Expansion Draft Preview: Florida Panthers

This is one in a continuing series of articles outlining the options available to the Seattle Kraken during the 2021 NHL Expansion Draft. To learn more about the draft, please see our Expansion Draft Primer.

Check out articles like this one for every NHL team on our Expansion Draft Previews page.

Dale Tallon can’t catch a break. Twice now he has taken over the reigns of a team gasping its last breath, drafted and traded his way to a competitive roster, brought in Joel Quenneville as head coach to shape the team into a winner, then gotten canned mere weeks before the team starts racing up the standings — with his successor getting the credit for the change in fortunes.

I’m not a big fan of the guy, and some of his trades and signings defy all logic; but you have to feel for him, he has horrible luck.

The first team he turned from a decades-long laughing stock into a 3-time Stanley Cup Champion was, of course, the Chicago Blackhawks. More recently he was at the reins of the Florida Panthers before ceding his General Manager title to former player-agent Bill Zito this past September. The Panthers are 2nd in the Central Division at the moment, a mere 2 points behind first-place Carolina, and have just secured a spot in the playoffs. I’m sure Tallon is proud of his work, watching from his living room.

Which is not to say that Zito has been sitting on his hands. Among a flurry of activity in preparation for the latest season, he signed wayward winger Anthony Duclair to a 1-year deal; and just acquired previously disgruntled Calgary forward Sam Bennett from the Flames ahead of the trade deadline. Both are proving to be genius moves: Duclair leads the team in plus-minus while posting 26 points; Bennett is 4 + 3 = 7 in just 6 games for the Cats while amassing a plus-8 rating. Clearly these two lost puppies have found a home.

But what will the addition of Duclair and Bennett, and the departure of forward Brett Connolly, do to the way Zito approaches the expansion draft? From all indications, he has some tough decisions ahead.

Risk Versus Reward

All around the league NHL general managers are faced with expansion draft decisions that echo basically the same theme: youth and potential, or age and experience? Add into that the flat-cap conundrum the league finds itself grappling with and the decision takes on an additional dimension: young and cheap with potential, or older and expensive with experience? Florida is not immune from these quandaries.

To wit: Patric Hornqvist is 34 years old, has a $5.3 million cap hit, and is signed for another 2 years. He has 814 NHL games under his belt, in which he has put up over 500 points and amassed a cumulative plus-83 rating. He has 90 games of playoff experience, with 46 points to show for it. His possession metrics are above average for his career. But the question remains: does Bill Zito protect Hornqvist, and expose one of the Panthers’ younger players? Or leave Hornqvist exposed, hoping to keep him, but thankful for the added cap space if he gets chosen by Seattle?

In many cases across the league, the decisions is easier because the aging veteran is on the decline. That’s not the case with Hornqvist. He’s fourth on the team in scoring, his possession metrics this year are above his already high career average, and he’s clobbering it on the Panthers’ #1 power play unit: 8 goals, 4 assists, and counting.

There is the secondary question of trying to predict Seattle’s intentions: will they be selecting players with Hornqvist’s profile — over age 32 with a multi-year, $5+ million contract — or can Florida safely leave Hornqvist exposed, betting on the Kraken to look for a younger, cheaper option? That has to be part of Bill Zito’s thinking when making this decision, but with Hornqvist’s play of late I believe he’d be playing with fire leaving him exposed — especially if he wants a seasoned veteran like Hornqvist around to help guide his otherwise young(-ish) team through the playoffs.

So the question becomes: when you look at the players who could potentially be exposed instead of Hornqvist, do any of those players have better numbers in the recent past; and do any of them possess the potential to be what Hornqvist is in the upcoming two seasons? In this case it’s pretty cut and dried — Hornqvist will likely get a protection slot, because the forwards who will be left exposed just don’t measure up.

Protected List

Florida doesn’t have enough must-protect defensemen, so the assumption that they will use the 7-3-1 protection scheme is pretty safe. We have factored in performance, age, salary, and other factors in making up the list below; but also taken the measure of Florida media sources to get some perspective from people who follow the team in depth.

With that in mind, we believe the following players will be protected from the Florida Panthers:

Forwards: Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau (NMC), Patric Hornqvist, Sam Bennett, Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, Juho Lammikko

Defensemen: Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle (NMC), MacKenzie Weegar

Goaltender: Sergei Bobrovsky (NMC)

There was a fair amount of chatter in the early part of the season about Keith Yandle, having fallen out of favor with head coach Joel Quenneville, and potentially starting the season as a healthy scratch. Injuries to his teammates prevented that from happening — keeping Yandle’s Iron Man streak alive, now over 900 games dating back more than a decade — and his performance this season would likely indicate that his doghouse days should be over. I expect that if the request were made for him to waive his NMC the response would likely start with “Go” and end with “yourself”. So there’s that.

We will mention here that several roster players on the Panthers will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season, and as such are unlikely to be either protected by Florida or selected by Seattle. Those names include forward Alex Wennberg and defenseman Brandon Montour. Additionally, numerous youngsters who are making an impact this season for the Panthers are exempt from the draft: forwards Nikita Gusev, Aleksi Heponiemi, Grigori Denisenko, and Owen Tippett; defenseman Matt Kiersted; and goaltender Spencer Knight.

Who’s Left?

Looking first at the forwards, you won’t find a Patric Hornqvist among them.

LW Frank Vatrano, $2.533 million AAV, signed through 2022. “Frankie V” is an opportunistic scorer with terrific acceleration and a deceptive, accurate wrist shot. He’s a persistent forechecker, and spends a lot of time in the dirty areas. He plays huge minutes on the penalty kill, as well as when opponents have pulled their goaltender. I haven’t done the math, but I would be willing to bet that nearly a quarter of Vatrano’s goals are either empty-netters or shorties. He’s a great option for a shut-down line, but a goal-per-game performance with the AHL Providence Bruins in 2015-16 indicates he can be more than that. Not point-per-game, goal-per-game. If there is a contender for a protection slot ahead of Hornqvist, Vatrano is it.

C/RW Noel Acciari, $1.667 million AAV, signed through 2022. Acciari’s career performance came last season, notching 20 goals in his first year with the Panthers following his time with the Boston Bruins. He has reverted to the mean this year, with just 11 points over 37 games, though he has improved dramatically in the face-off department. Acciari is a utility forward, bottom-six, and doesn’t project any higher than that.

C Lucas Wallmark, $950,000 AAV, RFA. Wait, what? Wallmark? Didn’t we already talk about him? Yes, we did. Wallmark came over from the Blackhawks just three weeks ago. He’s a milquetoast option at best, but he’ll get more than a passing look from the Kraken because — yes, here we go again — he was drafted by Carolina and Ron Francis signed him to his first NHL contract.

LW Mason Marchment, $700,000 AAV, signed through 2022. The 6’4″, 209 lb. son of NHL defenseman Bryan Marchment hasn’t been able to stay with the big club since turning pro. He was never drafted, fought his way up through the minors, and did have a couple of respectable seasons with the Toronto Marlies. But the fact that he’s 25 and has yet to find a permanent NHL roster spot tells me he likely never will.

On defense, the choices are as varied as a Sunday morning brunch buffet.

RD Anton Stralman, $5.5 million AAV, signed through 2022. The best years are behind Stralman, after stints with the Maple Leafs, Blue Jackets, Rangers, Lightning, and now Panthers. He plays a smart, stay-at-home style game, but his numbers are slipping and injuries have limited his play the last 3 seasons. There is no debate about protecting him like there would be with Hornqvist; Florida wouldn’t mind seeing him get selected. Seattle should not accommodate them.

RD Markus Nutivaara, $2.7 million AAV, signed through 2022. Not big, not flashy, but a heads-up defenseman who takes care of his own zone. He will occasionally pinch up-ice, either on the rush or sneaking in on an open wing, but rarely gets caught out of position. 6’1″, 187 lbs., he’ll be 27 years old when the season starts in the fall.

RD Radko Gudas, $2.5 million AAV, signed through 2023. 528 NHL games, 1,866 hits. That’s not a typo.

LD Gustav Forsling, $700,000 AAV, RFA. Forsling broke into the league with Chicago, but rotated in and out of the lineup for 3 years as the “7th defenseman”. He spent all of last year in the AHL before being picked up by Florida in the off-season. That minor league stint may have served as a wake-up call for the 24-year-old Swedish defenseman; his point production is up, and his plus-minus is out of the red for the first time in 3 years.

There has also been talk about Seattle selecting goaltender Chris Driedger in the expansion draft. The 26-year-old has had a long, difficult road to the NHL — playing a half-season in the ECHL just two years ago — but is in the midst of his second solid year with Florida backing up Sergei Bobrovsky. Driedger is an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, which suggests that Seattle won’t use their choice in the expansion draft to select him. But if the Kraken are disappointed with their options in net when the draft comes to an end, they can always pursue him in free agency.

Better Than Most

The Florida Panthers have positioned themselves in such a way that none of the players they must leave exposed are irreplaceable. This makes it highly unlikely that there will be a deal between the Panthers and the Kraken, all things being equal. What you see is what you get, and the options that Florida has on offer are actually better than Seattle will see from most teams.

Arguably either Vatrano or Nutivaara are serviceable, if not game-changing players with just one year left on their contracts, and neither of them will break the bank. Vatrano would be a solid choice for a third line winger, and Nutivaara could slot into either the middle or bottom pairing, and provide some defensive zone stability plus a few points here and there.

You can get a peek at Vatrano, Nutivaara, and the rest of the Panthers as they take on the Chicago Blackhawks tonight. Game time is 5:00pm Pacific on NBCSN.

Author: Tim Currell

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