The anticipation has been building for the Panthers this season, as many expect a playoff appearance, with some expecting playoff success as well.
If the Florida Panthers are to succeed this year, through the regular season and playoffs, they will need to replicate their offensive success from last season. Last year, the Panthers ranked ninth in goals for, which was bolstered behind their potent second-ranked power play.
The total offense was led by Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov’s breakout seasons, where the two combined for 65 goals and 188 points, ranking 12th and 10th among the top point scorers last season.
While the desire to replicate or surpass those scoring totals for both players is important, having the playoff hoped hinged on that prospect is futile. All successful teams have a balanced set of lines, capable of producing at both ends of the ice. The Panthers have no shortage of talent and four productive lines can be assembled with the correct ambitions in mind.
Constructing a team’s four lines has one central focus: depth. While each line has an individual purpose and differentiating skill set, the overall goal is to provide the most competitive trio for all four lines.
First, we start with the easiest line to project, “the Barkov line.” After the success the trio has produced over the last two years, there shouldn’t be any doubt to the idea that Barkov, Huberdeau, and Evgenii Dadonov should be playing together. The three have been dominant since Dadonov signed with the team back in 2017-18.
All three have set career highs in points at the end of each season since Dadonov’s first season, with Huberdeau setting career highs in goals at the end of both campaigns.
They are stellar, and the point production they are projecting for this season outweighs any potential (and arguable) gain that can be served by breaking them up.
As we move to the next three lines, the emphasis needs to be on one player in particular: Vincent Trocheck. The young center had trouble building chemistry with wingers since Reilly Smith was traded to Vegas in the summer of 2017.
There’s no question that his injury was the biggest factor contributing to his lackluster offensive numbers during last year’s campaign. However, he was still able to play 55 games and was usually paired with the red-hot Mike Hoffman.
The two would never really develop consistent chemistry, and that coupled with Trocheck’s demotion to the second power-play unit, with his overall points and goals total plummeting.
Often characterized as the heart of the team, Trocheck’s chemistry and success are paramount for the Panthers this season. In order for Trocheck to see success, they are going to need to find wingers able to develop chemistry with the young centerman.
While Barkov has a unique ability to make everyone around him better, Trocheck needs skillful playmakers to create with him.
This is not a knock on Trocheck at all. It’s very rare to find a player capable of finding success with a multitude of skill sets and playing styles, something Barkov has shown the ability to do with Bjugstad, Dadonov, Huberdeau, Jagr, Hoffman, and others. These players rose exponentially with Barkov, but couldn’t find a consistent spark with Trocheck.
But once chemistry is found, there’s no stopping Trocheck and his linemates. This was evident in 2016 with the chemistry and production between him and former linemates, Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith in particular.
For this reason, the lineup I will present below may seem unorthodox and unconventional given the lines from recent seasons, but necessary for the offensive production from all four lines, especially Trocheck’s.
To start, we place Frank Vatrano at right-wing with Trocheck. Vatrano had a terrific season last year scoring 24 goals and 39 points, which was enough to persuade management to present Vatrano with a three-year, $7.6 million ($2.53M AAV) contract extension.
Vatrano played with Trocheck most of the season last year, and while the chemistry wasn’t explosive, it was enough to warrant the placement together to start the season.
At left-wing, we move Henrik Borgstrom, a move that presents a drastic adjustment throughout the lineup, but will prove more fruitful for Borgstrom, Trocheck, and the Panthers overall.
While Borgstrom had a decent season last year, his hype and potential have yet to be achieved since hitting the NHL radar at the end of the 2017 season. There are two reasons for his underwhelming success: 1). Lack of talent surrounding the Panthers’ former top prospect and 2). A lack of playing time.
Averaging twelve minutes a game with third-line wingers have made it tough for the one they call “the Artist” to flower. Following behind Barkov and Trocheck at the center position poses an obstacle for Borgstrom to see quality offensive opportunities.
In addition to being the runt of the litter so to speak, Borgstrom had to work on his strengths and defensive acumen necessary for competing at the NHL level.
Standing as a thin 190lb center, the youngster was constantly being bullied down low in the defensive end, and much of his focus (rightly so) was working on not being a liability, as opposed to developing NHL level offensive confidence and skill.
At left-wing, Borgstrom provides a wide range of advantages for the team as a whole. With Borgstrom, Trocheck, and Vatrano as a line, the Panthers bolster a very fast, skilled line capable of transitioning quickly.
The line has two opposite-handed centers for key defensive draws, such as icings, as well as the ability to play a solid defensive game against opposing teams’ top lines.
The move provides Trocheck a skilled winger with the ability to develop unique plays during regular gameplay and continue the chemistry on the second power-play unit they appear on.
Additionally, it allows Borgstrom the opportunity to play more minutes overall, especially in settings more conducive for his abilities.
The glaring problem with this move is the removal of Borgstrom at the key position of third-line center. Skilled centers are hard to come by and develop, and it appears the Panthers were grooming Borgstrom for the role last year, as he played the third-line center role all 55 games he appeared in last season.
While he did very well, the position has a tempered ceiling offensively and should be considered for someone with fewer expectations and abilities as “the Artist.”
Enter newly extended Denis Malgin. While he possesses a meager stature, Malgin has been surprising successful defensively at the center position.
Being a smooth and skilled skater, Malgin relies on his stick checking ability and body placement for providing strong center defense. Although his game needs work on both ends of the ice, Malgin should provide the coaching staff with the confidence of running the third line to start the season.
Flanking Malgin, we have Mike Hoffman on the left and Owen Tippett on the right. It’s now or never for the shoot-happy prospect. This prospect camp will be his third since Tippett was drafted, and after impressing last year, he failed to make the team full-time.
This year should be his year to finally make the team, and with his inexperience and the talent level on the team, the third line is the optimal positioning for him to succeed.
The combination of Tippett, Malgin, and Hoffman provide the Panthers with another line of speed and skill. Malgin receives wingers eager to shoot (something he’s shown a reluctance to do) and a center for Tippett and Hoffman capable of creating time and space, with the skill to make effective passes.
An overall combination of players that provide a lot of skill for tertiary scoring, but that could pose legitimate defensive concerns. If defensive concerns due arise, Tippett can find himself replaced by newly acquired Brett Connolly.
Finally, we have a “swiss army knife” style line in Colton Sceviour, Noel Acciari, and Brett Connolly. Together, the three have grit, size, experience, and skill, and are capable of producing comparable to a third line at times but with the ability to change momentum with their bodies like a traditional fourth line.
A true all-purpose line, and one that Coach Quenneville can use when the game is tight and a goal is a need of attaining or protecting. A strong four-line unit, such as this one, affords Joel Quenneville the ability to manage key personnel well, limiting fatigue and injuries throughout the season.
Hurbedeau (L) – Barkov (L) – Dadonov (L)
Borgstrom (L) – Trocheck (R) – Vatrano (L)
Hoffman (L) – Malgin (R) – Tippett (R)
Sceviour (R) – Acciari (R) – Connolly (R)
Troy Brouwer (Potentially)
Overall, these lines present a strong structure to start with and could see success immediately. Malgin’s position as the third-line center may not be cemented as PTOs start to be handed out, but as long as his progression continues, he may be able to start the season there. It will be interesting to see how the lines do unfold. One thing is for sure, there are a lot of options for Coach Q to work with, which haven’t been the case in the past.