Florida Panthers Moving Forward Part Five: Depth Chart

ICYMI: Parts 1 (Introduction)2 (General Manager), 3 (Coach) and 4 (Expansion).

Tallon & co. won’t rest once they set the Expansion Protected list. Only days later, they will be in Chicago drafting prospects and working the trade phones. Whyhockey will post the 2017 edition of “On the Clock” detailing Panthers possible draft positions closer to June. But to know who to draft, who to trade, who to trade for, and even who to target in Free Agency, the Panthers need to take stock of what they have.

Note: For the below depth chart images, here is the color key:

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Centers

The greatest position of strength for Florida is center ice. Sasha Barkov, Vincent Trocheck (in that order, Mr. Next Coach), Denis Malgin, and Henrik Borgstrom (few years down the line) form an impressive young core. Wait… no Bjugstad? The positive of being stacked with right handed centers and also being in need of right shooting wingers (which will be touched on later) means that some of the additions to the right side wing can come from within, from the center group.

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Both Bjugstad and Malgin are candidates for this switch. Malgin has shown great ability to drive play–breaking out of the D zone and entering the O zone with control. Bjugstad, on the other hand, has controlled the center ice when he is on. “When he is on” is the key phrase. Bjugstad’s offensive skillset, big frame, and hustle on the backcheck made him a great center through his NCAA career and early NHL days, when he had luxury of top 6 wingers. However, Barkov and Trocheck firmly cemented their 1, 2 center spots. By now, it is clear that to get the most of Bjugstad’s shooting he needs Top 6 usage, which can only come from the wing on this team. While he can drive play, he cannot do it as the main driver. Playing on the third line, it is harder to find such drivers down the wing who can compensate for Bjugstad. Bjugstad, a scorer, fits into the “need” at wing more so than playmaker Malgin. At his stage in development, Malgin should stick to center, where he impressed.

Other than that, there is not much to do at the NHL level. A new coach should fix the usage issues down the middle. Swapping Barkov and Trocheck’s distribution of minutes and assignments should aid the end of the Bermuda Triangle in front of the net, where opposing teams forwards magically disappear from the defensive unit’s mind. Barkov’s shot attempt rate allowed from that area is much lower than Trocheck’s. That makes complete sense when you remember (apparently Panthers forgot) Barkov finished 6th in Selke voting, for best defensive forward, in 2015-2016.

Finding an upgrade over MacKenzie for 4C shouldn’t prove difficult. Candidates from within the organization more than fit the bill. Besides, there will be at least one or two free agent centers who will cost less and provide more than the replacement level captain. From within, Jared McCann and Michael Sgarbossa are the leading candidates. Despite early grandstanding from the organization, the hype dial has been rolled back on Sgarbossa, though this shouldn’t discredit his ability to be a 4th liner or extra forward. He’s just not more than thatThis past season, AHL center depth was a constant area being improved by the front office. With three veteran AHL centers on expiring contracts and Kyle Rau, McCann, and Sgarbossa competing for NHL gigs, that will most likely be the case again. Judging by the AHL record, the three expiring AHL vets should all be replaced. Though it wouldn’t surprise or infuriate if one or all three are brought back in an AHL capacity; there are other battles to fight.

Welp, that was easy.

Wingers

From best to worst. No debate should exist that this is the area requiring the majority of Tallon’s focus and the majority of available cap space.

Visually, looking at the depth chart the immediate need is right shot wingers. While it is true that left shot wingers like Jaromir Jagr and Reilly Smith prefer the right side and skew the true LW/RW split, right handed shot winger Jonathan Marchessault prefers the left, and Big Nick Bjugstad may as well, to utilize the one timer and have inside lane for his shot down the wing.

Besides focusing on right shots, there is also an underappreciated need to go younger at the wings. By this point in the 2016-2017 season, each forward line has a winger over the age of 32: Jagr, Jussi Jokinen, Thomas Vanek and Shawn Thornton. Only Jokinen is signed next season and Thornton (as far as we know) is still retiring, so its a realistic possibility the Cats can get younger by simply not re-upping oldheads. Jokinen is a moveable contract and that should be heavily looked at.

One reason to make a clean break from the 33 years old+ veterans (besides the obvious but unpredictable age related decline) is to force the young forward core to assume a larger responsibility of on ice results and leadership role. Specifically this relates to Jagr, Jokinen, Thornton and even center MacKenzie. Currently, these veterans are safety blankets, on and off the ice. It is probably long overdue for these training wheels to come off, and that is hard to do with established leaders continuing to stick around. When push comes to shove, the veterans (as they are used to) will assert themselves.

It may be hard but this is the time to walk away from Jagr despite the Revenue he brings in.

This year was evidence enough that to get the most from the young guns, they need players closer to their speed and skill level. They need to take a bigger stake of special teams, even strength, and “crunch time” minutes. One more time for the back: They need to be the drivers.

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Bjugstad’s addition to this group is a noticeable upgrade, as his ceiling and skill level is second only to Jonathan Huberdeau. The top four signed wingers all have had seasons of 20 goals in the not so distant past and possess the ability to reach that mark again playing with Barkov and Trocheck in the near future.  Not only is moving Bjugstad into a top 6 role going to maximize his performance, it will maximize the potential spend of cap space. Bjugstad saves Tallon from finding two Top 6 wingers, and the available cap space can be directed more heavily to a top end winger.

From the minors, Jayce Hawryluk is expected to push hard for a spot in camp like he did last year before breaking his hand in a fight. Hawryluk may have inside track for playing with Malgin on the 3rd line after their AHL experience together. Kyle Rau (if resigned as RFA) should also grind his way into a 4th line role. Both Hawryluk and Rau have noses for the net and great hand/eye, traits that can help keep production up on the 4th line where playing styles are usually simplified. It is likely Dryden Hunt and Juho Lammikko will be back in the A, developing their craft. However do not discount them, as an inactive offseason by Panthers or impressive camps by Hunt and Lammikko could give them more opportunity.

Including Hunt and Lammikko, Florida has the usual full roster nine wing spots filled. Approaching the offseason thinking those nine should and can get the job done on their own would be folly. Simply keeping one or both of Jagr and Vanek would also be folly. Two seasons in a row the top 9 has been too similar, and produced the similarly disappointing results. New blood, new scoring blood, is required. A true top 6 winger (think big names, big cap hits, big stats) can be expensive but is necessary. It’s also pretty smart to grab two more wingers to keep competition for roster spots and the good offensive minutes at highest level possible.

While you can’t judge moves by the dollar amounts alone (always up for more Marchessault/Sceviour type signings for bottom 6 that both Tallon and ownership like), these three additions on wing should tally ~$8 million in cap hit. You get what you pay for.

Defense

Will the Florida Panthers’ Front Office attempt a remake of the Defense group two summers in a row? Last season had some speed bumps on D but overall, they weren’t the issue. If the response last year was four D out and three D in, I can only imagine what this year would require. Last year they spent $12m in cap space per year on Defense and with the forwards spent a big, fat, whopping $1.7m.  The D spend needs to be much, much smarter.

On the other hand, most D you’d want to move are ownership’s “guys” so they won’t be as quick or happy to discard any. The focus and money needs to be spent up front so tweaking rather than reshuffling the deck (again) is probably the best idea. It also doesn’t hurt to have some semblance of consistency on the roster.

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While offensive production from the backend increased, the D zone play suffered at a more alarming rate. Without re-hashing the same argument of what went wrong, it is still easy to see the mix was wrong. The biggest issue is that the #1 Defender, Aaron Ekblad, is without a clear partner. Keith Yandle flat-out isn’t working in that role. In only 21 minutes of 5v5 ice time together, Ekblad and Alex Petrovic seem to have good results. That includes a 75 CF%, 85.11 CF60, and 28.37 CA60. Yet, it seems to be the last option used. The second to last option, Michael Matheson also has potential, though you may want Matheson to lead his own pairing so both 5 & 19 get the puck as often as they like.

Ekblad misses former partner Brian Campbell terribly. And while some will point to Campbell’s crazy shot suppression numbers as to why, that is only part of the answer. Ekblad doesn’t need Brian Campbell (though he would like him back very much), he needs a partner who plays like Brian Campbell–even if less talented. What Campbell did so well for Ekblad was set the table. A more common term might be safety-valve. Campbell was always pushing towards Ekblad’s side, being an easy support outlet underneath the puck, presenting an easy passing target.

Ekblad would bump Campbell the puck, Campbell would calmly slow play down,  suck the forecheck over to allow Ekblad to find open ice, and move the puck back to Ekblad in a more enviable position. Or move the puck up to wingers and allow Ekblad to push up ice. In almost every way, Campbell’s game focused around supporting Ekblad and letting him focus on his strengths. Jake Muzzin has made a career doing this with Drew Doughty.  Unfortunately for Florida, Jakub Kindl had this style but only at an AHL level of performance.

Speaking of Kindl, he is one of only two UFAs in the Florida’s D group–the other being Brent Regner (of Cup of Coffee fame). They should both be finding new homes next year. The AHL blueline was crowded enough, stupidly forcing prospect Thomas Schemitsch to the ECHL for a decent spell. That is unacceptable, so there needs to be some Spring(field) cleaning done of the AHL contracts. But that’s for another post.

The biggest question mark, and the hardest to predict, will be what defender is dangled to bring in a forward. If you read our Expansion post you also saw our argument to protect Petrovic over Jason Demers. Rather than lose Demers for nothing in Expansion, he is the best option to move. Coming off a good year, you are selling high on the over-sought RHD who has manageable term and cap hit.  RFAs Petrovic and Mark Pysyk would also be candidates. To lesser extents, Mackenzie Weegar, Michael Downing, and Ian McCoshen could be bait, too. But since they haven’t contributed to the defensive downfall this year, I’d like to keep them. The Final installment of Moving Forward, Part Six: Potential Targets will continue this conversation.

Ian McCoshen

The slots left by Kindl and whomever is *hopefully* traded out for a true top 6 winger can be filled from within. Weegar was called up this year but rode the pressbox pine (or is ate the pressbox popcorn a better metaphor here?). McCoshen is their top defensive prospect and will get the best look at camp. I see no reason McCoshen shouldn’t start the year in the Top 6. He will turn 22 years old in August so it is time to see what you have. Downing is an low key prospect who has only impressed me. His development track has been steady and he went further than many people expected in camp last year. You may want to make a prop-bet on Downing, if you are inclined to such gambling fun.

Replacing from within will keep the D group cap hit lower, help erase some bad AHL development from this season, and most importantly not force the team into signing big UFA contracts in the summer with little idea of how the puzzle pieces fit. There will be enough time to add a 3rd pair or 7th D (as those are the slots that will be open) come November if a prospect stumbles.

A new coach will bring two things: new schemes and better defensive usage. That should iron out a lot of issues right there. If the new coach doesn’t funnel pucks so heavily back to D for low percentage, predictable shooting habits, the odd man rushes are cut down. If the new coach can put together the right pairs, the confusion in D zone should also dissipate.

McCoshen’s promotion also adds another defender who can do Petrovic’s job when Petrovic is not on the ice. It’s realistic to envision Petrovic taking Top 4 minutes while McCoshen learns the ropes on the third pair and then Petrovic can fall back to 3rd pair when McCoshen is ready, putting both in the best possible spot to succeed.

Goalies

The big goalie contracts (yes, $3+million & 4 years left for a 1B–at best–is big) should not stop Tallon from a continued focus in net. Realistically, Luongo is a question mark with health (and frankly he probably isn’t the owners’ guy) and Reimer is just a plain old question mark. The Panthers were aggressive and proactive last summer trying to remedy this situation. They traded a pretty solid player in Rocco Grimaldi for a break in case of emergency Reto Berra and then overspent to get Reimer in Sunrise. The goal by the Front Office was to mitigate risks in goal. The risks in goal a year later are only more worrisome.

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I’ve beat the dead horse on the NHL goalie issues but the prospects didn’t fair better. Evan Cowley was backup at Denver (despite solid showing), Colin Stevens and Sam Brittain are non-factors judging by their usage. Sam Montembeault had a great year in the Q but is a long way with tons of time for things to go south (I mean look at Florida’s goalie development history). Recently acquired Adam Wilcox has seen a jump since the trade but will need to prove it’s not just adrenaline with consistency next season.

Montembeault is crazy athletic and has started to fill out, closing the 6 and 7 holes under the arms. There’s a lot of Luongo in him and that is good but even if Whyhockey is Bullish on Montembeault (trust me, we are) preaching patience and calm is best approach.

Without being aggressive this offseason, all they can do is cut the dead weight, focus minor league starts on Wilcox and Montembeault in the AHL, and draft a goalie.

If management wants to try another offseason of aggressive goalie tactics there are some things they can try that should be better than last year’s attempt.

Encourage Luongo to retire.

Do not want. the expansion post talked about this in more detail but I’ll re-drop in the Salary Cap Recapture penalty by year if Luongo retires. Again, do not want but it is one way.

Samuel Montembeault

James Reimer to Pittsburgh for Marc-Andre Fleury.

Obviously this is a hard move to pull off. Pittsburgh would still have to expose Reimer, Florida would then protect Fleury, expose Luongo. Then there’s the whole getting Fleury to waive his No Movement Clause. This also doesn’t alleviate immediate cappercentages for goalie position (Fleury has 2 years left at $5.75m) but Fleury’s shorter term makes those extra dollars up front worth it. Even at an older age and with some playoff issues I’ve enjoyed mocking as a Philly local, Fleury is still a legit #1 goalie, a marked improvement over Reimer and someone who can be the guy if Luongo just goes off a cliff. Fleury cuts risks of being tied to two long term goalie contracts, while improving talent level at the position. There may need to be more involved here but this is the skeleton.

Tangent: If the goal was to find a true starter if Luongo falters why would you make a long term commitment to a risky goalie like Reimer a year early when you know Expansion Draft will set goalies into a crazy game of musical chairs? Or specifically in this case, you know Marc-Andre Fleury will be available shortly. Finding a stopgap backup for one year and seeing what shakes out this June would have been much more pragmatic. Is it, like too many things, a money issue? Five years of Reimer is only $5.5m more than two years of Fleury, which would require spending more money to cover those remaining three years.

Include Reimer in a package for a Top 6 Winger.

Teams like Carolina, New York Islanders, Winnipeg, and Colorado have goalie issues they would like to remedy and wingers they can offer. Getting a top end scorer will require a diverse package and Reimer can certainly be an asset in the right situation. This may prove the most realistic of the proposed aggressive moves but still difficult. Reimer’s lack of starter resume will knock his value down a peg to teams looking for #1s and his term and cap hit could be issue for teams looking strictly for a supportive backup. There’s also the human element. Trading Reimer a year after signing him long term could impact ability to sign or attract players in the future. Especially with some other public dealings the team has had with employees this past year. Reimer also just had a baby, and ownership clearly likes him, which makes it less likely. But you can’t let that sop you from improving the team.

Despite all the words I put into it, I expect not many changes in the goalie depth chart come 2017-18 season.

Full Depth Chart

Note:

*Ind. Cap hits rounded to 0.00
** $1.00= $1 million
***Cap Hits counted only for signed NHL players

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Don’t miss the Finale–Part Six: Potential Targets and Lineup. 

 

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