Having had a holiday from hockey I now feel ready to dig in to and continue this hockey blog about the Florida Panthers. It’s been a busy time for the Cats and the Assistant General Manager Randy Sexton. After Jacques Martin skipped the ship, to take up the Head Coaching job with the Habs, Sexton has been left with a real tangled mess to try to sort out. So let’s sum up and take a look at what moves he has done so far:
May 29th: Panthers sign G Alexander Sálak
Before Jacques signed off with the Panthers he made a move for, and signed, goalie prospect Alexander Sálak from TPS Turku of the Finnish League. The 22-year old goalie was signed to an entry level contract. The previously undrafted prospect played 53 games last season for TPS, posting a 2.40 GAA and .923 save percentage.
June: Panthers Development Camp in Toronto
One of Randy Sexton’s first priorities, when stepping in to Martin’s shoes, was to talk to the agents of restricted and unrestricted free agents Bouwmeester and Booth. While those attempts may have stolen most of the pundits’ attention, Randy also took time to visit the Panthers’ Development Camp – held in Toronto, Canada. He was quoted as expressing himself as very impressed with a trio of youngsters: Michal Repik, Keaton Ellerby and Michael Frolik. Whilst Frolik has already burst through the NHL scene, Sexton’s comments could also be seen as foreboding the imminent breakthrough of Repik and Ellerby on the big scene as well. Later Sexton also mentioned that D Jason Garrison could be ready to push for a place in the Panthers’ squad.
June 19th: Steven Reinprecht signed to 3-year deal
Randy Sexton’s first major move was for pending UFA Steven Reinprecht of the Phoenix Coyotes. The Panthers gave away the rights to Stefan Meyer, who was one of the leading scorers in Florida’s Rochester farm team last season, and in return received the exclusive negotiating rights to the veteran center Reinprecht. Steven was then quickly tied to a 3-year deal. The 33-year old will bring a wealth of Stanley Cup experience after having tasted glory with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001. To the Panthers he also adds some competition for the center slots of the team. Described as a high character (was assistant captain in Phoenix) and hard working player, Sexton will be hoping that Steven can help the Cats win a few more face-offs while also injecting some speed into the team.
June 26th: NHL Entry Draft in Montreal; Day One
With the spectacle that is the Entry Draft underway in Montreal last Friday, people were expecting plenty of pending moves to be announced. However, with the notable exception of the blockbuster move of Chris Pronger to Philadelphia from Anaheim, it turned out to be a quiet occasion. Not even Jay Bouwmeester’s name was read by the commissioner – to most people’s surprise.
NY Islanders sealed John Tavares with their top pick and Tampa Bay sealed much needed blueline talent in the form of the giant puck moving Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman with the #2 pick. Matt Duchene went third; to his favorite team the Colorado Avalanche. These were of course the “Big Three” names of the draft and the selection of them went pretty much the way everyone had expected.
Expected to go higher in the draft was the talented puck moving Russian defenseman Dmitry Kulikov (Ranked #11). Many analysts projected him to go among the top ten and it must have come as quite a surprise to Randy Sexton that the talented defenseman was still around when it was time for the Panthers to pick at #14. Teams had been scared off Dmitry due to the “Russian factor”, that is the fear that a Russian player might leave for the KHL without compensation – now or in the future, but Sexton and chief scout Scott Luce knew a steal when they saw one and selected the defenseman with their first round pick (14th overall).
Scott’s verdict of Kulikov was summed up in four words: “Smart, driven, determined and passionate”. In addition to this, the player himself has been said his lifelong dream was to play in the NHL, and for a Russian to come to Florida to live and work – it surely is a dream move in more than one way. In fact, he might even be plying his trade here in South Florida this coming autumn already. Scott Luce at least seems to think he has that kind of immediate upside. At the very least he’ll be given a fair chance to make an immediate impact this coming season.
The last year Kulikov has been playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) and won the Rookie of the Year Award after scoring 62 points (12 goals) for Drummondville. Drummondville’s assistant coach Danny Brooks said about Dmitry: “He could’ve made life easy and stayed in Yaroslavl Locomotiv and been a superstar in the KHL. But his dream is to play in the NHL and bring his family from Russia to North America….He’s a North American player who happens to have a Russian last name.”
June 27th: NHL Entry Draft in Montreal; Day Two
Jay Bouwmeester was finally put out of his misery here in South Florida and was traded to the Calgary Flames for their 3rd Round Pick in this year’s draft and the rights to pending UFA Jordan Leopold (D). Since then Bo has signed a 5-year deal with the Flames worth #6.68 million a year and he seems happy enough to be back in Alberta, Canada. The Cats has of yet, not been able to tie down Leopold to any deal, but are hoping Keith Ballard’s old collage buddy and golf partner – will want to partner Keith on the ice as well. We’ll see I guess…
As the actual day two of the draft got underway, the Panthers selected Drew Shore from the United States National Team Development Program. The 6-2, 200 pound center, was ranked at #28, and expected to go in the first round. But the Cats managed to nab him at #44 instead. The upside for Florida is that they get a solid, big center prospect; who also just happens to be American. This could be a very good steal by Sexton and Luce.
Thanks to the Bo trade the Cats also had a third round selection to make. With the #67 pick Florida grabbed C/RW Josh Birkholz from Fargo Force. The 6-1, 182 pound winger, is currently taking classes at the University of Minnesota and working out with Keith Ballard. It seems the Panthers may soon need to start paying Ballard some extra money for all the networking, on behalf of the organization, that he seems to be doing… Anyway, with Birkholz the Cats get another solid American prospect to swell to the current ranks.
Randy Sexton however felt the Panthers needed to further enlarge that contingent of prospects and moved to secure Los Angeles’ 4th (#107) and 5th (#138) Round selections in this year’s draft – in exchange for a 3rd Round pick in 2010.
With those picks the Panthers selected two more forwards; LW Garrett Wilson (#107), a gritty winger from Owen Sound, and C Wade Megan (#138), who’ll attend Boston University this spring – after graduating from a boarding school in Connecticut.
In between those picks, also in the fifth-round, the Cats selected C Corban Knight (#135), an offensive centerman that will attend the University of North Dakota this coming season – after having led all rookies in scoring in the Alberta Junior Hockey League this previous campaign.
Last, but not least, the Panthers selected 19-year old C Scott Timmins in the 6th Round (#165). Timmins is a player Coach Peter DeBoer knows well from his Kitchener days and scout Scott Luce believes the player is one to step up and turn pro immediately. Timmins is a good skater that won back-to-back Memorial Cups for Kitchener and Windsor.
June 30th: The Day before Free Agency
With the onset of free agency the Panthers organization, and Assistant (now inter-rim) GM Randy Sexton in particular, are by necessity going to be very active. It started on the 29th already as C Brett McLean was placed on unconditional waivers. Brett had a miserable season last year and his $1.7 million contract is now up in the air. Question is: If no one takes McLean on waivers; will his contract be bought out? In such case the Panthers would be on the hook for two-thirds of the remaining amount of the deal.
Janis Spukts, the Latvian center that played in Rochester last year, went public with his frustrations and has now been released to play in Europe instead. Other current Rochester players that were pending RFA’s and have not been handed any offers so far include: Drew Larman, Tanner Glass, Franklin MacDonald and David Shantz. Current Panthers player Steve Eminger, acquired on last trade deadline, hasn’t either been offered any qualifying deal.
Sexton however admits that he’d like to re-sign a couple of these players, including Glass and Eminger, but didn’t want to sign them before free agency. In Steve’s case it is due to the fact that he played so many games with the Lightning last season that his qualifying salary would be too juicy for Florida. Instead they are willing to take their chances with him as a pending free agent.
Two pending RFA players that have been offered qualifying offers are Panthers star David Booth and prospect David Brine. Booth will be up for a considerable pay-rise and has expressed his willingness to sign a long-term deal with the organization. And since the departure of Bouwmeester; he is now set to be the face of the franchise and a deal should be able to be sorted out before long.
Of the pending UFA’s Richard Zednik has already signed a deal that will take him to Russia’s KHL next season, whilst Nick Boynton is set to be released. Nick has a big contract and since his falling-out with Coach DeBoer has not been seen as a player with a future within the organization.
Of the other free agents that Sexton has expressed an interest in re-signing, we find veterans such as Karlis Skrastins, Ville Peltonen and Radek Dvorak. Whether or not this trio of players will be re-signed for next season – will largely come down to what their wage demands will be. It will perhaps also depend on whether the Panthers are able to compete for the signatures of any quality free agents available elsewhere. Likely is that one or two of these players will return to the fold next season; seeing as they all have been instrumental in Florida’s largely successful penalty-kill unit this previous campaign and seem settled in the area.
A couple of other players that will be UFA’s are Anthony Stewart, after he was not handed any qualifying offer and Craig Anderson. It seems unlikely either will re-sign with the Panthers, but it’s still a possibility for both. Anthony didn’t develop in the way the organization had hoped and may need to find pastures new for the coming campaign. In Craig’s case the opposite is true and he now feels ready for a starting gig in net and with Vokoun still with the Cats – he won’t get that here. If he fails to land that move however; then he may consider re-signing for Florida, but it seems very unlikely at the moment.
It will be an interesting next few days and much of the suspense will be to see what Randy Sexton and the Panthers do about their free agents and whether or not they can compete on the market for the plentiful plethora of skilled free agents available. It also remains to be seen if Randy is given the confidence to be take the reigns full time as GM – or if a new face will be brought in for the job. What happens over the next week is likely to settle both those questions…