For a good number of NHL players, including Florida’s Stephen Weiss, Friday will become their independence day.
Weiss, like many others, is free to sign with any other team as the league’s free agency period begins at noon.
The Panthers have said they had been working to keep Weiss with the only organization he has known, but as expected, Weiss will be a free agent for the first time. Reports say Weiss is being heavily courted by Detroit — close to where he played junior hockey in Plymouth, Mich.
Weiss and agent Pat Morris did not respond for comment.
Weiss was the fourth overall pick of the 2001 draft held in Sunrise; he made his NHL debut with the Panthers in 2002 and became the franchise’s all-time leader in games played in 2012.
The Panthers are expected to be in the market for a few players, although with about $45 million committed to players already under contract, Florida isn’t expected to be a big player in the free agency market.
General manager Dale Tallon said as much Tuesday.
The Panthers’ payroll doesn’t include unsigned players such as goalie Jacob Markstrom and center Shawn Matthias.
Tallon, handcuffed by an internal budget, said the Panthers will likely try to find free agent deals once the dust settles and the likes of Weiss, Nathan Horton and Danny Briere have found their new homes for more money than Florida can afford.
“We’ll probably be more active in August. We’re not going to overpay on July 5,” Tallon said. “We’re going to sit tight and be patient and get some good players at the right price.”
Florida is expected to be much closer to the salary cap floor ($44 million) than the ceiling ($64 million) with money from a recent buyout of defenseman Filip Kuba counting against the cap.
The Panthers put Kuba on waivers Wednesday so they can buyout the final year of his $3.7 million contract.
“We want more speed, more skill, more grit,” Tallon said.
Florida will have to pay two-thirds of Kuba’s contract spread out over the next two years so Kuba will get $2.6 million and is free to sign with another time. The Panthers’ $45 million payroll includes Kuba’s buyout number.
With Kuba gone after just one season, the Panthers will look to strengthen not only their defense but also bring in at least a center and right winger. Florida is letting Tyson Strachan walk, but the defenseman could return on a two-way deal.
Florida currently has 14 forwards and eight defensemen with NHL experience under contractual control. At least two of those players — Ed Jovanovski and Kris Versteeg — likely won’t be ready to start the year after having surgery last season.
Look for the Panthers to be young next year with Alex Petrovic, Colby Robak, Mike Caruso, Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, Drew Shore and rookie Sasha Barkov all expected to make the team.
Goalie Jose Theodore is also a free agent.
“We’re not going to go crazy. There aren’t a lot of free agents available,” Tallon said. “The prices are going to be high for those particular players. We’ll just sit tight and see what happens. If it makes sense and a player wants to come here badly, we’ll be aggressive.”