SUNRISE, Fla. — Vincent Viola has incredible timing.
The Florida Panthers owner said this past week he would commit to making the franchise a cap team, ultimately opening up the wallet for GM Dale Tallon to bring in high-priced talent and build a winner.
It just so happens four of the NHL’s top unrestricted free agents — the New York Islanders’ Thomas Vanek and the San Jose Sharks’ Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle — are in town to play Florida this week.
It can only be positive for Tallon to be in the mindset that putting effort into scouting these players will not be a pipe dream. Come July, working to lure such players to Florida will be reality.
”We try not to look too far ahead, talk about next year,” Panthers coach Peter Horachek said. ”There are still goals we want to accomplish this year, but that certainly gives us tools and resources to build and do what you need to do to make the team better.”
It helps that Florida has been in the spotlight lately. The Cats have gone 10-6-2 since December. Top rookies such as Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad are drawing attention. And Tuesday, the franchise was selected to host the 2015 NHL Entry Draft.
”It can make it more of a destination for more of the guys who want to come here,” Brian Campbell said. ”I think we have a good foundation now. But we have to get better and need to expand on that. Obviously we need to always entertain the thought of looking at adding more skill to our lineup.”
As it stands, Florida is projected to finish the season with close to $14 million in cap space — most among all NHL teams. Excluding players in the minors, only nine forwards and three defensemen are under contract for 2014-15.
The Panthers will have to set aside money to re-sign restricted free agents Erik Gudbranson, Dylan Olsen, Dmitry Kulikov and Jimmy Hayes. Beyond those commitments, the Panthers could easily trump their 2011 offseason spending spree.
But players don’t have to exclusively come through free agency. Tallon could make a splash at the trade dealine to pick up long-term help from teams desperate to shed contract for cap space, much in the way the Chicago Blackhawks unloaded Campbell and his $7 million-a-year contract for the underachieving Rostislav Olesz.
There’s also the possibility of draft day moves, trying to acquire negotiating rights to unrestricted free agents who appear headed for the market or restricted free agents unwilling to re-sign with teams.
”I think you need to spend money wisely,” Campbell said. ”I don’t think being a cap team is going to make us a successful team. It would definitely help to have the resources for Dale to make moves that he needs to make and help us get better. That money obviously needs to be spent wisely, and on the right guys, too.”
So with money to be spent and clear needs to be filled, who are potential targets worth keeping an eye on?
THOMAS VANEK, LW, 29: Florida needs goal scorers and there is no better pure goal scorer available this summer than Vanek. A two-time 40-goal scorer, the winger has the type of skillset that, paired with Barkov or Bjugstad, could give Florida its most prolific offensive star since Pavel Bure. Bjugstad, who trains with the University of Minnesota alum during the offseason, said he might have to sell the benefits of playing in Florida to Vanek. ”I could give him a few chirps this summer and let him know,” Bjugstad said.
MARIAN GABORIK, RW, 31: Gaborik could step in and be as effective as Vanek, albeit with more speed. A seven-time 30-goal scorer, he boasts incredible stickhandling skills and a quick release. There are two drawbacks to Gaborik, however. He tends to be injury prone and at times strays away from a team game. The latter may be the biggest issue, though, especially with Horachek insisting on all players buy into a team-first system.
DANY HEATLEY, RW, 32: Heatley has scored, at minimum, 39 goals in six of his 11 seasons. But since joining the Minnesota Wild his production has tailed off. Is it that Heatley has lost his scoring touch? Or did he end up in a system that is not suited to his style of play? Either way, it would be surprising if he re-signed with Minnesota, especially since the Wild are close to the cap and nearly used a compliance buyout last summer. With the exception of his stint with the Wild, the winger always seems to thrive when given a fresh start, and that could prove beneficial to Florida.
DEVIN SETOGUCHI, RW, 27: The quick winger might be one of the more underrated, overlooked free agents this summer, given his decline in offense over the past two seasons in Minnesota and Winnipeg. But his tenure with the San Jose Sharks, in which he earned time alongside Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, shows he can be a threat when paired with the right players. And he also brings a fair amount of playoff experience for someone his age.
JAROME IGINLA, RW, 36: It may be hard to lure Iginla to the Panthers since the winger seems to be in pursuit of a Stanley Cup. But if Tallon were to be able to convince the winger otherwise, he’d bring leadership, toughness and scoring abilities to the Panthers. Iginla is well past his prime, but still capable of providing offense. The winger has two Richard Trophies as the league’s top scorer and 11 30-goal seasons to his credit. He’s only two seasons removed from a 30-goal campaign.
RYAN O’REILLY, C, 22: O’Reilly is this summer’s top restricted free agent. He’s already been through one contract dispute with the Colorado Avalanche in his young career, and the possibility of another may not be worth the franchise’s time. O’Reilly is a two-way center and has a tenacious attitude. He’s strong in the faceoff circle and effective in clutch situations. If contract talks go south with Colorado, he could become a draft day trade target.
DAN GIRARDI, D, 29: Girardi would bring a still young, but experienced defensive defenseman to the Panthers lineup. He’s capable of eating big minutes, and that could be especially helpful in taking the load off Campbell or Florida’s still-developing blueliners. Girardi is not much of an offensive threat, but moves the puck well. He’s a solid penalty killer and plays well against the opposition’s top lines.
RYAN MILLER, G, 33: Through its signing of Tim Thomas this year, Florida showed it won’t be able to contend without solid netminding. Miller is a highly decorated franchise netminder who still has enough years left to be the defensive cornerstone for Florida. He’s played in plenty of high-pressure situations, from the postseason to the Olympics, and has proven extremely durable. Even this season, in which his Buffalo Sabres are among the league’s worst teams, Miller has posted respectable numbers.