SUNRISE, Fla. – It’s an exciting time around the NHL as the new league year is fast approaching.
Later this week the 2022 NHL Entry Draft will take place in Montreal, which should provide some fun and excitement as it’s not often the team hosting the draft also holds the No. 1 selection.
Round 1 of the Draft will go down on Thursday night while Rounds 2 through 7 will be held the following day.
Barring any trades, the Panthers won’t make their first selection this year until the third round.
Pick No. 93, to be exact.
Florida’s five other choices are No. 125 (Round 4), No. 157 (Round 5), No. 186 and No. 189 (Round 6) and No. 221 (Round 7).
For those wondering, or just in need of a reminder, the Panthers 2022 first round pick went to Buffalo in the Sam Reinhart trade, and their second round choice was offered to Calgary in the deal that brought Sam Bennett to South Florida.
Less than 72 hours after the final draft selection is made, the NHL’s annual free agency frenzy will kick off.
Unrestricted free agents can begin meeting with new teams on Saturday, July 11, but players cannot officially begin signing with new teams until the clock strikes noon ET on Monday, July 13.
The Panthers, fresh off the team’s first Presidents’ Trophy win, will be looking to build on what they accomplished last season and make a long and prosperous run during next year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That will be the primary focus of Florida GM Bill Zito and his front office colleagues as they prepare to dive headfirst into a very important offseason.
HUBERDEAU EXTENSION LATEST
Panthers All-Star Jonathan Huberdeau is entering the final year of his contract and will be an unrestricted free agent when it expires next summer.
Florida can sign Huberdeau to an extension as early as this month, and it sounds like the process could get started sooner rather than later.
In fact, discussions between the Panthers and Huberdeau’s agent Allan Walsh could begin as soon as this week, according to multiple sources.
That doesn’t mean the two sides will come to an agreement any time soon, but opening the lines of communication at this early stage indicates what we’ve been hearing for a while is accurate; that both sides are interested in getting a deal done.
It was just a year ago when the Panthers were in the same situation with team captain Sasha Barkov. He ended up signing an 8-year, $80 million extension with Florida just prior to the start of last season.
The expectation is that Huberdeau’s contract would include a similar AAV (average annual value) to Barkov’s, if not greater.
It’s also worth noting that any player signing with a professional sports team in Florida knows they will not be paying any individual state income tax on that contract, which can be a difference of millions of dollars.
Huberdeau, who turned 29 last month, is coming off his most productive season in the NHL after racking up 115 points in 80 games. He matched a career high with 30 goals and set a new single-season league record for left wingers with 85 assists.
On multiple occasions over the past year Huberdeau has stated that he’d like to follow in Barkov’s footsteps and sign a long-term deal with the Panthers.
GIROUX INTEREST REMAINS
It’s no secret that there is mutual interest between Florida and free agent Claude Giroux, who the Panthers acquired at last season’s trade deadline.
Giroux, 34, was excellent during his limited time in South Florida.
He accounted for 23 points (3-20-23) in 18 regular season games while adding another 8 points (3-5-8) in 10 postseason contests. Giroux was also his usual excellent self in the faceoff circle, winning 57 percent of his draws in a Panthers sweater.
The veteran forward is seeking a new deal that will pay him in the range of a $5-6 million AAV, and sources indicate Giroux would like a deal at least two or three years in length.
That could be difficult for Florida to swing given the team’s current cap crunch, but not impossible.
One big domino that could potentially fall and help usher a Giroux deal along involves veteran forward Patric Hornqvist.
It’s in the wind that the Panthers are looking to trade Hornqvist and his $5.3 million cap hit, if they can find a willing partner.
Trading for Hornqvist was the first move made by Zito after he was hired in September of 2020, and it proved to be one of the most important in franchise history.
In addition to his on-ice contributions, Hornqvist has been credited as being the driving force in changing the culture in the Panthers dressing room, creating an environment that thrives on hard work, accountability and camaraderie.
Hornqvist’s contract includes a modified no-trade clause, meaning he has a list of eight teams that Florida cannot send him to.
If Zito can find a trade partner willing to acquire Hornqvist, the move would provide Florida with some much needed relief under the $82.5 million salary cap. The team currently has just over $3 million in cap space to work with.
The Panthers will get some temporary room if and when they choose to place Anthony Duclair on LTIR. Duclair underwent successful Achilles surgery last week and is expected to be out of the lineup until at least midseason.
When Duclair returns from injury, so will his $3 million cap hit.
BRUNO STICKING AROUND?
Former interim head coach and Jack Adams Award finalist Andrew Brunette may end up staying in Sunrise after all.
Brunette has been free to seek opportunities elsewhere in the time since the Panthers hired Paul Maurice as the team’s new head coach last month.
Several teams with coaching vacancies showed interest in Bruno, but as job openings have come off the market, Brunette has yet to accept any potential offers.
That leaves an opening for a continuation of his time with the Cats.
There is some hope, according to one team source, that Brunette will choose to stay with the Panthers and continue helping the team build on what they’ve accomplished over the past few years.
Should he elect to remain in Florida, the capacity in which Brunette would assist the team remains to be seen.
It would not be surprising to see Florida carve out a role for Brunette somewhere in the front office, despite the upward trajectory the 48-year-old’s coaching career has taken over the past year.
Brunette may not be willing to return to the Panthers coaching staff in a lesser role after running the team’s bench last season, but he also has experience working as an executive at this level.
After retiring from his playing career in 2013, Brunette became an advisor for the Minnesota Wild. He worked as an assistant coach for two seasons but eventually shifted to the front office and by 2017 had worked his way up to assistant general manager.
On Tuesday the Panthers re-signed forward Aleksi Heponiemi to a one-year, two-way deal.
Florida originally selected Heponiemi in the second round (40th overall) of the 2017 NHL Draft.
He picked up an assist in six games with the Panthers last season and has three points (1-2-3) in 15 NHL games spanning 2020-21 and 2021-22.
The 23-year-old will be entering his fourth season as a pro in North America, having played a combined 111 AHL games for Panthers affiliates in Springfield, Syracuse and Charlotte during that time.
Last season with Charlotte, Heponiemi led the team with 30 assists in 59 games. He also added nine goals, a new AHL career high.
“Aleksi is a skilled, energetic forward,” Zito said in a statement released by the team. “We look forward to his continued development within our Panthers system.”
Despite the limited time at the NHL level last season, Heponiemi showed growth in his game and in Florida’s systems.
The improvement in his 200-foot presence was apparent, which is a testament to his high hockey IQ.
Heponiemi has always been a smooth, fluid skater that is known for his creativity with the puck, but the skills that saw him earn a second-round selection have been slow to develop during his time in North America.
He’ll always be on the small side, just 5-foot-10 and 155 lbs., but smaller players can still have successful NHL careers.
Florida will be looking for and hoping its home grown talent, Heponiemi among them, will take a step forward and fill in some of the team’s roster holes in the coming years.
Come September, players like Heponiemi, Grigori Denisenko, Logan Hutsko, Cole Schwindt, Justin Sourdif and Serron Noel are all guys who could earn themselves a serious look with a strong showing in training camp.