SUNRISE (CBSMiami) – You’re traveling through another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind.
A journey into a wonderous land of imagination, where the Florida Panthers are a perennial playoff team and Stanley Cup contender.
No, we’re not heading into the Twilight Zone, though while reading this post it may, at times, seem that way.
What you’re about to be presented with is a possibility that could realistically happen, in this universe, at this time.
Granted, so is winning the lottery or getting struck by lightning, but you see what I’m saying.
It’s actually a story that South Florida sports fans have seen play out before.
Going into this, you’ve got to know this is something that is extremely rare. Players checking their egos, even just a little bit, to try and win the ultimate prize is something that quite frankly doesn’t happen on its own. There has to be more.
With the Miami Heat and the “Big 3” of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, it wasn’t just bringing together some of the best players in the world with the goal of winning championships.
It was also three close friends taking advantage of an opportunity to shape their futures both on and off the basketball court together.
All the pieces had to fall perfectly into place, and they did for four magical years (with the help of the Godfather, Pat Riley).
In Sunrise, where South Florida’s pro hockey team resides, several pieces are already in place; A young, talented core group of players and a proven winner behind the bench to go with a stocked prospect pool and plenty of upcoming draft picks to play around with.
Combine all that with an owner willing to open his wallet unlike anyone before him and suddenly things are looking pretty spiffy for the Panthers.
When the offseason officially begins next month, Florida is going to target a new starting goalie, a high-scoring forward and a top-four defenseman, and they have the resources to hit the bullseye on all three. For now, let’s talk about the two biggest free agents hitting the market this summer.
It’s no secret that goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is at the top of the Panthers wish list.
The prize of the forward pool hitting the market, Artemi Panarin, has reported interest in joining Florida.
Both play for the Columbus Blue Jackets and neither is expected to re-sign there.
This is where things start to get a little crazy, so bear with me.
What if Bobrovsky and Panarin decide to sign with Florida, but take a little less money than the maximum they could get on the open market? Not anything crazy, but enough to make a difference with the bottom half of the roster.
Now if your eyes have rolled back into place, I’m sure you’re listing all of the reasons why that will never happen.
And you’re probably right.
But the Panthers present a unique opportunity right now, and depending how badly these players want their names on the Stanley Cup, it’s not that far out of reach.
Florida has some of the league’s best young players locked up for the foreseeable future, and at pretty favorable deals when it comes to roster flexibility.
Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers top two forwards, are each making $5.9 million per year. No other forwards on the team come close to making that kind of money.
Barkov led the Panthers with 96 points last season while Huberdeau logged 92, both career highs.
The 23-year-old Barkov is signed through 2021-22 and Huberdeau, 25, the year after.
25-year-old Vincent Trocheck is earning $4.75 million a year through 21-22.
Frank Vatrano, also 25, is coming off a career-high 24 goal, 39 point season and is locked up for the next three years at just a $2.5 million Average Annual Value (since being acquired from Boston, Vatrano has 29 goals in 97 games with Florida).
With so many key players signed to very friendly deals for the next several years, if Bobrovsky and Panarin join the club and leave an extra million, give or take, on the table for the team to use elsewhere, imagine the depth that could be accumulated.
Between additional free agent additions and the talent coming up in Florida’s pipeline (Owen Tippett, Aleksi Heponiemi, Grigory Denisenko, to name a few), the sky is truly the limit.
Let’s go a bit further down the rabbit hole.
Bobrovsky will be 31 when the season begins, but he’s still expected to sign a lucrative long-term deal. Some have even floated the idea of a sign-and-trade with Columbus, which would allow Bob to sign an eight-year deal while moving on to a new team.
I don’t think that’s going to happen simply due to his age, combined with a team having to give up an asset in order to make that deal. Free agency seems like a more logical route for a team looking to add Bobrovsky (and it also plays into the narrative that this post is trying to convey).
The general consensus is that Bobrovsky will be offered a deal in the $8-to-8.5 million AAV range (he just finished a 4-year deal with an AAV of $7.25M, a deal he signed two years after winning his first of two Vezina trophies in Columbus).
Panarin is going to get even more money thrown at him. Columbus reportedly offered him a multi-year deal worth north of $9 million per season that was turned down.
It’s easy to see why the Bread Man will likely see offers that exceed a $10 million AAV. He’s been in the league four years and has put up seasons of 77, 74, 82 and 87 points. He’ll be 28 in October, so his next contract will cover the prime years of his career.
Panarin also just helped lead Columbus to a 98 point season and the franchise’s first ever playoff series win. All that while dealing with constant distractions both from his pending free agency and the win-now mode the Blue Jackets went into after their trade deadline additions of pending free agents Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid.
It sure seems like I’m listing the reasons why Panarin would not ever, under any circumstances be inclined to take a penny less than what he has clearly earned.
But another constant in his career, aside from the amazing offensive production, has been his desire to win the Stanley Cup.
Panarin has reached the playoffs in each of his four NHL seasons, but this year was the first time he made it past the opening round. There is a desire by Panarin to reach the top of the mountain and Florida may provide the clearest path to get there.
Now that the main ingredients are in the mix, lets add a little spice.
Back in December, Panarin fired his agent and signed with Paul Theofanous, who also happens to represent Bobrovsky.
Certainly would help move the situation along if everyone was on the same page from the get-go, and it doesn’t get much easier than sharing an agent.
Another nugget to chew on is that Florida winger Evgenii Dadonov is very good friends with Panarin.
The two were teammates in the KHL and won a Gagarin Cup together with SKA St Petersburg in 2015.
Dadonov is entering the final year of a 3-year, $12 million contract but he’s certainly earned an extension based on his first two years with Florida (155 points in 211 games).
It’s worth wondering if Panarin would leave some money off of his deal if it meant helping the Cats keep Dadonov around.
Oh, and remember earlier when I called Panarin by his nickname Bread Man?
It was new Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville who dubbed Panarin with his now-mainstream nickname, back when the pair were with the Blackhawks during Panarin’s first two years in the league.
By all accounts, the two thoroughly enjoyed their time with one another in Chicago and it seems a reunion in South Florida would be mutually beneficial.
Now I hear those of you yelling at your screens that Panarin has said, multiple times, he wants to test the waters of free agency. Who wouldn’t? He is going to be in all likelihood the most coveted player to hit the open market.
Back when Panarin made the move from the KHL to the NHL, there were a handful of teams looking to sign him but it was only for an entry-level deal.
Chicago gave him a two-year, $12 million extension a few months before trading him to the Blue Jackets, but now he’s about to be an unrestricted free agent without limitations for the first time.
And to be fair, if it’s a big payday he wants than he will likely still get that from Florida, or anyone else making an offer. But if this is also about winning, it can’t be all about money.
Regarding the numbers, the salary cap this season was $79.5 million and it’s expected to raise at least $1-2 million for next year.
Florida currently has 16 players under contract for next season at a total team salary of just under $62 million.
That includes the contracts of goaltenders Roberto Luongo and James Reimer.
Luongo just turned 40 and is reportedly considering retirement. Reimer is not viewed as a viable starting option and is a likely trade candidate, especially around next month’s NHL Draft.
Luongo has three seasons left on his deal with a cap hit of $4.5 million while Reimer’s cap hit of $3.4 million is for the next two years. One, or both, of those contracts will likely be wiped off the books before next season arrives.
So there you have it. A completely logical way for Dale Tallon and the Panthers to steal a play out of Pat Riley’s playbook and create a superteam in South Florida.
The NHL Draft is June 21st and 22nd.
Free agency begins on July 1st.