The Florida Panthers have quickly filled a need on their blue line.
The Panthers are reportedly signing defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson at the opening of free agency Saturday to a one-year, $2.25 million deal.
Ekman-Larsson, 31, is a point-producing left-shot defenseman who was bought out of his contract two weeks ago by the Vancouver Canucks. He had four years remaining on his deal, meaning he’s now a dead cap hit for the Canucks for the next eight years.
Filling out their defense was always going to be a need for the Panthers this summer with Radko Gudas and Marc Staal being unrestricted free agents. That need became paramount after the Stanley Cup Final, when it was revealed that Aaron Ekblad likely will not be ready for the start of next season due to shoulder surgery. Brandon Montour is expected to miss time with an injury too, though that has yet to be officially confirmed by the Panthers.
Ekman-Larsson was the No. 6 draft pick in 2009 by the Arizona Coyotes, where he was one of the best offensive defensemen in the league. He led the Coyotes in points in back-to-back seasons in 2014 and 2015. In 2014-15, Ekman-Larsson led all defensemen in goals (23), game-winning goals (seven) and power-play goals (10).
Ekman-Larsson and winger Conor Garland were then traded to Vancouver in a massive swap two years ago that sent three players and three draft picks back to Arizona. Ekman-Larsson was named alternate captain and produced 29 points in 79 games in his first season as a Canuck.
However, Ekman-Larsson’s play fell off dramatically last season. He broke his foot during the 2022 World Championships that required rehabbing in the offseason. When the season rolled around, Ekman-Larsson was noticeably slower and much weaker defensively.
Ekman-Larsson then suffered a left ankle injury in February that ended his season. In 54 games, the former Canucks’ alternate captain scored two goals and added 20 assists.
But the good news is, the Panthers have a recent track record of getting production from defenseman in need of a fresh start.
Montour, for example, was dealt from the Buffalo Sabres to Florida during the 2020-21 season for a third-round pick. He broke out this season with 73 points and was a playmaker in the playoffs too. Gustav Forsling was put on waivers by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2021 and claimed by the Panthers. He had a career-high 41 points this past season and was steady defensively too.
By agreeing to just a one-year deal, Ekman-Larsson is betting on himself that he can return to form and receive a raise next year when the cap ceiling is expected to jump significantly.
Panthers sign forward Kevin Stenlund
Kevin Stenlund, a former Winnipeg Jet center, has agreed to a one-year, $1 million contract with the Panthers, according to Sportsnet.
Stenlund split time last season between Winnipeg and the AHL’s Manitoba Moose. In 54 games for the Jets, he produced six goals and three assists.
Although previously a Jet, Stenlund did not cross paths with former Jets coach and current Panthers coach Paul Maurice. He did, however, connect with Panthers general manager Bill Zito in the Columbus Blue Jackets organization.
Stenlund was taken in the second round of the 2015 draft Columbus, where he split time between the NHL and AHL for five seasons. Zito joined the Blue Jackets front office in 2013 and was named the general manager of the Cleveland Monsters, the Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate, in 2015.
Stenlund signed a one-year, $750,000 deal with the Jets last summer. He was a restricted free agent, but did not receive a qualifying offer from the Jets and became an unrestricted free agent at noon on Saturday.
According to CapFriendly, the Panthers now have $7 million in project cap space with five players unsigned.
Radko Gudas signs with Ducks
Although the Panthers added a defenseman in Ekman-Larsson, the Panthers will reportedly not be bringing back Gudas.
Instead, Gudas agreed to a three-year, $12 million deal with the Anaheim Ducks, according to Sportsnet.
It’s a large payday for Gudas, who was paid $2.5 million by the Panthers each of the past three seasons.
The 33 year old fit nicely in Maurice’s system as a bruising defenseman. Gudas signed as a free agent with the Panthers in 2020.
This story will be updated.