Florida Panthers should approach free agency with caution

South Florida’s other winter sports team that begins playing in the fall and ends in the spring sits at a multi-pronged fork in its road back to relevance.

NHL free agency begins this weekend. Do the Panthers dive in, flinging cash to get to the NHL team salary minimum, as they did last year, or do they trust in the evolution of a group of prospects judged the NHL’s best?

Also, now that Vancouver’s decided Cory Schneider’s the guy to backstop their forever future Stanley Cup winners, Roberto Luongo’s on the market. Do they bring him “home?” Now that New Jersey future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur, in net at age 40 as New Jersey made the Stanley Cup Final, will be on the market, do they bring him in to bridge the gap to the Panthers top goalie prospect, Jakob Markstrom? How much do they get into the trade bidding for Columbus’ Rick Nash, the productive power forward the Panthers could’ve had in the 2002 NHL Draft?

All this happens as NHL teams look at the clouds of collective bargaining agreement negotiations passing over. There’s not the sense there will be another NHL lockout similar to the doomsday device that blew up the 2004-05 season, but it could happen.

The certainty of a lockout loomed over summer 2004. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman had been given his marching orders by owners, NHL Players Association executive director Bob Goodenow trumpeted his marching orders to players and everybody marched the 2004-05 season right over a cliff.

Nobody did things like signing ouchy headed Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby to a 12-year, $104 million guaranteed contract. Most of that contract will be front loaded, but for a guy who could go from the Next Gretzky to the Next Brett Lindros with one hit, it seems a serious act of faith.

It’s also an act that says, “Lockout unnecessary. Get the CBA done.”

Back to the Panthers, who would be well-advised to dip into the free agent pool with caution.

Free agents are the salt of your team, not the food. That the Panthers got to the playoffs in their transition season — and had the eventual Eastern Conference champions one shot from elimination two games in a row — doesn’t change 2011-12’s role as a transition season. This is a team that needs to stay the course. Don’t be fooled into thinking they’re closer to sipping from Stanley than they are.

Another finisher would be nice. So would a Tim Horton’s on South Beach. Nobody’s leaving many of those gems out there in free agency. Better to bulk up and let the scoring talent they already have in the organization develop.

Speaking of that talent, bringing back Luongo tells Markstrom, “This isn’t automatically your spot. Don’t get lazy, kid.” Which is funny considering how the Panthers surely are telling Vancouver, “We don’t need him, we’ve got Jose Theodore for one more year and Markstrom coming, so we’ll offer what we want and you’ll take it – or don’t.”

Brodeur’s probably got less time left than Luongo. He’s also at the stage where he’s ready to play mentor for Markstrom. As well as he played this spring, Brodeur’s no fool. He sees his NHL mortality. Luongo’s not there yet.

Columbus wants a serious dowry for Nash, the face of their franchise they’ve failed to build the body of a team around. The Panthers traded out of the No. 1 overall spot in the 2002 draft, and took defenseman Jay Bouwmeester at No. 3 overall after Columbus took Nash No. 1. At the time, it seemed logical as A-list defensemen are harder to find and better franchise backbones than very good forwards.

Another factor in all this is the Panthers Club Red, their attempt to bring fans the ultra high life at BankAtlantic Center. They need to sell memberships to keep Club Red from being Club Bled (On The Bottom Line). A dynamic personnel move would help in that regard for one season. Trading for Nash, more so than Luongo, however. The future superstar in 2000 would return as goalie on the rebound. One more win last spring and he’s a Stanley Cup-winning goalie. Now, he’s a top notch reject.

The Panthers enter this period of the NHL offseason with options. That’s in contrast to years where they were sidelined automatically by economics or just being an undesirable destination. As they prepare to be a player on whatever level, they should remember two players’ rules:

Don’t chase too hard and don’t force.

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