defensive end was Brandon Montour. Montour signed a seven-year deal with the Seattle Kraken at $7.14M AAV, giving him both a big pay increase and term limit. With his offensive production, he gives the Kraken the option to run a power play unit with two defensemen between himself and Vince Dunn who currently anchors the top PP unit. Montour had 33 points during the regular season, with eight goals and 25 assists, and 11 points during the postseason, with three goals and eight assists. His postseason numbers were on par with what he did a season prior, although the regular season numbers were down from the 2022-2023 season, where he had 73 points; Montour was recovering from an injury and only played 66 games as opposed to the 80. 

Oliver Ekman-Larsson is the other defenseman the Cats lost with him getting a four-year contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs at  $3.5 AAV. He played on the third defensive pairing with Kulikov, but OEL also has experience playing a bigger defensive role on a team and carrying more minutes. OEL got time on the power play units, both the first and second unit, during the playoffs. He averaged around 18 and a half minutes of ice time during the regular season and 15 and a half during the postseason. 

OEL isn’t the only Panther heading to Toronto; Anthony Stolarz signed a two-year deal at $2.5M AAV. The Leafs had a glaring deficit in goal, and Stolarz was a fantastic backup for the Cats this past season. He led the league in save percentage and goals against, and he also had one of the highest save numbers for a shutout in franchise history. Every time Stolarz was needed in the net he stepped up and played great. The Bobrovsky/Stolarz tandem was one of the strongest goalie tandems in the NHL. He’ll have a shot at potentially being a full-time starter in Toronto or at least playing more games than he did with the Panthers. 

Lomberg also priced himself out of staying in South Florida. Cap space is tight for the Panthers at the moment so Lomberg has moved on to going back to playing in Calgary with a two-year deal at $2M AAV. A regular for the Cats, he provided a lot of speed and tenacity on the fourth line. While he didn’t play every game during the postseason due to illness, and then the fourth line was clicking really well with who was in, when HC Paul Maurice called upon him to bring something to the lineup, he did. A fan-favorite fourth-line player, Lomberg will be missed by the Panthers. 

Another big loss for the Panthers is Kevin Stenlund. He was brought in to stabilize the penalty kill and be a strong fourth-line center and he fit that role perfectly. Stenlund was a very solid fourth-line player who could play up on the third line when necessary due to injury, he was strong in the faceoff dot as well and a big part of the penalty kill. The PK was the biggest glaring weakness for the Cats coming out of the 2022-2023 season, and he did a great job of helping to improve it for this year. The Florida PK stifled power-play merchant teams during the playoffs forcing those teams to play 5v5 which wasn’t their biggest strength. Stenlund is moving on to play in the brand new Utah Hockey Club, getting a two-year deal at $4M AAV. 

Tarasenko wasn’t a Panther for a long time but he was an impactful player while he was with the team. Acquired at the trade deadline, Tarasenko fit in well with the Panthers’ play style and was able to play up and down the lineup, getting time on both the top line and third line while also spending time on the power play units. He’s a knowledgable player and both coaches and teammates remarked on how he was always talking about the game with his linemates. His maturity and experience were valuable when he was playing on the third line with Luostarinen and Lundell and gave him a great mentorship role with them. HC Paul Maurice tasked him with scoring one goal a series, which he did, including two goals in the Cup Final and the series winner against the Rangers, and though he didn’t score often, his goals were big ones. Tarasenko wanted the chance at another Cup win and he got it with the Panthers. He’s signed a two-year contract with the Detroit Red Wings at $4.75M AAV. 

Depth wise, Josh Mahura is following Montour to Seattle on a one-year deal at $775,000 AAV. Mahura played 20 games with nine assists for nine points. Of the non-regular players, he had the most points and averaged around 12 and a half minutes of ice time. He played every game of the 2022-2023 season and had 16 points in 82 games with four goals and 12 assists. For points comparison, Mikkola was in that range of points at 17 points with three goals and 14 assists. He’ll be a solid depth player for the Kraken but not likely to be a regular in the lineup unless he beats out up-and-coming Ryker Evans who split his time between the Kraken and their AHL affiliate the Coachella Valley Firebirds. Evans had ten points in 18 playoff games for the Firebirds and 15 points in 28 games during the regular season before he got brought up to the main club, where he had nine points in 20 games. 

Acquisitions:

The first main roster addition announcement was Tomas Nosek from the New Jersey Devils. Nosek signed a one-year $775,000 AAV contract to add left-wing depth to the forwards. Zito said, “Tomas is an experienced veteran forward who plays a strong two-way game.” For the style that the Panthers play, strong two-way play is necessary as the team thrives off the quick transition from defense to offense with a defense-first system. He played 36 games with New Jersey and had six points but averaged the third-highest shorthanded time on ice for the Devils’ forwards. 

A.J. Greer was the next contract announcement, a two-year deal at $1.7M AAV. Another depth player for the Cats, he played 59 games for Calgary and matched his career-high 12 points this past season. Zito said, “A.J. is an effective forward who utilizes his size and strength at both ends of the ice.” Another cheaper depth acquisition for the Cats, he’s a physical player who had 100 hits in his 59 games with the Flames, which will be great for the heavy forechecking the Panthers have as a cornerstone of their current system. 

Coming in from division rival the Boston Bruins, Jesper Boqvist. Boqvist signed a one-year $775,000 AAV deal with the Cats. Boqvist split his time between the Bruins and the AHL affiliate, the Providence Bruins. He played 47 games with the Boston Bruins, recording 14 points with a +14 rating, and 31 games in the AHL, garnering 23 points and a +10 rating. Here’s what Zito had to say on Boqvist, “Jesper is a skilled, dynamic forward with a strong skating ability.” Boqvist is a center and will likely be the new fourth-line center for the Panthers, replacing Kevin Stenlund. If the fourth line ends up being Boqvist, Nosek, and recently extended Gadjovich that’s going to be a big and hard-hitting trio for the Panthers. With the hard style of hockey that Florida plays, that has the potential to create plenty of problems for opponents. 

With the loss of Stolarz, Florida welcomes Chris Driedger back to the fold. Driedger’s been with the Seattle Kraken organization for the last three seasons as he got picked up by them during the expansion draft. Driedger was the starter for the Coachella Valley Firebirds this last season and led his team all the way to the Calder Cup Finals, while they ultimately lost he had a great season with them. Driedger had a .917 SV%, 2.26 GAA, and 952 total saves, the second-highest of his career. The 24 wins and four shutouts are the highest of his career. He’ll be competing with Spence Knight for the backup goalie job: Knight had a .905 SV% with 2.41 GAA, 25 wins, and 5 shutouts. 

The Panthers signed MacKenzie Entwistle to a one-year, two-way contract at $775,000 AAV. Entwistle previously played with the Chicago Blackhawks. He played a career-high 67 games in Chicago last season with a career-high five goals. He was third on the roster in hits at 139 but also third in PIMs at 47. He’s likely to be a player who splits his time between the Panthers roster and the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL. It’s safe to assume he’d spend the majority of his time with the Checkers and possibly get called up if the Panthers are getting hit hard by injuries. 

Nate Schmidt signed a one-year deal with the Cats at $800,000 AAV to add depth to the blue line. Schmidt played 63 games with the Winnipeg Jets accumulating 14 points with a +10 rating. When he’s played in the playoffs, Schmidt has 28 points in 76 postseason games and was on the Vegas Golden Knights rosters that made the 2018 Stanley Cup Final and the 2020 Western Conference Final. Zito said, “Nate is a veteran puck-moving defenseman who we expect to seamlessly integrate with our style of play.” 

One final add to the blue line comes in the form of Jaycob Megna on a one-year two-way contract at $775,000 AAV. Megna got claimed by the Blackhawks last season after being waived by the Kraken, he played 31 games with two assists. Another depth add likely to spend most of his time down with the Checkers. More than likely Balinskis and Bjornfot will get more time with the main Panther roster, both players drew into the lineup when the defense had a significant injury late in the season and one player was out on suspension. 

Final Thoughts:

Overall, the Florida Panthers have locked up their core players with long-term contracts through at least 2030; the next two up on that list would be Verhaeghe and Bennett, both getting extensions, but their current contracts don’t end till next season. They were able to keep as many of their championship roster as they possibly could and then replaced the depth players with others at a lower cap price. The biggest changes are coming in the bottom six and on the defensive side of things. The Cats emphasized getting two-way players that would fit well into their system. According to PuckMark’s 5v5 Defense WAR model, Florida signed 1.4 above what they were at while spending significantly less than the teams around them. With the 5v5 being integral to their post-season success, this bodes well for next season as the Panthers look to defend their Stanley Cup title.

We Got The Jack Inside The Rink

In episode 8 of the Inside The Rink podcast, Matty and Smitty are joined by new co-host Conrad Jack. After the long hiatus, we get back to hockey with a PACKED episode!Matt Rempe & the Devils vs. Rangers Line BrawlCould the Vancouver Canucks squander a playoff opportunity? Have the Winnipeg Jets finally figured out their lines?Flyers Head Coach John Tortorella is a sound byte MACHINEOvechkin is on his way to 895, Who is next?McDavid joins elite company with 100 Assists in a seasonRyan Hartman was suspended 3 Games, was it worth 3 games??Can Auston Matthews hit 70 Goals this season?The Eastern Conference Wild Card race is heating up, who lands the two playoff berths?For all of your hockey news and more from the show, visit us at insidetherink.com and watch us on YouTube! How to support us and our sponsors:TicketmasterColumbia Sports ApparelESPN+ SubscriptionFanaticsDraft Kings – CODE ITR
  1. We Got The Jack
  2. Episode 7. Player Safety First!
  3. Episode 6. Early Trade Season
  4. Episode 5. Longing For The Chiarelli Years
  5. Episode 4. Ottawa’s On Fire

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