The Panthers got a taste of winning this season. And they liked it.
The rebuild is officially over in Florida.
And as they enter win-now mode, the defending Atlantic Division champs are poised to be big players as the NHL's free agency window opens at noon on Friday.
"[Owner] Vinnie Viola gave us a mandate to win the Stanley Cup within three years," general manager Tom Rowe said this week. "We feel we got the guys to do that but we also feel we need to complement the group we've got here with more help and more offense."
He's off to a good start. The Panthers have been among the league's busiest teams already this off-season, reshaping all three elements of their NHL roster. Rowe sent a draft pick to the Rangers for the bargaining rights to pending UFA Keith Yandle, then signed the two-time All-Star defenseman to a stunning seven-year, $44.45 million deal. The 29-year-old brings high-end transition skills that should kick start the attack. He then dealt veteran Dmitri Kulikov to the Sabres in exchange for Mark Pysyk, a younger blueliner whose possession stats in Buffalo hint at an Anton Stralman-style puck mover/safety valve.
He made two moves in net, acquiring Reto Berra from the Avalanche to potentially serve as the backup to Roberto Luongo (pending another deal) and signing the starter's brother, Leo, as the team's new goaltending coach. And he swiped promising young forward Jared McCann from the Canucks, adding a player who might need to do some growing up but has the potential to become an excellent middle-six center.
And those moves are just the appetizers compared to what could happen Friday. With nearly $19 million in cap space, Rowe is expected to target two top forwards from this year's pool of free agent talent.
He's looking to add depth to a group that finished eighth in the league during the regular season (2.83 goals per game), but struggled to score during a six game loss to the Islanders in the first round of the playoffs. And if those players can add some muscle to a punchless power play, so much the better.
But Rowe won't simply be looking for goals. The Panthers are at the vanguard of the analytical movement, so the ability of a free agent to drive possession will be as critical as a proven ability to finish.
That puts the spotlight on two players: Frans Nielsen and Loui Eriksson.
Nielsen, who scored three goals for the Islanders in Florida's opening round win, might be the best fit. At 32 he's on the older side, but his skating ability, his defensive awareness and his reliable touch (59 goals over the past three seasons) would slot perfectly onto Florida's third line. He won't be cheap—he could command an AAV of $5.5 million or more—but he's the sort of player a team can win with.
Eriksson is more versatile, both in terms of position (he can play right and left wing) and style. He's a complete 200-foot player who battles hard on defense, scores most of his goals in the paint, and is equally adept on the power play as the penalty kill. As a proven driver, he'll likely get the six years the Bruins wouldn't give him.
The team has other options, like former Islanders winger Kyle Okposo and Ranger Eric Staal. They could also shop for bargains like Jonathan Marchessault, Jason Chimera or P-A Parenteau.
But the sense is the Panthers are ready to go big on Friday. And with the right moves, they might not need all three years to hoist that Cup.