With Panthers seeking upgrade, expect changes at wing
JUN 07, 2014 11:33a ET
With Florida overstocked at the center position and in desperate need of goal scorers, the position most likely to see a great shift is wing.
The Panthers have several options to fill the need.
Florida GM Dale Tallon is open to trading the top pick in this year's NHL Draft to land a top-six forward -- and word is he has received several legitimate offers. In a best-case scenario, Tallon can move the pick and get some assets, drop down a few spots and still select a top winger such as Leon Draisaitl, Kasperi Kapanen, Michael Dal Colle or William Nylander.
In a worse-case scenario, the Panthers fail to pick up assets in a draft-day trade and end up keeping the pick. That puts more pressure on Tallon to come through during the free agency period, when scoring wingers such as Tomas Vanek, Marian Gaborik and Matt Moulson may be inked.
The problem is, Florida has six wings under contract and one restricted free agent -- Jimmy Hayes -- expected to be re-signed. There's also the need to re-sign unrestricted free agent Krys Barch, who fills Florida's much-needed enforcer role.
A complete overhaul is unlikely, although with few roster spots to be filled and upgrades desperately needed, expect this summer to become the offseason where the core veterans Tallon signed in 2011 end up being moved elsewhere.
Jonathan Huberdeau, 21: The 2013 Calder Trophy winner struggled mightily in his sophomore season, but the Panthers see this as more of an anomaly than the norm. By the end of the year, Huberdeau found himself on Florida's third line. The positive is his defensive play improved under Peter Horachek, but at the expense of providing the offense Florida sorely lacked. The trick next season is for Huberdeau to find a way to get back on the scoresheet more often, and a new coach might provide the spark and system to get the most out of Florida's top pick in 2011.
Brad Boyes, 32: A last-minute signing before the season, Boyes proved invaluable on offense. He led Florida in goals with 21, his highest output since registering 33 with the St. Louis Blues in 2008-09. Boyes also gave Florida a much-needed shootout specialist as the winger went 6 for 10 with a pair of game-deciding goals. The Panthers rewarded Boyes with a two-year extension in March. The veteran showed the ability to click with either of Florida's top centers -- Nick Bjugstad and Alexsander Barkov. If he can rekindle that chemistry, there is reason to think Boyes can improve upon his offensive output next season.
Sean Bergenheim, 30: After close to a year and a half of not playing hockey due to injuries, Bergenheim showed, when healthy, he is a key catalyst in Florida's lineup. The Finn matched his career-best 29 points and fell one goal shy of matching his career-high 17 from two seasons ago. Like Boyes, Bergenheim worked well with both Bjugstad and Barkov, filling the role of a grinding winger willing to muck it up in the corners on the top line. As long as the winger can stay healthy, he is another player who could be poised for a bigger year playing alongside Florida's more mature centermen.
Tomas Kopecky, 32: The veteran's offensive production dropped significantly from 2012-13. Unlike during the lockout-shortened season, when injuries put more pressure on Kopecky to produce as a top-six forward, the winger returned to his traditional checking role last season. Though he struggled in the first half of the season, Kopecky was named to Slovakian Olympic team -- which turned into a nightmare for Florida. He sustained a concussion in the second game of the tournament which kept him out for the remainder of the season. Kopecky may not put up stunning numbers, but as his absence showed, his leadership, work ethic and versatility to fill any role are invaluable to the Panthers.
Scottie Upshall, 30: After two injury-plagued years with Florida, Upshall managed to stay healthy last season and showed exactly why Tallon pursued the winger as a free agent in 2011. The veteran finished second in team scoring with 37 points and at times sported an 'A'. Part of the breakout could be attributed to then-coach Peter Horachek, who was key in Upshall's development with the Nashville Predators. But with Horachek gone, the question is whether last year was the result of positive factors coming together, or hopefully, a wake-up call for the vet.
Tomas Fleischmann, 30: Two seasons removed from a breakout year, Fleischmann posted the lowest numbers of his career in which he played a full season. The Panthers tried everything to get more production out of the Czech, from using him in different line combinations to giving him a role at the point on the power play. Nothing worked. With the post-lockout amnesty buyouts set to expire this year, Fleischman could be one player the Panthers consider cutting ties with. His contract is literally immovable -- Fleischmann will make $4.5 million next season and has a no-movement clause. Granted, Florida has plenty of cash to spend, but the issue is roster space. Tallon knows some of the Panthers' highly touted prospects will need to shift to wing, and if Florida brings in a top-six winger via the draft, Fleischmann seems to be the obvious odd man out.
IN THE SYSTEM
Quinton Howden, 22: Though listed as a center, Howden spent a good chunk of time playing wing during his call-ups the past two seasons. His numbers have been average over the past two seasons with San Antonio (AHL). At the NHL level, though, he picked up six points in 16 games last season and provided blazing speed on the wing. Depending on how Florida's offseason unfolds, Howden could find himself competing for a job out of camp. The more likely scenario is that he continues to ply his trade in the minors for at least another season. It is also possible Howden becomes one of the top prospects Tallon is willing to part with in a trade.
Logan Shaw, 21: A prolific scorer with Quebec (QMJHL), Shaw split time between San Antonio and Cincinnati (ECHL) in his first pro season. His numbers at both levels were average at the AHL level (eight points in 46 games with the Rampage), but solid in the ECHL (18 points in 20 games with the Cyclones). With Cincinnati battling for the Kelly Cup, Shaw has upped his game, picking up a pair goals in four Finals games. Florida's third-round pick in 2011, the winger will likely spend the majority of next season at the AHL level.
Jimmy Hayes, 24 (RFA): Like defenseman Dylan Olsen and center Brandon Pirri, Hayes found a home and role in Florida after he was unable to crack a stacked Chicago Blackhawks lineup. Buoyed by a new opportunity, Hayes started off well, with four goals and an assist in his first 18 games despite being limited to fourth-line minutes. But his production dried up in December and January. Upon returning from the Olympic break, Horachek found the perfect spot for the 6-foot-6, 221-pound Hayes -- in front of the net. Taking on the role of screen on power plays and offensive chances, Hayes ended up with seven goals and six assists during the final two months. Expect Hayes to be qualified and possibly signed to a short-term deal as Florida tries to develop the winger into the next Tomas Holmstrom.
Krys Barch, 34 (UFA): Re-acquired by Florida last September, Barch filled the need for toughness. The winger found himself a healthy scratch as much as he played, but the winger never griped about the role. Teammates are complimentary about Barch's leadership in the locker room and bench, as well as his drive to stick up for teammates. In the past, Florida has lacked toughness, but with young, developing stars on the ice, it has no choice but to provide them with protection. Barch can do that. It seems there is a desire on both sides to get a deal done and bring Barch back for another season.
Jesse Winchester, 30 (UFA): Signed as a free agent last July, Winchester proved to be a valuable pickup on several levels. Aside from the occasional contribution, the winger picked up 18 points in an injury-shortened 52 games and logged an average of 1:54 in shorthanded time on ice. Like Bergenheim, he proved to be a gritty catalyst on Florida's third line. As a role player, its easy to see Winchester returning to Florida. But there is also the possibility with Florida seeking upgrades through free agency, there may not be a roster spot for Winchester to return to.
Bobby Butler, 27 (UFA): Acquired from Nashville for defenseman T.J. Brennan last June, Butler led the Rampage in scoring with 22 goals and 25 assists in 69 games. But he only received a call up at season's end, skating in two games for Florida. Given his performance at the AHL level, one has to think Florida would like the former Hobey Baker finalist back in the fold to guide the Cats' youth. But it is also possible he'll look to take advantage of the free agent market, perhaps with a team willing to give him more of a shot at the NHL level.
Joey Crabb, 31 (UFA): Crabb spent the majority of the season in San Antonio. He posted 29 points in 62 games with the Rampage, his best effort since recording 53 in 2009-10 with Chicago (AHL). He appeared in nine games with Florida, registering one assist. If Crabb re-signs, it would likely be for depth at the minor-league level.