Five questions facing the Florida Panthers this offseason

The Florida Panthers took a big step forward this season, but there’s plenty of ground to be covered before they reach the finish line.

When the regular season concluded earlier this month, the Panthers stood alone as the most-improved team in the league, but even a 25-point improvement did little to ease the pain of falling short of the playoffs. 

"We’re still really disappointed because we think we had a good enough team that if we got to the playoffs we’d make some noise," captain Willie Mitchell said following Florida’s exit meetings. "Part of that is learning when you fall short like that. It’s kind of what drives you to get over that hump."

It’s hard to say what the Panthers will need to get over that hump, but it’s clear that the organization is certainly on the right track.

Here are five questions surrounding the Panthers this offseason:

HOW ACTIVE WILL THE PANTHERS BE IN FREE AGENCY?

The Panthers were one of the most active teams in free agency last summer, signing six players to multi-year deals on July 1 alone. This offseason, however, it’s looking more and more likely the Panthers could stand pat.

With forwards Scottie Upshall and Tomas Kopecky as the only unrestricted free agents on the roster, the Panthers will have only a few spots to fill this offseason and are expected to promote from within rather than seek outside help. Forward prospects Quinton Howden, Rocco Grimaldi and Garrett Wilson are just a few names prepared to compete for these spots in training camp and each will be given every opportunity to crack the lineup.

More Florida Panthers news

If the Panthers do sign any free agents, it’ll likely be to add depth to their minor-league affiliate in San Antonio rather than to replenish the NHL club.

WILL JIMMY HAYES AND THE PANTHERS AVOID ARBITRATION AGAIN?

It appeared Hayes was all but guaranteed to take the Panthers to arbitration last summer before a last minute deal was struck on the eve of the scheduled hearing. Hayes, who registered 11 goals and 18 points in 2013-14, received a one-year, $925,000 contract and a chance to prove his strong offensive showing wasn’t just a flash in the pan.

After netting a career-best 19 goals this season, it’s safe to assume the 25-year-old forward is going to expect a hefty raise. That being said, it doesn’t necessarily mean the Panthers will be eager to invest heavily in the former Boston College standout. With 168 NHL games under his belt, Hayes has yet to establish himself as a reliable player on a game-to-game basis. His career-high 35 points this season were a positive sign in his development, but a handful of healthy scratches and a late-season goal drought also left some room for doubt. At 6-foot-6, 221 pounds, there’s no questioning that has Hayes has all the tools to become a consistently good player, but it’s unclear whether or not the Panthers will be swayed enough by potential to meet his asking price.

WHO WILL BACK UP ROBERTO LUONGO NEXT SEASON?

For the second consecutive season, the Panthers entered the offseason feeling uneasy about their backup goaltender situation. Al Montoya, who was signed last summer after former backup Dan Ellis failed to earn a vote of confidence, posted a 6-7-2 record with a 3.01 goals-against average and .892 save percentage in an overall disappointing first year in Florida. While Montoya does have one year remaining on his two-year deal, the Panthers already showed with Ellis, who played the majority of this season in the AHL, that they have no problem demoting an underperforming backup.

Also working against Montoya is the fact that several prominent backups are destined for free agency this summer such as Jonas Gustavsson, Jhonas Enroth and Michal Neuvirth. While all three would be an upgrade over Montoya on paper, I don’t expect the Panthers to give up on the "Big Cubano" so easily. Only a season removed from a career-year with the Winnipeg Jets, Montoya will likely get one more chance to prove himself with the Panthers before the organization hits the panic button.

WILL JONATHAN HUBERDEAU GET A LONG-TERM DEAL?

When the Panthers inked Nick Bjugstad to a six-year extension in December, general manager Dale Tallon hinted that the 22-year-old center would be just the first of several dominos to fall in the near future. Huberdeau, who is scheduled to become a restricted free agent this summer, is that next domino. Coming off a forgettable sophomore campaign, the 2013 Calder Trophy winner led the Panthers in scoring with 54 points in 79 games this season. He has the hardware, he has the team-scoring title and soon he’ll have the contract.

In a perfect world, Huberdeau would sign a six-year deal similar to Bjugstad’s which carries a favorable $4.1 million AAV. Unfortunately for the Panthers, Huberdeau’s agent, Allan Walsh, likely has other plans. Not quite Jerry Maguire, Walsh does, however, have a show-me-the-money mentality and is known for shaking teams down for every last penny when negotiating big paydays for his clients. In the end, if the asking price is too steep, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Panthers sign Huberdeau to a bridge deal this summer in order to keep an impending mega-deal at bay for a few seasons.

WHERE DOES VINCENT TROCHECK FIT INTO THE PUZZLE?

For as talented as Trocheck is, the Pittsburgh native is still trying to find his place with the Panthers. After a brief NHL stint last year, the 21-year-old broke out as a rookie this season, recording seven goals and 22 points in 50 games. Still, the former third-round pick entered the offseason still looking for a home in Florida’s lineup. There’s no doubt that Trocheck is at his best when playing at center, but a logjam at the position could eventually force him to the wing. While injuries to centers Nick Bjugstad and Dave Bolland frequently opened the door for Trocheck to play his natural position this season, his few games on the wing left much to be desired.

If he hopes to find consistent playing time with the Panthers next season, Trocheck will likely have to work towards transitioning to the wing this offseason or hope someone else volunteers to move. There’s no denying Trocheck is an exceptional offensive talent, but some adjustments will have to be made to fit him into Florida’s game plan.

You can follow Jameson Olive on Twitter @JamesonCoop or email him at JamesonOlive@gmail.com.