Throughout the NHL this season, the stagnant salary cap has been a roadblock that has impeded several teams. Count the Florida Panthers among them.
The league decided in the offseason not to raise the cap past the $82.5 million threshold of last year, meaning teams only have so much room to ensure roster depth, especially when injuries occur.
“We knew that the season would be tough with our cap crunch,” Panthers team president Matthew Caldwell said in a press conference during All-Star Weekend festivities this month in Sunrise. “We’ve had some setbacks during the season, some ups and downs, but we’re still right there in the hunt and we’re ready to finish strong.”
So now, more than ever, clubs have to rely on their superstars, their large-contract players, to carry the play, especially with the postseason near. And for the Panthers, that means captain Aleksander Barkov.
Not having Barkov, 27, who’s been injured multiple times the past two seasons, at the center position proved to be a test for the Panthers. But they navigated it adequately, and for now — with a healthy Barkov on the first line — they appear ready to make their final postseason push.
In a stretch where Barkov, the Finnish star who is on an eight-year contract worth $10 million per season, missed six games with a lower-body injury last year, the Panthers lost four of them. It’s been more of the same this year.
In his first season with the club, left wing Matthew Tkachuk, Florida’s alternate captain, has noticed the absence.
“When [Barkov] was out of the lineup, we are just a completely different team,” he said at the All-Star Game. “A lot of guys did step up and definitely improved to make up for that loss, but you can’t do it.”
Barkov was injured and missed a home game against the St. Louis Blues on Nov. 26. The Blues won, 5-4, in overtime. The Panthers then took to the road for five games, where they lost three more.
Immediately upon his return against the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 8? The Panthers posted a 5-1 win and he had an assist and 17:02 time on the ice.
“When he came back, he really changed our team; he does everything, hits all aspects of the game,” Tkachuk said. “[He’s] somebody we’re very fortunate to have.”
Later in December, Barkov was injured again, and the Panthers proceeded to lose three straight. But right as he returned, the Panthers blew out the Montreal Canadiens, 7-2, with a near perfect home game on Dec. 29.
Barkov, coming up on his tenth year as a Panther, had 234 career goals and 366 career assists through last week. It’d been a stunning run in South Florida and given his contract, there are no signs of him leaving.
Right before the All-Star Game, which was held this month at FLA Live Arena and featured both Barkov and Tkachuk playing for the Atlantic Division, Barkov made sure to reassure fans that the future is bright.
“It’s an exciting time to be a Florida Panther,” he said.
And the synergy built between Barkov and Tkachuk on the ice seems built over years, rather than just a few months.
“I’ve never seen someone do the things he can do in practice and in games, [he’s] a very special player,” Tkachuk said. “He’s the captain, he’s the leader. He does everything for us, so I can just be myself and follow his lead.”
The Panthers are in a battle for a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, and there are many teams in that mix with them, including the Buffalo Sabres, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals. So, it will not be easy.
But Barkov returned from another absence on Saturday against the Colorado Avalanche, scored his 15th goal of the season, and set the stage for a crucial run to the playoffs in Sunrise.