During a 6-1 victory over the New York Islanders on Nov. 16, Aleksander Barkov was helped off the ice after a knee-on-knee hit from Islanders forward Scott Mayfield. According to interim head coach Andrew Brunette, he is considered week-to-week and will not need surgery. We don’t yet know how many weeks that will be, and it will be extremely difficult for the Florida Panthers to replace someone of Barkov’s caliber; through 15 games, he leads the team in points with 17 and goals with nine. He also leads the team in power-play goals with two on a unit that has struggled mightily this season.
On the bright side, Florida has incredible center depth. They have been clutch often this season, including a 5-2 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes on Nov. 6, the only game that Barkov has missed. Still, many candidates could be a good stop-gap while their captain is absent.
A Finnish two-way center? It’s almost as if Barkov was never injured. Since he was drafted 12th overall last year, Anton Lundell has played as if he’s been in the NHL his entire career. In 14 career games, he has seven points (three goals, four assists), including the game-winning goal on Nov. 6 against the Hurricanes.
In addition, Lundell has been given a lot of responsibility this season playing on the top penalty kill unit, where he’s excelled, helping the team to rank 17th in the league when down a man. His style is extremely similar to Barkov’s, and he’s been centering two similar talents in Frank Vatrano and Sam Reinhart. Because of that, Lundell should get a crack at the top line.
In the same Nov. 6 game against Carolina, Eetu Luostarinen was slotted into the top line between Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair in Barkov’s absence. As a result, he already understands the responsibilities of being a top-line center.
Acquired from the Hurricanes in a trade that featured Vincent Trocheck in Feb. 2020, Luostarinen has played at a high level. Through 15 games, he’s scored six goals, including three game-winners. That includes an overtime winner against the Washington Capitals on Nov. 4. Since then, he’s been a plug-in on Florida’s fourth line thanks to his speed and shot. He also has good goal-scoring ability and experience playing on the top-line, so he could easily fill the void at center on the top line.
Acquired last season at the trade deadline, Sam Bennett completely turned his career around after a rough start with the Calgary Flames. He had 15 points (six goals, nine assists) in his first 10 games with the Panthers and was rewarded with a new contract worth $4.425 million per year for four years.
This season has been no different. Through 14 games, he has 10 points (six goals, four assists), and the fresh start has done wonders for his career. He’s also been playing on an elite line that features Jonathan Huberdeau and Owen Tippett, or, in certain circumstances, he might play on a good line featuring Huberdeau and Duclair. Slotting him into the top line or mixing one up for him could lead to massive success.
Panthers Have the Talent to Step up in Barkov’s Absence
Despite losing Barkov for some time, the team has shown they can win without him. The Panthers are second in the league and first in the Atlantic Division with a 13-2-3 record and 29 points. The season is still young, but the team has been playing at a historic pace, with a perfect 10-0-0 record at home. Given their depth, anything is possible for the Panthers this season.
My name is Joey. I’ve been writing about the NHL for about 3 years with my experience spread out between TSJ 101 Sports and Panther Parkway. I look forward to you reading my articles!