The entire offseason in Sunrise has been colored with talk of not just how close the team came to making the playoffs last year after their slow start, but how promising this season could be.
With a fully formed top-six, a group of young stars getting better and another year in Bob Boughner’s system, that should be the dominant narrative heading into Saturday night.
Instead, most of the talk will be about the head-scratching decision to send Henrik Borgstrom to Springfield (AHL). Maybe this shouldn’t come as a surprise, because Borgstrom spent most of his time with the Panthers at the end of March and April in the press box rather than on the ice, where he would have perhaps given the Cats the extra spark needed to pick up that elusive point.
But after an offseason of work and a full preseason, it comes as a big surprise that he won’t be on the opening night roster when he clearly should be. Not only is this a mistake now, but it’s a mistake that could have long-lasting effects on what is such a promising season.
The reasons why the demotion is a mistake have already been well documented. He’s better offensively than anyone in the opening night bottom-six and in the press box and has the upside to grow as the season goes along, no matter what experience he’ll gain in a top-six role in Springfield.
Top-six minutes in Springfield are no doubt valuable, but could the Panthers be using his talents to better develop him at the NHL level, when he’ll provide more of an offensive (and defensive) impact than Frank Vatrano, or anyone on the fourth line? Absolutely.
Decisions like this may end up being minor footnotes in the story of an 82-game season, but when the margins in the modern NHL are so fine, decisions like this carry immense weight.
A team can’t make the playoffs in October and November, but they sure can miss it then, as the Panthers proved last year.
They dug a hole that was just a little too deep to dig out of, in spite of all their amazing work in February onward. Those lost points from last year which came because of bad lineup decisions or penalties given up by an overmatched fourth line ended up costing the Panthers in April.
18-17-7 was one of the worst lines in the NHL last year, and they played over five hours of hockey together. While they weren’t asked to contribute anything offensively (and they didn’t), their possession numbers were awful, as they gave up way more penalties than they drew and started over 60 percent of their shifts in the offensive zone.
Their playing time also took minutes away from forwards who should’ve played above them, and even if Haley is replaced by Maxim Mamin or Troy Brouwer, the complexion of the line itself changes little.
It’s a liability, and it’s especially a liability when Bob Boughner can’t use it in the third period and therefore has to overuse his top two lines to chase and protect games.
And if playing Borgstrom on the fourth line isn’t viable because those minutes would be harmful, then that isn’t on Borgstrom, it’s on making the fourth line better, which evidently isn’t happening when players like Brouwer and MacKenzie are valued more at this stage than Borgstrom is.
Those are the small decisions that while they may not seem important or impactful at the time, certainly end up being impactful for a team’s bottom line performance. Henrik Borgstrom’s presence makes his teammates better, as evidenced by the solid play he put in with Malgin and McCann this preseason.
And it isn’t so much that this decision on its own in a vacuum could be a bad one, it’s the thought process that goes into the decisions that make it even more alarming.
While this sentiment might be true in principle, in practice it robs the team of not only an important offensive option in an area of the lineup that everyone from Dale Tallon to Bob Boughner to the fans sitting in the 300’s at BB&T Center notice, but something else too.
Even if it’s the ‘worst thing’ going on, it’s this type of decision that in the end can cost teams games, and for a team that has such a small margin for error as evidenced by last year’s trajectory, it can’t possibly be the right decision.
And it’s not as if Springfield has been a factory for developing young talent in recent years since players like Bobby Farnham and others on AHL contracts end up getting decent minutes, and the team’s best scorers (Valk, Grenier, and Balisy) all ended up elsewhere. Springfield also went down from 75 to 71 points last year, incidentally.
The ultimate judge of this decisions will not be internet ink spilled, it will be on the ice with results. Florida cannot afford a slow start, and decisions like sending Henrik Borgstrom to Springfield could cost the Panthers valuable points in October that might end up being decisive in April.
For a team that wants to play more young players and change up the fourth line, they haven’t backed up that talk with evidence. And it’s these decisions precisely that separates the best teams in the NHL, which is where the Panthers ultimately see themselves getting to.
It’s not about Frank Vatrano getting the third line wing spot that Borgstrom should be in. This is a decision emblematic of others the Panthers make that end up building and building and costing them when it matters most.
Every two points matters in this league where margins are minuscule and these decisions are often the difference between two points and zero.
Not playing one of those best offensive options in a game that counts just as much as one in April is a decision that hopefully is not one everyone regrets come April when those points from October would’ve been useful.