How the Florida Panthers’ future became beyond hopeless

How the Florida Panthers’ future went down the drain.

It was just over a year ago the Florida Panthers entered the 2019-20 season with arguably the most optimism the franchise has ever had, only to quickly watch everything go down the drain.

With a new head coach in Joel Quenneville, along with the biggest free agent signing in franchise history with Sergei Bobrovsky’s monstrous $70 million contract over seven years. All eight die-hard Panthers fans were positive the team was heading to the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the season began, and the only consistency Florida displayed was how dramatically inconsistent the club was. One week the Panthers would display the full power of their top-six forwards that featured the likes of Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Vincent Trocheck, and Evgeni Dadonov.

Even the team’s top-four defensemen seemed stable on paper with former first overall pick Aaron Ekblad leading the way, with Keith Yandle, Mike Matheson, and the recently signed Anton Stralman. Stralman, like Bobrovsky, was another high paid offseason signing at $16.5 million over three years.

However, what the Panthers didn’t foresee was how poorly their new $10 million goalie would struggle in his new environment. Bobrovsky had just finished a great year with the Columbus Blue Jackets, where he helped lead them to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in that club’s history. The Panthers were hoping he’d provide similar results but what they got were the lowest save percentage and the highest goals-against average of the goaltender’s career.

With Bobrovsky struggling and the team doing everything possible to ensure they couldn’t be taken as a legitimate playoff threat, general manager Dave Tallon began to panic. He shipped gritty second-line center Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes for a package of players that would walk away in free agency months later.

Trocheck had been struggling, but the 27-year-old was only two years removed from a 75-point season and still had 36 points in 55 games at the time of the trade. Panther players were confused by the trade as he was viewed as a heart and soul guy who left it all on the ice. The trade left a massive hole on the team’s second line that was never filled, and many around the league believed Tallon could have gotten much more in return for Trocheck.

Although Florida earned a berth for the qualifying round of the playoffs, the New York Islanders dismissed them quickly, and the Panthers were sent packing. Tallon was fired not long after and replaced by Bill Zito, who has already done his best to keep up with Tallon in terms of making questionable moves.

Zito traded steady, 26-year-old top-four defenseman Mike Matheson and depth-forward Colton Sceviour for injury-prone, 33-year old winger Patric Hornqvist. This wouldn’t be a bad trade, had this been five years ago before Hornqvist’s body began breaking down, guaranteeing he’d miss at least 20 games a season. However, it’s already a bad trade just featuring the players involved, but it becomes a disastrous trade when Hornqvist’s additional three years at $5.3 million are factored in.

Zito wasn’t done yet, as he chose to hand out grossly overpaid contracts to Radko Gudas at $7.5 million over three years and Mackenzie Weegar at $9.75 over three years. The two right-shot defensemen are third pairing at-best who will now combine to take up $5.75 million a year in cap space as the third pair.

On top of this, the Florida Panthers allowed Evgeni Dadonov to walk in free agency for a very reasonable contract of $15 million over three years. The winger had 70 points two years ago and 65 points three years ago, meaning instead of paying a proven point producer the club drafted, they chose to spend his money on third pairing defensemen.

To make matters worse, Mike Hoffman remains a free agent, and all indications suggest he won’t be returning to Florida either. In his two seasons as a Panther, Hoffman managed to produce 65 goals and 129 points.

It’s been a frightening downfall for the Panthers over the past calendar year, given the club has lost its general manager, entire second line, and a top-four defenseman. The only thing that has been replaced is the general manager, who has only added more damage.

It’s also troubling Florida has nearly $4 million in non-player salary cap fees. They have $500K of salary retained for Jason Demers for one more season, they owe Roberto Luongo $1.09M for two years in recapture penalties after his retirement, and they owe $2.33 million to Scott Darling this coming season due to his buyout, and then an additional $1.183 million the following two seasons.

The one bright side for the Panthers is they have two of the best contracts in the league on their books with Barkov and Huberdeau. Both have matching cap hits of $5.9 million for the next two seasons before Barkov becomes a free agent. To have a pair of potential 90-point players, each earning less than $6 million, is absurd by comparison to what that level of production earns across the league.

Unfortunately for Barkov and Huberdeau, they won’t be getting any help any time soon as with the exception of Ekblad, every other player on the Panthers roster making $5 million or more is at least 32-years old or older and features multiple years remaining on their deals, essentially making them impossible to trade.

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A year ago, the Florida Panthers looked like a potential playoff team on the rise. Now they look like a franchise holding two of the best young players in the league hostage on a hopeless roster.