Florida Panthers: Who is Most Fit to Be the Last Top-Six Forward?

New York Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss (1) makes a save against the Florida Panthers' Frank Vatrano (72) during the shootout at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., on Thursday, April 4, 2019. The Islanders won, 2-1, in the shootout. (David Santiago/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
New York Islanders goalie Thomas Greiss (1) makes a save against the Florida Panthers' Frank Vatrano (72) during the shootout at the BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla., on Thursday, April 4, 2019. The Islanders won, 2-1, in the shootout. (David Santiago/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images) /

With July coming to an end, the time for rumors and transactions wind down, and the competition amongst players heats up.

The Florida Panthers’ top six can be hailed as one of the better ones around the NHL, with Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau both hitting over 90 points last season, Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman both tallying 70 points, and Vincent Trocheck more than capable of hitting those same margins next season.

However, the Panthers have yet to really decide on that last member of the top six. There have been a lot of mix and matches in the last few seasons: Jamie McGinn, Denis Malgin, Nick Bjugstad, Jared McCann, and even Colton Sceviour logged multiple top-six games under Bob Boughner.

Now, under Joel Quenneville, Florida still needs to find that extra winger to make up a truly dominant top six.

The initial idea was Artemi Panarin, who could’ve fit in perfectly next to Barkov and Dadonov. An elite level forward, Panarin could’ve made Florida a very tricky team to try and stop.

Nonetheless, when the Panthers considered Panarin’s asking price, they chose not to sign the Russian winger and weren’t able to land any other huge top-six forwards.

With the contracts given to Anton Stralman and Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida also became very limited in the trade markets. Possible moves for players like Phil Kessel, William Nylander, or James Neal, who were all publicly made available for trade, became too hard for Florida to even consider.

For now, there are two options that I see competing for that top-six winger spot; new free agent Brett Connolly and up-and-coming Frank Vatrano. Both had very good scoring seasons in 2018-19 and have plenty of strengths to make their case for why the two deserve to play with Hoffman and Trocheck.

Let’s start with Vatrano. At 25-years-old, the Massachusetts Amherst prospect had his best NHL season to date last year, with 39 points (24G & 15A) across 81 games for the Panthers last season. Vatrano scored 22 of these goals at even strength and took just over 200 shots last season.

He’s a player who’s worked with Vincent Trocheck before. In his debut season with the Cats, Vatrano started playing with Trocheck and Huberdeau on the second line during the second half of the season. During that time, he averaged one point per every two games, finishing 2017-18 with 8 points in 16 games for Florida.

While that doesn’t seem particularly amazing, remember that Vatrano overcame multiple injuries that season, and had previously had just two goals across 25 games for Boston earlier that year.

Vatrano’s best stretch of play last season came from January and the start of February. During this time, Vatrano scored seven goals in nine games, including a four-point game versus San Jose just before the All-Star break.

Talk about a dominant game, this was easily one of Vatrano’s best showings as a Panther, and the goal he scored really shows how he plays the game.

Vatrano loves to crash the net and create any kind of shooting opportunities that he can, using speed to penetrate the San Jose net.

Here, the Sharks are slow in transition, with Brent Burns‘ missed poke-check on Dadonov leaving him behind the play. Vatrano sees this and turns on the afterburners as Burns is too far behind to keep up and Vatrano finishes the chance past Martin Jones.

This is the kind of player Vatrano is, he loves to score these kinds of gritty, yet elegant goals by catching other teams off-guard. His awareness and positioning are so impressive for a 25-year-old, and he’s surely going to score more of these kinds of goals next season.

The problem with the way he plays is that it may not be the best fit on Florida’s second line. Yes, he may be the most talented player outside of the second line, Trocheck and Hoffman, but the two he’d be playing with aren’t going to feed him the puck the way he wants it.

Vatrano is weaker when it comes to playmaking, and on a line where Mike Hoffman and Vincent Trocheck are both looking for goals, the fit may not be there.

Now, onto Brett Connolly. Similar to Vatrano, Connolly is coming off of his best scoring season to date last season. After inconsistent stints in both Tampa Bay and Boston, Connolly comes back to the Atlantic after truly finding his footing at the NHL level.

With Washington, Connolly seemed to be repeating what he had done with his two prior teams: decent bottom-six piece, good on the penalty kill, while scoring the odd goal here and there. Last season, Connolly shattered his career highs under Todd Reirden, with 22 goals and 24 assists in 81 games for the Caps.

To give it justice, Connolly’s career-high before 2018-19 was a mere 27 points but he finished with 46 points last season. However, the stats don’t show the kind of player that he is.

A lot of Connolly’s goals this past season may not have been incredible wrist shots or dekes leading to goals, but rather just going into the less desirable positions to reap the rewards.

With 23 even-strength goals last season, Connolly has a knack for getting into these kinds of positions to score goals.

Here, he holds his own against Dion Phaneuf, still one of the stronger defensemen in the NHL. Maintaining his position in the slot, he uses his strength to re-direct Andre Burakovsky’s wrist shot to beat Jack Campbell in net to double his team’s lead.

As a team lacking a lot of physicality on the top six, Connolly could be an asset to Florida’s play. If Connolly can get into these kinds of positions to redirect shots from Hoffman, Florida could see Connolly repeat what he did last season.

In terms of which one fits better on the top six, it all depends on what coach Quenneville thinks is best for team chemistry.

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If he wants Trocheck to have more help defensively, he may lean towards Connolly. At the same time, if he’s nervous that Trocheck still has a lot of pressure on him to create, Vatrano might be the better player to ease Trocheck’s load.