After a relatively quiet free agency period, the Florida Panthers aren’t likely to be making any more additions, as their only other moves made be trades off their roster to clear space for players and cap room.
Currently, the Panthers have 16 forwards fighting for 12 spots for the opening night tilt with Tampa Bay, and there’s always a chance someone really impresses in camp, too. Which forwards will be the odd ones out?
For most of last season, the Panthers carried 14 forwards, so for the sake of this exercise, let’s assume the Panthers will carry 14 for October 6th against the Lightning. There aren’t many questions as to who will start in the top six, so let’s focus on the bottom six.
It appears Bob Boughner and his staff want Henrik Borgstrom to predominantly play center, and with Barkov and Trocheck entrenched in their spots, Borgstrom likely starts off as the third center. For his wingers, he could have a combination of a whole host of options.
Owen Tippett might not be served to play a second overage season in junior and can’t go to the AHL until he’s 20, and since his birthday is in February, he’s almost 100% likely to start with the big club this season. He could perhaps beat out Nick Bjugstad for a spot on the second line, but to start the season that seems unlikely. Denis Malgin was fantastic during the Panthers hot finish to the season, so it’s hard to imagine he starts down in Springfield as well.
That leaves a few forwards still left fighting for fourth line minutes. Colton Sceviour fits in nicely as one of the fourth line wingers, as he has since he joined the Panthers. Jared McCann should be playing center somewhere in this lineup, and with only one spot open, he fits in here for now.
Derek MacKenzie has played wing in the midst of games from time to time, and with no center spots available he’ll probably start on the fourth line as a winger, at least for now. So that leaves Frank Vatrano, Maxim Mamin, Jamie McGinn, and Micheal Haley on the outside looking in.
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McGinn had a solid if unspectacular season last year with 13 goals and 29 points, but with Borgstrom and Tippett now figuring into the lineup every night, there might not be a spot for him. Most expected the Cats to buy him out, but for ‘stability,’ the Panthers decided against that.
Perhaps the Panthers could trade him for a draft pick at some point before the season starts, which might be the best option for both parties. Micheal Haley shouldn’t have played as often as he did last year, and if the Panthers are going to maximize their potential, Haley should be with Springfield in the minors. Vatrano and Mamin would be the extra forwards who would be used when there are injuries or players that need a night off.
Are there any other ways the Panthers could clear the logjam? One of the most persistent rumors over the last few seasons would those surrounding Nick Bjugstad. For a good chunk of last season, it certainly seemed like Bjugstad would be on the way out in one form or another. Then, after he was put on the line with Barkov and Dadonov, his season completely turned around.
These trade rumors haven’t yet gone away even now. His contract is tradeable, and many teams would love the combination of size and skill that he possesses. Trading him would be one way to get either Henrik Borgstrom or Owen Tippett into the top six, and it would also net the Panthers roster space, cap space, and a few other assets. But after his finish to last season, it doesn’t seem that’s a likely option.
The ideal situation would be finding a trade partner for Jamie McGinn and sending Haley to the minors, but Bob Boughner and his staff valued those players last season more than they should have, so it’s possible they’re not the two odd ones out at all.
Could Max Mamin and Denis Malgin both start the season in the minors? Perhaps Mamin could, considering he didn’t play a ton towards the end of the season and wouldn’t need waivers, but Malgin more than proved his worth from February onwards.
There aren’t many clean solutions for Dale Tallon and his staff to solve the forward logjam, largely because of Owen Tippett’s situation. And don’t discount the possibility of someone impressing in a big way at training camp, which has happened more than it hasn’t with the Panthers.
There will only be 14 forward spots available on opening night, and only 12 will play. With about only seven or eight pretty much guaranteed a spot, the battle for roster spots in September will be fun to watch.