SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers are still searching for a new general manager, but that doesn’t mean business ceased for the rest of the front office.
On Monday, the Panthers announced they have come to terms with one of their many restricted free agents, inking defenseman Brady Keeper to a one-year, two-way contract.
Terms of the deal have not been released.
Keeper, 24, will be entering his third official season with the franchise, though year one was burned shortly after he initially signed on March 18 of last year thanks to a quick National Hockey League debut ten days later.
It would be his only taste of NHL action for almost exactly 17 months.
Undrafted following two seasons with the University of Maine, Keeper’s first deal with Florida was a two-year, entry-level contract, though it really only covered one full season.
During 61 games with the Springfield Thunderbirds, Florida’s former AHL affiliate, Keeper accumulated 18 points (6-12-18) and 108 penalty minutes, steadily improving his craft as the year progressed after an unimpressive showing during his first pro training camp last September.
“I came in this year and right off the hop I dug myself in a hole,” Keeper said back in July, acknowledging that he arrived to camp overweight. “As the season went along, I got to learn how to be a pro and learn the game better.”
When the NHL resumed play this summer following the league’s pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Keeper was one of the handful of AHL regulars who was called up to join the Panthers’ summer training camp.
He had decided months earlier that the next time he was in South Florida, it would be a different experience.
Keeper re-dedicated himself to doing things correctly off the ice; staying in shape, following a stricter routine and eating the right way being among the changes he implemented.
“I didn’t want to make the same mistake,” he said after arriving in Coral Springs last month. “I took it as one last chance not to mess up again.”
Keeper seized that second chance and absolutely made the most out of it. An impressive showing during summer camp got the attention of Florida’s coaching staff, which led to Keeper playing just under 16 minutes in Florida’s bubble exhibition game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Looking like anything but an unexperienced rookie still dipping his toe into the giant, scary pond that is the NHL, Keeper exuded confidence and skated with purpose while spending most of the game paired up with Mike Matheson, so much so that he was rewarded with some time on the Panthers second power play unit.
Clearly, the young rearguard was making progress in the eyes of his coaches, who felt so comfortable with Keeper’s game that they inserted him into the lineup for Game 2 of the Qualifying Round against the New York Islanders.
“He had an excellent game against Tampa and a real good training camp,” Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville said of the young defenseman earlier this month in Toronto. “I think that was why he earned his spot.”
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS
Keeper is the first Panthers free agent, restricted or otherwise, to sign a new deal with the team. He had limited options as a 10.2(c) player, meaning he was only eligible to negotiate with the team that held his signing rights; Florida.
Panthers’ 2016 top draft pick Henrik Borgstrom also falls under 10.2(c) status.
Depending on how young a player is when signing their first SPC (standard player contract), they must accumulate a certain amount of professional experience before they are eligible to become an unrestricted free agent.
Keeper was 22 when he signed his first SPC and needs two years pro experience to become an RFA, but only has one. That’s why he becomes a 10.2(c) player.
Borgstrom, who was 20 when he signed his SPC, needs three years of experience to become a restricted free agent. He’s got two.
In terms of standard RFAs, Florida has several to negotiate with.
In no particular order, Dominic Toninato, Aleksi Saarela, Lucas Wallmark, MacKenzie Weegar, Josh Brown, Dryden Hunt and Samuel Montembeault all need new contracts to play next season.
Saarela and Montembeault are the only RFAs who are not eligible for arbitration, should the player deem it necessary and decide to that route.
Regarding unrestricted free agents, Florida’s new general manager will have some immediate decisions to make. Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Erik Haula, Brian Boyle and Mark Pysyk are currently in the market for new deals, and they will officially hit the open market in early October (either Oct. 9 or seven days after the conclusion of the Stanley Cup Final, whichever comes later).
Florida has spoken to around 15 candidates for the team’s vacant general manager position over the past three weeks, with a second round of interviews expected to begin soon.
The list of reported contenders, some of which has been confirmed by Local 10, includes former Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis, Montreal Canadiens assistant GM Scott Mellanby, current Panthers assistant GM Eric Joyce, former Los Angeles Kings assistant GM Mike Futa, former Philadelphia Flyers GM Ron Hextall, executive director of player personnel for the Boston Bruins John Ferguson Jr., Washington Capitals assistant GM Ross Mahoney, assistant GM for the Toronto Maple Leafs Laurence Gilman, Canadiens scout Sean Burke, former player and coach Ed Olczyk, former Edmonton Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli, former Maple Leafs assistant GM Mark Hunter, NHL Network broadcaster Kevin Weekes and Bill Armstrong, assistant GM of the St. Louis Blues.
Panthers President Matthew Caldwell will continue to run the search, though Local 10 has confirmed that Michael Viola, son of team owner Vincent Viola, has also been involved with the interview process.