NHL Free Agency: Panthers embracing roots of successful 90s squad, signing several players with mix of grit and skill

Florida GM Bill Zito discusses new signings, UFAs and more

Radko Gudas of the Washington Capitals in action against the St. Louis Blues during a preseason NHL game at Capital One Arena on September 18, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

SUNRISE, Fla. – The first six hours of the NHL’s free agency signing period were quite busy for the Florida Panthers.

New general manager Bill Zito, running his first offseason as the head honcho of the beleaguered franchise, added several players to the Panthers roster that, while filling different areas of need, all shared in one common trait.

Toughness. Grit. Sandpaper.

There are always teams across the league that have a reputation for being a pain in the butt to play against. Teams that hit. Teams that pursue. Teams with constant running motors, regardless of which line or pairing is on the ice.

It sure looks like Zito is shaping Florida into one of those teams.

When the signing period opened at noon on Friday, Zito was one of the first GM’s to make a move.

He quickly scooped up one of the toughest, most feared players in the league, signing defenseman Radko Gudas to a three-year deal.

It set the tone for a day in which the Panthers logo may have suddenly stopped looking so friendly to opposing teams around the league.

Radko Gudas, 3 years $7.5M

Gudas has been an efficient defenseman during his career, often deployed against the opposition’s top players, but his rough and physical style of play is what gets the most attention when discussing the veteran rearguard.

Quick to come to the defense of his teammates and show little regard for opponents when emotions are peaking, Gudas is one of those players who you hate to play against, but love having on your side.

He has a reputation as a good locker room guy and adds an element of ‘mean’ that has been missing from South Florida for a while now.

The right-shooting defenseman is an excellent shot blocker and will be a welcome presence on the penalty kill.

Panthers GM Bill Zito on Gudas: “A size, strength defenseman who brings an element to the game that I think everybody who’s ever played against him knows, not unlike Patric Hornqvist, this is a guy that you hate to play against and generally that means you want him on your team. He’s a leader, he plays the game the right way, (and he’s) a very smart defender. One of the things that comes to mind when you scout (him) and when you talk to him, in addition to the edge that he plays with, he’s generally in the right place at the right time defensively as well. That’s a great addition to our defensive core, both from a leadership standpoint and a competitive standpoint. He’s actually a very good defensive defenseman.”

Carter Verhaeghe, 2 years $2M

This is a signing that has diamond in the rough potential written all over it.

Verhaeghe’s play improved during his time in the AHL to the point where he led Tampa Bay’s affiliate in Syracuse with 82 points (34-48-82) in 76 games during the 2018-19 season.

That earned him a regular job with the Lightning last year, where he logged 13 points (9-4-13) in 52 games.

Carter Verhaeghe of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates with the Stanley Cup following the series-winning victory over the Dallas Stars in Game Six of the 2020 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Rogers Place on September 28, 2020 in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

For someone with plenty of offensive skill, Verhaeghe has got a rough edge to his game, which is something that likely caught the attention of Zito and his staff.

This is a move that draws comparisons to Florida’s signing of Jonathan Marchessault back in 2016, in that Verhaeghe is a young, ascending scorer that could be on the brink of breaking out if given the right opportunity, and that both came from a Tampa Bay team that was strapped for cash and couldn’t keep every player they wanted.

Florida gave Marchessault a top-six role and he flourished. Will the same happen for Verhaeghe?

Said Zito: “Carter Verhaeghe is a guy now with a Stanley Cup pedigree who can play up and down the lineup with some upside, and that was something that we targeted. Our scouts worked very hard, we spent a lot of hours together looking for younger talent who might have some upside, might be buried (on a team’s roster), might be behind opportunities in the clubs that they were on, and is a guy we’re real excited about seeing exactly what he can do, and maybe providing some opportunity here to grow and see what he can do. He’s also a multi positional guy, in insofar as he can play wing and center.”

Alexander Wennberg, 1 year $2.25M

Wennberg is looking for a bounce-back season following a down offensive year in Columbus. The former fourteenth overall pick was bought out by the Blue Jackets on Thursday. He initially signed a six-year deal in summer of 2017 following what they thought was a breakout campaign in 16-17 in which he logged 59 points (13-46-59).

Another two-way center with some playmaking ability, Wennberg will need to improve in the faceoff circle and if he wants to keep playing down the middle. He’s also another guy that has experience on both sides of special teams.

Said Zito: “Alex Wennberg is obviously a guy that I’m familiar with who can play center and wing, and he can play in a couple of different roles. He can kill penalties, he’s a very smart, cerebral player. He can be net-front on the power play or he can be on the side wall on the power play. He’s a guy who is excited about trying to, I wouldn’t say reinvent himself, but to jumpstart himself.”

Vinnie Hinostroza, 1 year $1M

The 26-year-old has been around the league for several years. He’s got some familiarity with Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville from their time together in Chicago.

A strong work ethic with a quiet toughness to his game, Hinostroza has the kind of attitude that Zito seems to want around in Sunrise.

Said Zito: “Vinnie Hinostroza was last with Arizona, he actually played for Coach Q in Chicago as well. He is another multi-positional guy who has a little bit of upside from a skill perspective. Also, hard working with skill and brings an element of character, leadership and work.”

Vinnie Hinostroza of the Arizona Coyotes skates with the puck against the Buffalo Sabres at Gila River Arena on October 13, 2018. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Ryan Lomberg, 2 years $1.45M

Lomberg is getting his first one-way contract despite playing a total of 11 NHL games between the 17-18 and 18-19 seasons.

Clearly Zito and Co. think they’ve found something in the 25-year-old undrafted winger.

Said Zito: “Ryan Lomberg is a guy from Calgary who I think the fans are going to love. He is an energy forward who can fly, and is in F1, in your face, hard forward with hockey sense who can play the game and will provide offensive zone presence. He’s a very fast, speedy wing who plays with an edge.”


Early Friday evening Zito held a Zoom meeting with members of the media to discuss the day’s events.

Zito was quite candid in providing his perspective on the moves that Florida had made, and the thought process that went into them.

Here is the Q&A with Zito:

As far as big names in free agency, it was fairly quiet today. Are you surprised by that, or did you think it would be slower due to the flat salary cap?

“Well I think maybe we’re all a little bit accustomed now to not being surprised by anything. I can tell you that as a staff, that’s how we prepared, to be ready for anything. I’m not sure yet where the, I guess what you would characterize as the bigger names or what we would anticipate as being the higher dollar value contracts, are going. They still may come to fruition at those higher numbers and indeed I think some of those higher numbers have come in. For us, we were targeting the players that we thought could help us, that made sense. We started the day; we made the calls right away; we had previously identified those guys that we wanted to call. We worked together, we called the agents and said, ‘This is a guy that we like, this is where we are’ and so we were really happy to get the guys that we got.”

Do you feel you’ve helped out the team’s center depth today?

“Yeah, I think we did. I think Alex (Wennberg) has upside, I think he has potential too to do some things with his game to elevate, and Carter (Verhaeghe) as well. He can move over, he can play the wing. We’re going to see what happens with these guys and I think that their contracts are solid. We’re thrilled to have those guys on board.”

Do you think teams are taking a cue from Tampa Bay after they were swept by Columbus in 2019 and adding some toughness to their skill?

“I don’t want to put words in your mouth; if you’re characterizing physical toughness as much as mental (toughness), and people who play the game the right way, that’s what we’re looking for. We want people who compete and who will approach the game in a businesslike, professional manner, and every day come to the rink and want to win and hate to lose. There are some of the types of characteristics of some of the players that we signed, and some of them are obviously positional decisions. I can’t tell you that I look specifically at Tampa’s depth chart and said this is what we want to do, but you always want to look at the champions and emulate what they do. (Tampa Bay general manager) Julien (BriseBois) has done such a wonderful job so if we can emulate him, it would be an honor to do so, I’d say that.”

How much do you pride yourself on building a team that’s tough to play against?

“That’s 100% (the goal), that you’re hard to play against. It manifests itself in so many different ways, right? Speed, intelligence, character, compete, consistency, discipline, intellect, there’s so many different adjectives that we can use to describe what ‘hard to play against’ means. It’s more than size and strength, it’s more than physical play, and hopefully we get a little bit of all of it.”

Did you check in on Alex Pieterangelo at all? You guys have been speculated as being in the race for him.

“It’s funny, we were speculated on being like, it was a little silly, to be honest. We were speculated to being in on so many different things, our salary cap would’ve been at $200 million. I can tell you that I had texted his agent at one point this afternoon, just to see where things were at, and that was about the extent of it.”

Can you offer a quick assessment of what you think the teams in the Atlantic Division, the teams you’ll be competing with for a playoff spot, have done and how they look now>

“It’s going to be a competitive division, obviously. (Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin) added pretty decent size-strength winger in big Josh (Anderson) and got him signed, and I’m very familiar with him. All the teams are going to be very, very tough. It’s going to be a very difficult division. The Metro, they’re all going to be difficult, and I’ve got to focus on our team and trying to keep up with the Joneses and trying to be as good as we can be, and that’s really what our task is here.”

There are suddenly a lot of rumors about MacKenzie Weegar. Can you fill us in on what your plans are with him?

“I haven’t had a chance to watch him play since I’ve been here, there haven’t been any games, but when we were in the bubble I spent a lot of time watching him. He’s a dynamic guy, very, very competitive. I like watching him a lot, not even knowing that this was going to be an opportunity. I really enjoyed him as a player and noticed him in the bubble. I think he’s a great young player and I’m really glad to have him.”

What do you think Alexander Wennberg needs to do get back to playing his best hockey, and what was it that didn’t work for him the past two seasons?

“I can’t really speak to things that have happened in the past, I’m just focused on what’s in front of us. I’m just here to help Alex any way I can, but I think his focus is going to be on helping this team and moving forward and taking advantage of the opportunity he has, it will be significant, and to be a leader and to focus on winning and working. I think he’s ready to do that, and I think he’s excited.”

Do you expect to add any goaltending depth?

“I think we’re pretty content with our goaltending. I think all the goaltenders are actually pretty good. They’re better than pretty good, I think they’re very good. We’re always looking, I don’t think you can ever say never, but it’s not something we’re actively pursuing.”

How close do you feel you are to the vision you have for this team?

“I think we’re taking a step in the right direction. Remain mindful that we’re making these changes to a team that, as a general manager, I haven’t seen, haven’t met, haven’t even seen them practice, so I’m filling voids on a team that, I guess in fairness I can say I saw them in the bubble, but certainly not in the role of the general manager, and I wasn’t watching them critically. So for me, my long-term vision is started on the journey. How far along that journey I am, I can’t really answer. I hope and I think that after today, we’re a bit more driven, a bit more competitive than we may have been yesterday. I certainly hope so, but I know one thing; I know that the players that we’ve added are special and I know that, to a man, the players that we’ve added care about winning, and they’re all character people, and that’s the goal.”

A trade was made yesterday when you acquired defenseman Markus Nutivaara, another guy you’re familiar with from your time in Columbus. What can you tell us about him?

“Marcus is a fleet, very, very good skater. He’s a puck-moving defenseman. He is an average size, he’s not a great big guy but he’s not small. His dynamic is his skating, his puck-moving ability. He can kill penalties, he can do a little bit of power play, and he will be given probably some opportunity here, maybe a little bit more because of the depth in Columbus. It will be interesting to see what he does with the opportunity, to see if he elevates his game. Prior to coming to Columbus, he was a big point guy in Finland, and one of the better defensemen in that league and a national team defenseman. He’s a wonderful human being, a great teammate and I’m excited to see what will happen with him.”

Do you have any thoughts on the possibility of circling back around on unrestricted free agents Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov?

“Sure. We’re still open-minded. We’ll still continue to work the market. We’ll still continue to try and improve the team every single day in every way we can. We’re working. (So you’re not done.) We may be done, I don’t know. I don’t know what the future holds. We are working, I can tell you that.”

About the Author:

David Dwork joined the WPLG Local 10 News team in August 2019. Born and raised in Miami-Dade County, David has covered South Florida sports since 2007.