Deciding on the Panthers’ 2016 restricted free-agents

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

The off-season is upon us and that means the deadline to qualify restricted free-agents is right around the corner. With Erik Gudbranson already locked up for another year, it’s pretty much guaranteed that the Panthers will qualify Vincent Trocheck  or sign him to a new contract some time during the next few days, weeks, or months. But what about the 8 other RFAs in the organization? We’ll take a look at who should stay and who should go when the qualifying offer deadline arrives this off-season.

The idea behind restricted free-agents is that the Panthers can either send them a qualifying offer – which is essentially a contract – or opt to not do so. The player can then either accept the qualifying offer, leave North America (which isn’t a realistic option most of the time but an option nonetheless), or decline and negotiate a contract with different terms.

If a player isn’t tendered a qualifying offer by the deadline, which is typically a day or two after the NHL Draft in late-June, they become an unrestricted free-agent and can sign with any team when the market opens on July 1st. There are also some requirements regarding salary arbitration and how much money each player must be offered, however the Panthers’ RFAs – aside from Trocheck and Gudbranson – won’t break the bank, so we won’t worry about that here.

Keep

Logan Shaw (RW) – Keeping Shaw around would be a good idea for the Panthers, although it would probably be even better if he was kept around for depth or a 4th-line role. The 23-year old has been very good as a top-6 player in the AHL and actually looked good during the playoffs for the Panthers, however he was given lots of time on the 3rd line this season where he played with the likes of Nick Bjugstad, Brandon Pirri, and others but to avail. The coaching staff seems to really like Shaw, although he still has some work to do when it comes to the defensive side of the puck.

Playing him on the 4th line may be a better option, but only when necessary as he’s not the offensive performer in the NHL that he is in the AHL. He’s still fairly young too and just got his first large chunk of NHL games out of the way, so we’ll see how he improves and learns from that experience moving into next season. Shaw will be waiver-eligible next season after he plays in 24 games meaning the Panthers will need to make a decision on where they want him to play, because it’s definitely a possibility that he’d get picked up if placed on waivers.

Quinton Howden (LW) – Howden is another player that the Panthers should keep around and probably one of the best-suited players in the organization for the 4th line. He was mysteriously sent to the doghouse after a subpar performance against the Islanders in mid-March and only saw the light of day just 4 times after that despite the Panthers looking to add some speed into the lineup for the playoffs. He can create some offense on the 4th line once he gets comfortable as evidenced by his 6 goals and 5 assists which is just 2 points fewer than Derek MacKenzie had in 6 more games.

As with Shaw, improving his defensive game is something he’ll need to work towards, and that’s likely what management was looking for out of him, however his speed brings an element to the lineup that the Panthers can never have enough of. At 24 years old, Howden’s progression has slowed as many expected it would considering the type of player he is, so now it’s about honing his skills. Howden, who’s waiver-eligible, was tendered a qualifying offer last off-season as well, and it’s likely he’ll get one again this year.

Dylan Olsen (D) – Olsen has had an interesting past couple of seasons in that he’s jumped back and forth between the NHL and the AHL as a result of emergency recalls. He missed some time at the end of last season tending to personal issues and played most of this year with the Portland Pirates where he tallied 5 goals and 11 assists in 47 games.

In his 8 games with the Panthers this season, he appeared to have improved defensively and going forward can certainly be a depth defenseman. However, Olsen is now waiver-eligible, so the Panthers will have to make a decision on him as well or be careful with how they use him because it wouldn’t be surprising to see him be picked up by another team. He showed some flashes in his first stint with the Panthers upon arriving in the 2013-14 season, so the skill is definitely there, but it’s a matter of whether or not management thinks he has a future with this team or not. With a few new defensemen joining the Panthers’ organization this coming season, Olsen will need to have a good showing at training camp and during pre-season if he wishes to remain up with the big club. On the other hand, however, the Panthers’ defense may be set for the most part at this point if the playoffs were any indication.

Connor Brickley (C/RW) – Brickley was fortunate enough to make the team out of training camp after a strong pre-season and rookie tournament performance, and the hope was that he would be able to command a spot on the 4th line for most of the season. He was really good on the forecheck, brought some speed to the lineup, and contributed offensively, but he eventually began to fall out favor after racking up penalty minutes and was subsequently sent back down to the AHL. When he returned about a month later, he seemed to be a different player, one that was a bit less physical, not as noticeable, and toned down overall. After being sent down to the AHL again in January, he struggled to produce before having a solid stretch from March through the end of the season for the Portland Pirates.

Brickley has the makings of a solid 4th-liner, although it is unfortunate that he appeared to alter his playing style slightly as a result of being sent down. If he’s able to find a happy medium, he could be exactly what the Panthers need in their bottom-6. At 24 years old, he still has some developing to do as a result of only playing roughly a season and a half in total in the AHL plus a handful of NHL games, so he’s definitely a good depth option for the Panthers to keep in the fold at least for now. Also, he’s not yet waiver-eligible yet making him a viable injury call-up.

Greg McKegg (C) – Greg McKegg has also shown that he’s worthy of a new contract. After getting McKegg from Toronto in exchange for an insistent Zach Hyman, the Panthers added a solid depth player to their AHL affiliate. McKegg eventually came up and played some solid minutes down the stretch this season and did an admirable job considering the circumstances. He scored his first 2 NHL goals in back-to-back games and was relied upon in the face-off circle and the defensive zone.

At this point, no one is expecting McKegg to fill a role much larger than that of a 4th-line center, but he’s been able to produce offensively in the AHL and can definitely be a serviceable call-up option as he showed this year. Although he’s waiver-eligible, the Panthers don’t have to worry much at all about him being picked up by another team as he’s passed through before with no problem. McKegg, like Howden, was tendered a qualifying offer last off-season, so it’s likely that one is in the cards for him again after a decent year in the AHL and quality time spent with the Panthers.

Maybes

Sam Brittain (G) – Brittain only recently joined the Panthers’ organization after being drafted in 2010 and spending 4 years at the University of Denver where he played alongside fellow prospect Evan Cowley. He spent most of last season in the ECHL before spending some time in the AHL towards the end of the year, and that’s when he had he best stretch of professional hockey thus far. This year, he made the jump to the AHL full-time but played in 25 games as Mike McKenna’s backup.

For the most part, Brittain’s stats aren’t 100% indicative of his play as he was very good at times for Portland. Consistency is something he needs to work on, but overall he has the skills and abilities to earn another look, especially since he’s yet to get the starting job. Brittain may need a more consistent workload in order to perform well night in and night out, however with the Panthers close to signing top goalie prospect Sam Montembeault, who knows how much time Brittain will actually get if offered a new contract. In general though, the Panthers’ goalie depth isn’t going to blow anyone away, so keeping Brittain around could be a good idea if it makes sense.

Jonathan Racine (D) – Racine was drafted by the Panthers in 2011 and finished out his final 2 seasons in the QMJHL before joining the organization in 2013. Since then, it seems the Panthers have thought of him as a project as he’s already spent 3 years in the AHL while being recalled to the NHL once in 2014 when he played just one game for the big club. He isn’t known for his offensive production, but this year he put up a career-high 8 assists while also scoring his first professional goal. Racine has been pretty steady in the AHL but it seems he still has some room to grow, and it’s been admittedly a bit odd that he’s hardly seen any time in the NHL for the Panthers to at least see what they have in him.

It’s tough to say whether or not he’ll be tendered a qualifying offer as he’s an RFA for the very first time in his career. The Panthers do have a couple of defensemen who could be joining the AHL team next season in Ian McCoshen and Michael Downing so perhaps a new contract won’t be in the cards for Racine. His style of play is similar to that of Alex Petrovic and Erik Gudbranson making it possible that the Panthers won’t see the need for any more defensive defensemen on the NHL blue-line, but then again he could be a depth option if they decide to keep him.

No Thank You

John McFarland (LW) – Once touted as a top prospect and one that nearly applied for Exceptional Status to enter the OHL at 15, John McFarland could very well be on his way out of the organization. After posting underwhelming numbers at the junior level amidst tons of hype, McFarland was drafted by the Panthers in the 2nd round of the 2010 Draft with the hope that he could put his raw talent and high-end skating ability together to become a difference-maker in the NHL. What ended up happening, however, is that he split time between the ECHL (where he succeeded) and the AHL in his first two seasons after leaving juniors before playing in his first full AHL campaign last year. In 4 AHL seasons, he’s dealt with many injuries while establishing a career-high of just 24 points.

When his entry-level contract expired at the end of the year, he was tendered a qualifying offer as an RFA and signed a one-year contract, one that was likely his last shot at proving the Panthers that he could turn into something for them. Although his offensive numbers did improve slightly, he did play more games than past seasons and had just 2 assists in his final 19 games including the playoffs despite spending most of the year in the top-6. The 24-year old Ontario-native played 3 games with the Panthers, and he was fairly average in all of them making yet another contract this time around unlikely. With the Panthers’ AHL affiliate expected to gain several players next season including Dryden Hunt, Linus Hultstrom, Juho Lammikko, and perhaps Jayce Hawryluk, the team can’t afford to waste roster spots on players who’s time with the organization have come and gone.

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