In the roller coaster ride that has been the Panthers’ 2013 season up until this point, there have been a few players steadily contributing on a team filled with question marks. However, during most games this season, forward Peter Mueller has been a bright spot of stellar play – even during some of the Panthers’ worst games.
After being selected 8th overall during the 2006 NHL Entry Draft, Mueller’s career has been anything but spectacular as the promising young skater has had to battle an abundance of concussion-related problems since joining the NHL. During the 2010 season, a dirty hit from the San Jose Sharks’ Rob Blake sent Mueller to the ice, and set off a chain of events that would keep him from playing steady hockey up until this season. Since that first concussion, Mueller has been unable to play more than 32 games during a single NHL season and has been labeled as a possible liability due to his health concerns.
However, during the 2012 offseason the Florida Panthers decided to take a low-risk chance on the once promising young skater when they signed Mueller to a 1-year 1.725 million dollar contract – an investment that is paying off in spades. Through 12 games this season, Mueller currently has the 4th most points on the Panthers’ roster, compiling 7 points (4G 3A) thus far.
While Mueller is clearly an impressive skater when healthy as well as one of the more talented players on the Panthers’ roster, his future in Florida is still uncertain. General Manager Dale Tallon will have some tough decisions to make this offseason when it comes to re-signing key players and Mueller will most likely be at the top of his list. However, we must remember that hockey is a business and just because we want a player to return, it doesn’t mean he will. Here are the main factors that will contribute to Mueller returning to South Florida next season.
One of the biggest issues the Panthers will face when trying to decide on Mueller’s future will be weighing the risks that come with committing long term to a player that has a history of head trauma. Considering that Mueller has only been free from post-concussion symptoms for just over a year, there is reason to believe that the Panthers will be wary to sign him to a long year deal.
However, since 2011 there have been improvements to the NHL’s rules regarding hits to the head. Although implementing these rules cannot completely prevent concussions, any little bit helps to keep players safer and on the ice.
Changes to the Rule Governing Hits to the Head (Rule 48):
From NHL.com: “Players will now face a minor penalty for any hit that involves primary contact to the head and shots that target an opponent’s head and make it the principal point of contact. The original wording to Rule 48 applied only to hits that came from the lateral or blindside. Those words have been eliminated. This ban, effective immediately, applies to hits anywhere on the ice and from any direction… the league is still not willing to eliminate all head hits… Whether a minor penalty or major penalty or no penalty is assessed for these infractions, players could still be subject to suspensions.”
Changes to the Boarding Rule (Rule 41):
From NHL.com: “A penalty will now be given to a player who delivers a hit on a defenseless player that causes him to hit the boards violently or dangerously. Players must try to avoid – or limit – contact against an opponent who is deemed to be in a defenseless position… However, referees, have discretion to determine if the player who is hit put himself in a vulnerable position – thus making the contact unavoidable.”
Even with these rules in place, there were still roughly 90 players reported to have suffered head injuries and/or concussion related symptoms during the 2011-2012 season. However, even if a player has no history of head trauma, there is always a chance that he can have his career ended just as easily as a player with prior head injuries. If the Panthers do choose to re-sign Mueller, they will have to hope that he continues to have post-concussion success like fellow NHL’ers Sidney Crosby and Nicklas Backstrom, rather than a career ending turn of events like those of former Boston Bruin Marc Savard.
Currently, Peter Mueller is playing under a 1-year contract worth $1.725 million – a number you can most definitely expect to rise as he continues to play well on the ice. There is no question that Mueller deserve a raise if he manages to play well through the whole season, but the question is how big?
Under the new collective bargaining agreement, a salary cap of $64,300,000 is set to begin next season with a salary floor of $44,000,00. The Panthers will most likely not want to stray too far from the cap floor and will already be over that number with only 17 skaters under contract.
As team that has never been known for breaking the bank, the Panthers will have to make a lot of tough financial decisions this offseason in order to keep their spending low without degrading the product they put on the ice. Considering Mueller’s age and ability there is one recent contract that could help give us a better idea of what Mueller could expect to make next season.
This season, the Buffalo Sabres signed 23 year-old forward Tyler Ennis to a two-year contract worth $5.625 million – a cap hit of $2,812,500 annually. If this were a full 82 game season, Mueller would be on pace to score just under 50 points this year – numbers that would put him on pace with what is expected of Ennis.
However, given the high salaries of teammates like Scottie Upshall ($3.5 million), Tomas Fleischmann ($4.5 million) and Kris Versteeg ($.4.4 million) – it would be safe to assume that Mueller will expect something above or around $3 million a season. Considering his age and offensive skillset, I believe that paying Mueller north of 3 million a season could be merited. Given his age and ability, a long-term investment in Mueller could actually fit perfectly with the youth moment the Panthers already have in place for their future.
Chemistry With Drew Shore & Jonathan Huberdeau
Although a laundry list of injuries forced coach Kevin Dineen to shuffle his lines an exorbitant amount early on this season, it was the combination of Jonathan Huberdeau, Drew Shore and Peter Mueller that has shined through as the Panthers’ best line thus far. This impressive scoring trio has already combined for 19 points (10G 9A) in this young 2013 season.
Although Mueller initially played some time at the center position early this year, the arrival of Drew Shore pushed him to the wing and he has continued to excel ever since. Mueller’s versatility to play both center and wing has proven to be a strong asset for a Panthers’ squad that seems to constantly be battling the injury bug.
Even with last years’ top line pairing of Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg still getting the most time on the ice and powerplay, it is clear that the Panthers’ “kid line” will soon overtake them at the team’s go-to scoring option. Considering both Drew Shore and Jonathan Huberdeau are two integral pieces to the Panthers’ future plans, Mueller’s relationship with them could turn out to be one of the biggest reasons to bringing him back.
Considering he is just 24 years-old, Mueller has a chance to go from being a one-year experiment to a key piece in the Panthers’ success. As the team patiently waits for their talented crop of prospects to blossom, Mueller could cement his place as a top-line player alongside Huberdeau and Shore.
The only thing left to do now is wait and hope as we watch Mueller and the Panthers play out the rest of the 2013 season on the ice. I fully expect Mueller’s responsibilities to grow as the season continues to roll on and with that will come an even larger outcry from fans to bring him back next season. Between his play on the ice, his amazing flow and his endearing personality, it is safe to say that Peter Mueller’s re-singing with the Panthers would be welcomed by most fans.
Thank you for reading and please feel free to join the debate in the comments sections below. How do you feel about the Panthers tying up a lot of money and years in Peter Mueller?