The off-season is upon us and that means the deadline to qualify restricted free-agents is, once again, right around the corner.
It’s a foregone conclusion – based on the words of General Manager Dale Tallon – that the Panthers will re-sign defensemen Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic.
He specifically praised Pysyk during Thursday’s conference call with the media following the expansion draft.
“Game in and game out, [Pysyk] was the most consistent defenseman,” said Tallon. “He played very well for us in every situation. Tremendous character, he’s a really good guy, the players really like him and he’s just a solid defenseman. I think he’s gonna get better and he really fits in nicely.”
The Panthers purposely protected 8 skaters and 1 goaltender for the expansion draft so that they could retain 4 defensemen instead of just 3 if they went with the other method.
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 this year is June 26th at 5PM EST – 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 (if eligible) and how much money each player must be offered, however the Panthers’ RFAs – aside from Petrovic and Pysyk – won’t break the bank, so we won’t worry about that here.
Since there’s no ‘maybes’ this year, we’ll just go with who should stay and who should go.
So, having said that, let’s get into it.
Mackenzie Weegar (D) – There’s no doubt the Panthers will tender Weegar a qualifying offer and keep him in the fold for the foreseeable future.
Eric Joyce – the Panthers’ Assistant General Manager – told the Miami Herald that Weegar was the Springfield Thunderbirds’ best defenseman this season and will be offered a new contract.
Weegar led the Panthers’ AHL affiliate in scoring by defensemen with 36 points in 60 games, recorded 8 multi-point games, notched a career-high 9 shots on March 3rd, and was the only Thunderbirds representative at the AHL All-Star Game.
The 2013 7th-round pick earned two call-ups to the Panthers this year and went on to play in his first 3 NHL games in the final week of the season.
At his best, Weegar projects to be a second- or third-pair offensive defenseman with an ability to quarterback a power play. The Panthers have made clear their intentions to give him and other young players a chance to make the big club next season.
Adam Wilcox (G) – The Panthers’ newest goaltending prospect is sure to ink a new deal with the team in the near future after impressing down the stretch with the Thunderbirds.
Acquired in a trade deadline deal in February that sent veteran AHL goaltender Mike McKenna to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The 24-year old Wilcox went on to post a 7-4-1 record, 3 shutouts, a 0.932 save percentage, and a 2.02 goals-against average in 13 appearances following the trade. He allowed 2 or fewer goals a total of 8 times and made 30 or more stops on 3 different occasions.
As of now, Wilcox is penciled in as the Thunderbirds’ starter for next season, although with Sam Montembeault joining the pro ranks, it’s likely the two could split the duties.
Wilcox is a quick, athletic goaltender and he’s still young so there’s definitely a chance he could become an NHL goaltender in the near future.
Kyle Rau (LW) – Rau has been biding his time in the Panthers organization for a while now.
Drafted in the 3rd round of the 2011 Draft, he’s yet to carve out a spot in the Panthers’ lineup, managing just 3 points in 33 NHL games over the last 2 seasons.
He’s fared slightly better in the AHL with the Thunderbirds – and Portland Pirates before that – totaling 58 points in 118 career games but hasn’t shown much of an improvement during that time.
He averaged 0.49 points per game as a rookie in the AHL and saw a modest increase to 0.50 points per game in his second year.
Rau was a consistent point producer at the University of Minnesota but has struggled to find a groove at the pro level despite the fact that his style of play fits in very well.
The Panthers’ desire for more grit in the lineup may create another opportunity for Rau in the bottom-6, but if he’s unable to crack the roster once again, he’ll be put right back in the AHL.
Reece Scarlett (D) – Scarlett is another young, experienced player the Panthers’ acquired at the 2017 trade deadline.
The Panthers sent Shane Harper to the New Jersey Devils at the end of February in exchange for the 24-year old puck-moving defenseman.
Scarlett tallied a goal in his first and only game for the Thunderbirds on March 3rd before missing the final 19 games of the season with an undisclosed injury.
He has recorded at least 20 points in each of his four AHL seasons, including a career high 26 during the 2015-16 campaign.
There does seem to be some upside in Scarlett, especially when it comes to providing offense from the backend, and it’s entirely possible that he turns in to a depth defender down the road with some more time at the pro level.
Considering there could be a graduation or two from the Thunderbirds’ defensive core, it couldn’t hurt to re-up him.
In addition to that, the Thunderbirds will need a veteran presence on defense with some younger guys will be looking to take the next step.
Chase Balisy (C) – Over the past few years, Balisy has proven to be a very solid AHL player.
He managed to supply most of the Thunderbirds’ offense this season and played in just about all situations for them. Balisy was one of the few constants for a team that was torn apart by injuries and NHL recalls.
The Thunderbirds often struggled to put the puck in the net this year and will need more than a couple experienced forwards that can produce offensively.
It should be a no-brainer to bring the 25-year old back on a cheap two-way deal to help keep the Panthers’ training camp and AHL affiliate competitive.
The Panthers signed him to a 2-year contract back in 2015 and he could very well return in a similar fashion this summer.
Graham Black (C) – Acquired in a trade with the Devils just over a year ago as a way to shed the contract of Marc Savard, Graham Black was an incredibly reliable player in his injury-shortened first season with the Panthers’ AHL affiliate.
A 5th-round draft pick of the Devils in 2012, Black suffered a broken wrist just a month into his 3rd pro campaign. He returned 2 months later before missing the final 10 games of the season with another injury.
Black was, without a doubt, one of the Thunderbirds’ best penalty killers and one of their most defensively-responsible forwards.
He’s not a consistent offensive threat, recording just 8 points in 33 games, but played an important role in Springfield’s bottom-6, and was sorely missed when he sat out with injury.
As long as Black is healthy, it shouldn’t be a difficult decision to tender him a new contract.
Michael Sgarbossa (C) – As a depth option, Sgarbossa deserves another deal with the Panthers.
The 24-year center was acquired in a deal that sent Logan Shaw to the Anaheim Ducks in mid-November, and he quickly impressed with the Panthers’ AHL affiliate, posting 12 points in 14 games in a top-6 role.
Aleksander Barkov went down with an injury in December and Sgarbossa was called upon to step into the Panthers’ bottom-6.
He went on to record 7 points, including his first NHL goal, in 29 games with the big club and looked to be serviceable player at times.
Odds are he won’t be too much more than a top AHL talent, which benefits the Thunderbirds, but could turn in quality NHL minutes if needed in a pinch.
Steven Hodges (C) – Hodges is one of those rare cases where the team has to move on because they really have no other choice.
A 3rd round draft pick of the Panthers in 2012, Hodges pro career has been ravaged by injuries.
He split his rookie year between the Panthers’ former AHL and ECHL affiliates, the San Antonio Rampage and Cincinnati Cyclones, recording 16 points in 51 total games.
It was downhill from there as he suffered an injury that required surgery prior to the 2015-16 season and wasn’t able to see any game action until the second half.
He suited up for 8 games with the ECHL’s Manchester Monarchs, tallying 6 points in 8 games and 0 points in 6 games with the AHL’s Portland Pirates before sitting out the rest of the season.
The 23-year old missed the entire 2016-17 season with an undisclosed injury, and now that his contract is up, it likely won’t be renewed.
Hodges showed flashes of potential but was never able to stay healthy long enough to make something of himself at the pro level.
Colin Stevens (G) – After a decent first season in the ECHL last year, Colin Stevens took a nosedive.
Signed to a 2-year deal in 2015 after a dominant NCAA career at Union College, Stevens was once a promising goaltender, but he struggled to attain the same numbers he posted as a rookie.
The ECHL’s Manchester Monarchs loaned him to the Tulsa Oilers where he played most of the season and finished with a goals-against average above 3.00 and a sub-.900 save percentage.
With Evan Cowley and Sam Montembeault both making the jump to the pro level this coming season, the Panthers are probably better off focusing their developmental efforts on them.
Sam Brittain, who’s an unrestricted free-agent this year, could also return, and that would mean even less of a reason to bring Stevens back.