With only nine to go before the start of the 2015-16 season, the Florida Panthers have to make some serious choices on who will be the team’s forwards on opening night.
“We’re starting to get deeper at all positions and there’s a competition level that’s getting greater and greater in the organization,” said Panthers GM Dale Tallon on Friday after the Panthers defeated the Dallas Stars 4-2. That win brings their preseason record to an even 2-2. “That’s how we’re going to get better when each guy knows there’s someone to take his job. They’re not going to slack off during the regular season.”
“I want to see how desperate they are to make our team.”
Desperation may lead to inspiration. The Panthers will have to shave their roster down to 23 players by opening night. Tallon intimated that he would like to see the team at that number before next Saturday’s preseason game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
So, what will the forward lines look like for next season? Have some of the rookies fought hard enough to make it on Florida’s roster?
Top Line: Jonathan Huberdeau–Nick Bjugstad–Jaromir Jagr
Huberdeau put up 54 points for the Cats last season. The young winger brings a dynamic edge to his game, and his speed and skill will only improve when paired with future Hall-of-Famer Jaromir Jagr. Jagr is still playing with the skill set of players half his age. Bjugstad was the team’s leading scorer (24) last season and having him centering Huberdeau and Jagr will only help them create more scoring chances and goals in the 2015-16 season.
Second Line: Jussi Jokinen–Aleksander Barkov–Reilly Smith
The 2014-15 season found Jokinen finishing second in overall scoring for the Cats with 44 points. Jokinen brings veteran stability to this line, and he has a great eye for the net. Barkov has great mitts, and has the capacity to exceed his personal record of 16 goals. He’ll be a strong center for the Panthers.
Maybe it’s a Scandinavian thing. Swedish players, when put together have solid chemistry on the ice. The same can be said for their Finnish counterparts. Jokinen and Barkov will work well together, and if they can help former Boston Bruin Reilly Smith recover from last year’s hot-and-cold season, this could be a very dangerous line for Florida.
Third Line: Brandon Pirri–Dave Bolland–Vincent Trocheck
Pirri was the most accurate shooter (15.4%) on the team last year. He’s a solid left-handed shot, and is an extremely versatile player. Moving him over to the left-wing would be a simple move that would bring considerable power to Florida’s third line.
Bolland was a steady and consistent center for the Blackhawks for six seasons, and he put up 20+ points for the Cats last year.
Trocheck would also be moving from his natural center position. Placing him on the right wing would give Florida three full lines all capable of putting up 20+ points per player. With that kind of firepower available, the Panthers could make a serious run at the playoffs.
Fourth Line: Three Candidates-Derek MacKenzie–Shawn Thornton
Derek MacKenzie and Shawn Thornton are experienced veterans with 24 NHL seasons between them. While the fourth line will be the Cats’ grinder line, they can afford to inject some youth into their bottom line.
Thornton is a 38-year old enforcer and will likely spend a healthy amount of time on the ninth level. There are three candidates in the running for the final slot, and it’s possible that two of them could end up on the team’s final roster.
Quinton Howden is the leading candidate right now. While last season was beset by injuries, he appears to be healthy right now. He brings a solid 6’2″ frame to the ice, and is capable of explosive movement. He also has 34 NHL games under his belt.
Connor Brickley was the Panthers’ second-round pick (50th overall) in 2010. He had a breakout year with the San Antonio Rampage in the AHL last season, putting up 47 points in 73 games. He has a level of snarl, and good hands as well. He put in the game winning goal against Dallas on Sunday.
The final candidate is Lawson Crouse, the Panthers’ first-round pick in the last draft. He’s the kind of player that can make an impact in their first year. While he’s the least likely of the bunch to make the opening night roster, it’s all but a lock that the Panthers will call him up for at least nine games at some point during the season.
Rocco Grimaldi will likely be starting the season on the injured reserve. Grimaldi put up seven games for the Cats last year, but has been battling back from an injury. Once his ankle is healed, he’ll likely be part of the Panthers’ bottom six forwards. He has the speed to be a valuable asset for Florida, and could play serious minutes this year if he’s healthy.
The Panthers were a dark horse for a good part of last season. They were one of the last teams to get knocked out of playoff contention, and they’ve got the young talent to seriously threaten other teams this season.
Captain @willie_mitch33 weighs in #FlaPanthers season opener 10/10 vs Philly pic.twitter.com/FDzBG0w230
— Steve Goldstein (@goldieonice) September 28, 2015