Despite a strong push toward the end of last season, the Florida Panthers failed to make the playoffs. Over the offseason, the Cats acquired former Ottawa Senator Mike Hoffman to shore up the second line. However, who will be a part of the bottom-six remains unclear. In this piece, I take a look into who I believe bench boss, Bob Boughner, will end up skating on the third and fourth lines this upcoming season.
An Improved Third Line
Expect to see 21-year-old Henrik Borgstrom centering the Panthers’ third line this season. The Finnish phenom dominated for the University of Denver last year, notching 52 points in 40 games. The question is how long will it take him to adjust to the speed of the NHL? Luckily for Florida, Borgstrom looked solid during his four-game stint with the team and even scored his first NHL goal against the Boston Bruins.
In 16 games with the club, Frank Vatrano looked at home. After the Panthers acquired him from the Bruins before the trade deadline last season, he tallied eight points, including an assist on Borgstrom’s lone goal. It will be interesting to see how Vatrano’s numbers will change as he moves from playing with Vincent Trocheck to an inexperienced youngster in Borgstrom. However, with what we saw of Vatrano last season, expect him to be a breakout performer for the Panthers.
Jamie McGinn looked to be a little out of his element while seeing second line action last season and totaled just 29 points in 76 games. At 30 years old, McGinn is set to make $3 million this season. With that type of money, it’s hard to see the Panthers giving him anything less than third line minutes. However, dropping McGinn from the second to third line can remove some scoring pressure and hopefully open up his game.
Don’t expect McGinn to be too comfortable as 19-year-old Owen Tippett looks to compete for a roster spot this season. Tippett is a quick skater with a rocket of a shot and would be a great addition to the third line if he can find his footing in the NHL. However, we can’t expect him to come out of the gate running and because of that, I believe we will see him intermittently on the third line.
Out of Touch Fourth Line
Who plays left wing on the fourth line is the most difficult position to determine. Unfortunately for enforcer Michael Haley, the NHL has evolved and teams now look for skill and skating ability on all four lines rather than his gritty style of play. With that being said, Boughner still loves that Haley is willing to get his hands dirty. However, with the Panthers finding themselves with an abundance of forward talent, I expect coach Boughner to begrudgingly scratch Haley more and more as the year progresses.
Denis Malgin was productive in the 51 games he played in last year. While he played primarily at center, Malgin showed he is able to use his quick skating ability to create mismatches for himself and finished the season with 22 points. If Malgin can fight off the injury bug that followed him around last season, he would be a great addition to a fourth line in need of scoring help.
Although it is evident that the league is changing, the fact of the matter is that Boughner has an old school hockey mentality who values intangibles such as leadership and toughness. That is why as long as team captain Derek MacKenzie wants to keep playing, he will be the fourth line center. He is revered in the locker room and does bring valuable experience to a team as young as the Panthers. Despite his lack of production, expect him to lead the fourth line this season.
Colton Sceviour was the lone bright spot on the Panthers fourth line last season with 11 goals and 13 assists. His success has not gone unnoticed. In February, the Panthers rewarded Sceviour with a three-year extension with general manager Dale Tallon quoted as saying: “A reliable two-way player, Colton is an important part of our team both on the ice and in our locker room, for now and for the future.” Players like Sceviour are the new wave of NHL fourth liners and Panthers fans should feel lucky to have him.
The Panthers have made depth a priority this offseason and I feel strongly that they have succeeded in adding help to the second and third lines. But for the Panthers to be a legitimate four line threat, Boughner and the rest of the organization need to realize that although fighting and big hits bring nostalgia to the hearts of hockey fans, enforcers are less valuable than they once were.
Players on the fourth line can no longer be one trick ponies or big bodied boxers, these types of players take roster spots from skaters who can have a greater impact on a nightly basis. Personally, I would like to see the Panthers use their fourth line in three main areas: puck possession, shot blocking/defensive prowess, and a scoring ability. Until the Panthers move away from players such as Shawn Thornton and Michael Haley, expect the fourth line to be nothing more than underwhelming.