CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. – At some point this October, after the Stanley Cup has finally been awarded and the longest season in NHL history is officially over, the league will flip its calendar to a new year.
Unrestricted free agents will enter that strange zone of hockey purgatory while seeking out the best possible new contracts that they and their agents can negotiate.
There are several pending UFAs on the Florida Panthers' roster that will be on the wish lists of teams across the league, with the most notable being forwards Evgenii Dadonov, Erik Haula and Mike Hoffman.
Hoffman, who led the Panthers with 29 goals this season, is coming off two stellar years with Florida in which he racked up 129 points (65-64-129) in 151 games.
When free agency opens sometime in mid-October, Hoffman is expected to be one of the most coveted scorers on the market, and that could place him out of Florida's price range.
The Panthers were pressed right up against the salary cap of $81.5 million for most of this season, and that number will not be going up for at least another year, according to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement between the league and the NHLPA that was agreed upon earlier this month.
Depending on what Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon has planned for free agency, it could be difficult for Hoffman to find his way back to the Cats.
Asked about the uncertainty of his pending situation, Hoffman didn’t bat an eye while saying he’s keeping his eyes on the prize.
"I haven't really thought about that too much," he said, adding that during the pause, his focus didn't gravitate beyond this season, simply because the season never ended.
"I think everyone's mind and thoughts have been on when we're going to return, if we're going to return and what it's going to look like."
Hoffman spent the time off at his home in eastern Canada, working out and staying in shape, preparing for the eventuality of resuming his career, whenever and wherever that ended up happening.
On the outside, there was a global pandemic and complete stoppage of play in the NHL. For Hoffman, he simply went back to his offseason routine.
"It was pretty much like a summer training ritual," he said. "Go to the gym and do what you have to do to get yourself ready for training camp."
TRIPLE-H BOYS ARE BACK
Prior to Florida’s final home game back in early March, Panthers Head Coach Joel Quenneville made about as shocking of a move as can be made when looking at the Panthers traditional forward lines.
He split up Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov.
Along with the team as a whole, both star players were underperforming through much of February, and Q was doing everything he could to stop the bleeding.
Huberdeau was slid down to the second line, uniting with Hoffman and center Erik Haula.
The Triple-H line was only a unit for a few days before the NHL's pause due to the coronavirus pandemic, but even with a limited viewing window, Quenneville saw enough to know there could be something there with the trio.
"I think it's going to be great," Hoffman said of the line. "Obviously, we finished the season together. I thought we were starting to build some chemistry. Huby is one of the best playmakers in the league and Haula is a good two-way center, he can skate well, he can shoot and pass. I think it makes for a good combination."
With Quenneville planning to keep the forward lines intact throughout training camp, it gives Hoffman, Haula and Huberdeau more time to get familiar with one another's playing style ahead of the Qualifying Round series against the New York Islanders.
“The longer you play with someone, the more you get to know his tendencies and build a little bit of chemistry,” Hoffman said.