In an effort to continue this upward trajectory, the organization entered the offseason with its sights set on making needed improvements – from minor to major – both on and off the ice. In the front office, Tom Rowe was promoted to general manager after serving as the associate general manager Dale Tallon, who was promoted to president of hockey operations. Steve Werier and Eric Joyce, who have been involved in the team’s day-to-day activities since the team was purchased by Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu in 2013, were promoted to assistant general managers.
With a restructured management team in place, the Panthers then turned their attention to improving a roster that already boasted four 25-goal scorers, three All-Stars and two Calder Trophy winners. Added were Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, Mark Pysyk, Jared McCann, Colton Sceviour, Jonathan Marchessault and James Reimer, while Vincent Trocheck, Reilly Smith, Aaron Ekblad and Derek MacKenzie all signed multi-year extensions.
“It’s a young league and the game’s getting faster every year,” Rowe said. “We felt the guys we picked up (in free agency) gave us more skill. It definitely gave us some quicker guys on that third-line position and gives (head coach Gerard Gallant) more options than he had last season.”
With Florida’s top seven forwards all returning – including leading scorer Jaromir Jagr – it’s believed that these new additions, coupled with a few cap-savvy moves that will allow the team to continue growing, are exactly what the Panthers needed to contend not only now, but for many years to come.
Recently, FloridaPanthers.com’s Jameson Olive sat down with Werier and Joyce to discuss many of these topics, including the team’s active offseason and the importance of cap flexibility for a team on the rise.
OLIVE: It's been quite an offseason so far for the Panthers, who continue to be one of the most active teams in what used to be traditionally sleepy summers in Sunrise. How did that come about, and how satisfied are you at you with this new-look team heading into the upcoming season?
WERIER: We sat down early in the offseason and made a plan to extend, sign, and trade for players we believed would help us compete both next season and beyond. We presented that plan to Vinnie, Doug, Dale and Tom, and once it was approved, we acted on it.
The first piece of the plan was to make sure players like Aaron Ekblad, Reilly Smith and Vincent Trocheck continue their careers together as Panthers. They have been a huge part of our recent success; extending them for the long-term ensures they will be a foundational part of our future.
As for the new look, we identified Keith Yandle and Jason Demers as our top two targets on defense (free agents or otherwise). As part of our plan, we cleared significant cap space prior to July 1 through a number of transactions including the Savard trade. That cap space enabled us to take a hard run at Keith – who we knew would be in high demand – by acquiring this rights before he became a UFA. It also allowed us to aggressively pursue Jason on the 1st. Together with Mark Pysyk, Ian McCoshen and our returning players we are excited about our defensive core.
Up front, Jared McCann (who we acquired via trade with Vancouver) is a young player our scouts and analysts were very high on, especially with respect to his offensive upside. Jonathan Marchessault and Colton Sceviour are two skilled and versatile forwards who we targeted as soon as the UFA interview period began. Signing James Reimer to join Roberto gives us a proven tandem in net.
A very big part of our plan was to preserve future cap space and roster flexibility -- the Bolland trade with Arizona opened up nearly $17 million of cap space for us over the next three seasons. That deal came together over many months of planning and countless calls with Arizona’s GM, John Chayka, and allows us to enter September with more cap space than we had in June. That is satisfying, but nothing is won in the offseason.
OLIVE: As the Panthers work to not only contend now but also for many seasons to come, how far ahead do you look into the future during your decision making process?
JOYCE: I think it’s fair to say we’re in a win-now league, like most other professional sports leagues, but that’s not to say we don’t worry about the medium and long-term.
First, we had to make hard decisions to deal away some of our core guys this offseason, but we not only targeted specific, younger players back (Jared McCann and Mark Pysyk, for example) but also draft picks to continue to give ourselves a chance to win now and in the future.
Secondly, as we alluded to earlier, creating cap space was a major offseason priority because teams can never have too much flexibility to add players for whatever reason.
Lastly, we extended some of the younger guys this offseason with the understanding that a) they have clearly demonstrated the ability to help us win now; and b) given their age and recent experience, can help us win for many years to come. We know that a lot of successful teams in recent years included a number of core players in their early to mid-20s.
It is important to note that each decision we made this offseason carefully weighed the short-, medium- and long-term implications on our hockey club, and the resulting moves were a combination of executing a strategy that gave our team the best chance to win now, tomorrow and many years from now. Vinnie and Doug’s mandate is for the Florida Panthers to compete for a Stanley Cup every single year. The debate about whether a team should try to win now or prepare for the future is a hard balance to strike, but winning is a combination of preparation and perseverance. The preparation that went into this offseason was intense and directed, and as the year is about to get under way we now must bond together as a team and persevere through the ups and downs of an NHL season to hopefully give ourselves a chance.
OLIVE: The Panthers recently traded forwards Lawson Crouse and Dave Bolland to Arizona, acquiring multiple draft picks and freeing up $16.5 million in cap space over the next three seasons. How valuable is having that kind of cap flexibility when building a consistent contender?
WERIER: It's critical. You try to plan for as much as you can in terms of roster construction and cap management, but there’s a lot of “known unknowns” – things we know we don’t know yet. We don’t always know when a player on another organization will become available in a trade, when a young player will have a breakout season or unexpectedly hit bonus targets, or when we might have to deal with injuries by acquiring or replacing players, which can have a sizeable cap impact and result in an unwanted bonus overage. The more cap space you have, the more you can adjust to these circumstances, capitalize on opportunities, and minimize risk. Without that flexibility, you may not always be able extend your own players when you want to, and it’s important to us as an organization to be able to retain great players who want to continue their careers as Florida Panthers.
OLIVE: How much do you believe that not only spending, but spending wisely can affect the fortunes of a franchise?
JOYCE: That’s the name of the game, really, from a management standpoint. We try to balance past performance with historical indicators of future success, what we have in terms of dollars and needs, and current market rates for certain types of production, and then basket players categorically. Once we’ve effectively targeted who we think we need to sign, based on our team’s philosophy, and current and future composition, we then begin the negotiations process, which in some cases is very easy and others is very protracted. Nonetheless, we have a certain bandwidth given the constraints of the cap for all players, and we are adamant that we will stay within that bandwidth or pursue an alternate course. In reality, it’s this discipline we try to perfect every day. Our egos (thinking what we know is absolute) and our biases, personal and otherwise, have the greatest negative impact on our ability to maintain a disciplined, rational approach to spending money. Therefore, we remain vigilant against that fact by openly communicating throughout the organization. Vinnie and Doug like to call it “positive friction”, or everyone’s ability to question every decision we make, to include our fans. We don’t shy away from this, we welcome it, and in doing so, maintain that our process for evaluating and acquiring players can only get better. This process, and not necessarily the individual, compartmentalized outcomes of every move in a bubble by itself, will then lead us to make the smartest bets possible, and fulfill the requirements detailed above.
OLIVE: The draft selections you received in that trade were a conditional second-round pick and a third round-pick. With Florida's upgraded scouting and analytics departments, how confident are you that those selections could someday yield NHL-caliber talent?
WERIER: We try to make smart bets. In the case of an individual second- or third-round draft pick, making a “smart bet” might mean improving our odds modestly, but we believe the best way to make one good draft pick is to have two (or three, or four) draft picks. The more high-value picks like these that we can acquire, the better our odds will be of yielding future NHL players.
OLIVE: What was the overall goal for your department this offseason?
JOYCE: The same as it has been for the past three years under Vinnie and Doug, and that is to give ourselves the best chance to compete for a championship today, tomorrow and many years from now.