The expectations for the Florida Panthers heading into the 2021-22 season are incredibly high. The captain is locked in long-term, new additions up front promise to add more firepower, and rookie goalie Spencer Knight looks poised for a run at the Calder Trophy. A powerful top six is key, but to stay competitive throughout an 82-game season and a long playoff run, the Panthers will need to rely on their depth, specifically their third line. Here’s what to expect from the new trio of Frank Vatrano, rookie Anton Lundell, and veteran winger Patric Hörnqvist.
Shots, Shots, Shots
Even if coach Joel Quenneville relies on the third line to cover defensive zone draws, this line will almost certainly find a way to shoot the puck and drive the opposing net. All three players shoot the puck at abnormally high rates. Vatrano, who has a knack for scoring timely goals, led the team in five-on-five shots per 60 minutes of gameplay among those who played more than half a season with the club. Vatrano registered 11.6 shots per 60 minutes of five-on-five play, with Hörnqvist next behind him at 10.17 shots per 60 minutes.
Those numbers, among those who played more than a half season last season, put Vatrano third highest in the league behind just Brendan Gallagher and Brady Tkachuk. Hörnqvist slots close behind at 27th league-wide. Those shot rates are alongside perennial league leaders like Alex Ovechkin, David Pastrnak, and Auston Matthews. Put a different way; if Vatrano and Hörnqvist could somehow play the entire game without a break, they alone would combine for almost 21 shots a game — before Lundell or defensemen are even factored in.
Finnish rookie center Anton Lundell, by all accounts, is also a shoot-first player. Last year in the SM-Liiga (the Finnish Elite League) playing among grown men at just 19 years old, Lundell posted 16 goals and nine assists in 26 games. That nearly point-per-game pace saw his goals to assists ratio come in at almost 2:1.
Slash lines that feature more goals than assists are colloquially referred to as “Cy Young numbers,” given they more closely resemble a strong baseball pitcher’s win-loss record than an NHL forward’s offensive output. Lundell is no stranger to Cy Young numbers, and neither is Vatrano, having posted 18 goals and eight assists last season and 24 goals to go with 15 assists in his last full-length season. Hörnqvist has posted the slash line before, too, doing it four times in his long career.
Shooting the puck, driving the net, and fighting for rebound opportunities will quickly become a hallmark of this third line given their history, but there is still only one puck to go around. The question has to be asked, if they all look to shoot first, who passes the puck?
Though Lundell could reliably be expected to become the playmaker on the line, the reality is that the line is out to create havoc around the net. Who gets the puck to the blue paint does not really matter. Knowing the line will often match up against third defensive pairings and grittier bottom-six forward units, the need for precise playmaking lessens. A high shot volume combined with speed and offensive drive will be a lot to handle, potentially covering up the traditional holes in the line’s approach.
Panthers Special Teams Contributions
As with any bottom-six line in the league, the Panthers’ third line will have to do more than just hop over the boards every third time through. This line will have considerable responsibility on special teams.
On the power play, only Hörnqvist projects to get real minutes, factoring in as the net-front presence on the Panthers’ second unit. Should the extremely talented first unit falter at any point in the season, expect Hörnqvist to be the natural call-up, given his more than a decade of experience setting screens and picking up the famed ‘garbage goals’ in front.
Similarly, if Vatrano or Lundell can contribute significantly at five-on-five, the odds of them slotting onto the second unit to replace the veteran Joe Thornton are high. Given Thornton’s age and fourth line position, it’s likely that Quenneville subs Thornton out on a semi-regular basis to keep him fresh. When that happens, Lundell or Vatrano are natural replacements.
On the penalty kill, the jobs are more certain. With the injury to noted penalty killer Noel Acciari, Lundell is assured of a regular penalty-killing role.
That role, given the Panthers’ league topping amount of minor penalties, promises to be a busy one. It will likely get Lundell’s ice time around 15 to 17 minutes a game and give him exposure to top forwards Sam Bennett and Aleksander Barkov. The more he can play alongside the team’s superstars, the more comfortable the coaching staff will be deploying him in different situations, including late in close games.
Though the special teams exposure will not significantly alter the stat lines of any of the three forwards, the importance to the team’s playoff and Stanley Cup chances are large. Given the injury bug will likely hit the team at some point in the NHL season, the three forwards could find themselves in bigger spots. They could get added to the power play and penalty kill units with increased regularity or can even slot alongside the offensive juggernaut that is the Panthers’ top-six forwards.
Projecting the Third Line’s Output
Assuming a healthy season for the trio, the opportunity to put up solid numbers is nigh. Expect Lundell to embrace a penalty-killing role and fight for additional ice time. Though the importance to the team will be high, it will come at the expense of his individual stat line and any potential run at the Calder Trophy. Despite that, a stat line similar to Owen Tippett’s pace from last season is an upper ceiling within reach.
Lundell: 11 goals, 18 assists and prime penalty kill usage
For Vatrano, who also enters a contract year that sees him become an unrestricted free agent at year’s end, the goal potential is again high. Given his propensity to shoot the puck in all situations, he often finds himself called upon more often in close games than a third line winger ought to warrant. His Cy Young style stat line should continue, as should his over 20 goal a season pace.
Vatrano: 25 goals, 14 assists, and a very small handful of power play points to go with well over 200 shots
Hörnqvist is perhaps the hardest to predict among the group. His exposure on the second power play unit bodes well for his stat line, but the 34-year-old is getting slower and more reliant on others to create opportunities that he can finish. Given the potential decline, projecting his stat line can be difficult. Even though his tallies may not be pretty and could be created by others, the goals count just the same.
Hörnqvist: 18 goals, 21 assists and over 220 shots to go along with a declining shooting percentage
Ultimately, the third line may not make or break the Panthers’ chances at getting into the playoffs. However, to truly be a contender for the Stanley Cup they will need the offensive depth that this third line can bring. Even more so, they will need their contributions to special teams and late game situations, on both sides of the puck. Should this unit perform as projected, the Panthers may very will be legitimate contenders come May.
Mitch Davidson originally hails from Oro-Medonte, Ontario just north of Toronto and has been following hockey, the business of the NHL, and the Florida Panthers for the better part of two decades. In his professional career, Mitch is a full time writer as he serves as Executive Director of a public policy think tank, a regular public opinion columnist, and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, following a 6 year run as a senior staffer in provincial politics.