SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers and General Manager Bill Zito got to work locking up some of the team’s Restricted Free Agents on Monday.
In addition to signing young defensemen Noah Juulsen and Lucas Carlsson to one-year, two-way deals, the Panthers also came to terms with gritty scoring forward Sam Bennett on a long-term contract.
Local 10 News has learned the deal is four years in length, with an average annual value (AAV) of $4.4 million.
Bennett came to South Florida at last season’s Trade Deadline in a deal with the Calgary Flames, with the Panthers sending back a 2022 second-round pick and prospect Emil Heineman, who was selected 43rd overall at the 2020 Draft.
Florida also received a 2022 sixth-round pick in the exchange.
A pending Restricted Free Agent, Bennett was an instant success upon his arrival with the Panthers.
In 10 regular season games, Bennett quickly racked up six goals and 15 points, finding an instant chemistry with star winger Jonathan Huberdeau on Florida’s second line. Bennett added another five points in five playoff games, as well.
“Sam’s impact on our club this past season was seen immediately, injecting physicality, skill and energy into our lineup,” Zito said in a statement released by the team. “We are thrilled to have him in our Panthers lineup and look forward to what he can bring to our offense in the upcoming 2021-22 season.”
Bennett was the fourth selection in the 2014 NHL Draft, the same draft that saw the Panthers take defenseman Aaron Ekblad first overall, and newly acquired forward Sam Reinhart, who Florida picked up in a trade with Buffalo on Sunday, was taken with the second pick.
When training camp arrives in September, it’s likely that Bennett starts off centering the second line, with Huberdeau on his left and a litany of options to play on the right.
Depending who ends up on the top line with Sasha Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe, options for that second line spot include Anthony Duclair, Sam Reinhart, Owen Tippett, Partic Hornqvist, Frank Vatrano, Mason Marchment and possibly youngsters Grigori Denisenko and Aleksi Heponiemi.
Obviously, some of the overflow from that group will end up populating Florida’s third line, where 2020 top pick Anton Lundell should at least get an opportunity to play center during training camp.
I expect the fourth line to be centered by Noel Acciari, with Ryan Lomberg on one side and a gritty, checking, possession guy on the other wing. Marchment could actually be a possibility here if he’s not needed in the top six, as Quenneville struggled finding a good fit for that spot down the stretch and during the Tampa series. Late in the season, it was Juho Lammikko who saw several games skating on that fourth line.
The bottom line is that there is a lot of talent in the Panthers’ forward ranks, and some very good players could end up rotating in and out of the lineup, or in the case of the younger guys, biding their time with Florida’s AHL affiliate in Charlotte.
Remember, there won’t be a Taxi Squad to stash players on this season.
UPDATES ON OTHER PENDING DEALS AND RUMORS
Negotiations are currently ongoing with Reinhart and Verhaeghe, Local 10 News has confirmed.
Reinhart is a Restricted Free Agent who needs a new deal before he can lace up his skates with Florida, something Zito and co. certainly took into account when sending a first-round pick and goaltending prospect Devon Levi back to the Sabres in the trade.
Verhaeghe on the other hand is entering the second season of a two-year, $2 million deal he signed last offseason. The 25-year-old (he turns 26 in August) certainly outperformed that contract, picking up 18 goals and 36 points in 43 regular season games and another 2 goals and an assist in the six playoff games against Tampa, so it makes sense for the Panthers to want to lock him in for a few more years at a reasonable price.
Look for Verhaeghe to get a deal in the $3-4 million AAV range, which will be a nice raise from the $1 million he made last season.
As for Reinhart, that contract is expected to be in the $6-7 million AAV range.
I wouldn’t expect either deal to be more than three or four years in term, as Florida isn’t looking to go longer than that with anyone this summer other than Barkov.
Regarding defenseman, multiple reports have linked the Panthers to free agent Ryan Suter.
While Local 10 News can confirm that yes, Florida has had discussions with Suter’s representatives, it sounds like the fit might not be there based on the player’s ask.
Suter, 36, is reportedly looking for a longer term deal than the Panthers are comfortable offering.
Florida cleared up some cap space on Monday, trading defenseman Anton Stralman to the Arizona Coyotes, according to TSN’s Elliotte Freidman.
Stralman, who is entering the final year of a contract that carries a $5.5 million cap hit, was packaged with defensive prospect Vladislav Kolyachonok and a second-round pick in 2024. The Panthers received a 2023 seventh-round pick in the deal.
Florida previously selected Kolyachonok with the 52nd overall pick at the 2019 NHL Draft.
With Stralman off the books, the Panthers now have around $11.7 million in cap space to work with, according to CapFriendly.
Unrestricted free agent Bandon Montour, who Florida acquired at last season’s Trade Deadline from Buffalo in exchange for a third-round pick, is also still an option for the Panthers.
In 12 regular season games with Florida, Montour logged two goals, two assists, 16 penalty minutes and 19 hits to go with a +8 on-ice rating.