New Cats on the Block Part 1: Rookies that Could Make the Starting Lineup in 2020-21

With the first season of the Bill Zito era about to get underway, the Florida Panthers made a lot of changes to their roster in the Coronavirus offseason.

Notable players exited including Evengii Dadonov, Brian Boyle, Erik Haula, Lucas Wallmark and likely Mike Hoffman to free agency. The Panthers also subtracted Mike Matheson, Colton Sceviour and Josh Brown through trades.

Despite the losses of Dadonov and Hoffman severely hurting the Panthers goal scoring abilities, as the two were the top two goal scorers in the Covid shortened 2019-20 season, as well as Hoffman being the leading playoff goal scorer, several rookies could make the jump to replace them. Let’s take a look at the new faces from the farm system.

Some of these faces are not entirely new to the Panthers faithful. Many have suited up for a handful of games for the team, before being sent back to the minors for continued development.

Right now, the Panthers defense and goaltending is pretty much set. However, I can see at least three rookie forwards making the opening night roster.

Also, remember the Panthers have changed their minor league affiliation from Springfield to Charlotte.

To my regular readers, I’m going to try to expand my audience as well to incorporate newcomers, who might not entirely be familiar to the concept of hockey, below I will do a quick explanation of how a hockey roster works. If you are familiar with the process, and want to get right to the nitty gritty, you may scroll past it.

In the NHL, teams play 5 players on the ice at a time. Due to the intense physical demands of the game, teams rotate players on the ice, with most players only playing about 40 seconds of ice time at a time. Each turn on the ice is called shifts. One player usually plays the entire game however, which is the goalie. He has a backup in case he struggles or is injured. There are two categories of positions in hockey: forwards and defenseman. Usually, teams play twelve forwards and six defensemen in a game. Usually this means three forwards and two defenders are on the ice at a time. To keep chemistry, players usually play with the same players consistently. At the forward position, there are three sub positions: Center, Left Wing and Right Wing. The Wingers are more offensive minded, while the center is more defensive. Teams usually have 4 lines of 3 forwards with each line being made up of a center, left wing and right wing usually, although the wingers are interchangeable at times. Teams also have 3 lines of 2 defenders each who each play one side of the ice, usually their shooting side. Teams must dress 18 skaters and 2 goalies for each game. However, they may keep three reserves on the roster whom they do not dress for the game. This means, the players are not eligible to play, even in cases of injury. There is a situation with goalies, but that’s a whole other can of worms. Most teams keep two reserve forwards and a reserve defenseman. If some players struggle, they may be rotated out of the lineup and replaced with a reserve or as they are known a “scratched player”. There are exceptions for injuries but like the goalie situation, that’s getting too complicated. Without further ado, let’s meet the new Cats on the block.

Near Certain to Make The Roster

These two forwards have been excellent in their development and are almost locks to make the opening night roster.

Aleksi Saarela, Winger

Florida Panthers Recall Forward Aleksi Saarela from Springfield (AHL)
Aleksi Saarela. Image Credit to

2019-20 Regular Season Stats: Springfield (AHL) 43 GP, 12 G, 19 A, 31 PTS, 12 PIM; Rockford (AHL) 5 GP, 0 G, 1 A, 1 PTS, 0 PIM; Florida (NHL) 9 GP, 2 G, 2 A, 4 PTS, 0 PIM

2019-20 Playoff Stats: Florida (NHL): 1 GP, 0 G, 0 A, 0 PTS, 0 PIM

2020-21 Stats: Luukko (Liiga, Finland): 15 GP, 11 G, 5 A, 16 PTS, 0 PIM

NHL Career Stats: 2019-20 Regular Season: 9 GP, 2 G, 2 A, 4 PTS, 0 PIM; Playoffs: 2 GP, 0 G, 0 A, 0 PTS, 0 PIM

Contract Status: RFA

Age: 23

Acquired: Trade with the Chicago Blackhawks

Country: Finland

Summary: A key contributor in the stretch run of the 2019-20 season, Saarela showed a lot of promise, with a lethal shot, and playing very strong games to end the regular season. With the loss of Dadonov and Hoffman, as well as a strong performance in the Finnish Liiga, Saarela is expected to be dressed on the opening night roster, likely playing on either the third or fourth forward line.

Likelihood of Making Opening Night Roster: 95%

Likelihood of Playing in the NHL in 2020-21: 99%

Owen Tippett, Winger

Florida Panthers: Sending Owen Tippett Down was the Right Decision
Owen Tippett. Image from The Rat Trick, originally provided by Getty Images

2019-20 Regular Season Stats: Springfield (AHL) 46 GP, 19 G, 21 A, 40 PTS, 18 PIM

NHL Career Stats: 2017 7 GP, 1 G, 0 A, 1 PTS, 0 PIM

Contract Status: ELC 2 years $863K

Age: 21

Acquired: 1st Round Pick in 2017

Country: Canada

Summary: After a 7 game tryout in his draft year, Tippett was sent back to the OHL (a Canadian junior hockey league) to continue his development. The Panthers also sent him back in 2018-19. After completing his junior eligibility, Dale Tallon decided that a season in AHL Springfield would help Tippett. Tippett lit up the AHL with 40 points in his first full season in professional hockey, becoming an AHL all-star, before a hand injury ended his season prematurely. Many have thought of Tippett as the permanent answer to who will play with all-stars Aleksander “Sasha” Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, both offensive machines with pass heavy tendencies. Having a pure sniper like Tippett on their wing can turn the Canadian into a consistent 30 goal scorer. With Hoffman and Dadonov leaving, Zito and Coach Q would be foolish not to include the team’s best scoring prospect on the opening night roster.

Likelihood of Making Opening Night Roster: 90%

Likelihood of Playing in the NHL in 2020-21: 95%

Competing for a Roster Spot

These prospects have been competitive in their development, but not at the level of becoming locks. They will all likely compete for a roster spot.

Eetu Luostrainen, Center

Hurricanes sign Finnish prospect Eetu Luostarinen to three-year,  entry-level deal | Yardbarker
Eetu Luostrainen. Image Credit to Yardbarker

2019-20 Stats: Charlotte (AHL) 44 GP, 8 G, 17 A, 25 PTS, 24 PIM; Springfield (AHL) 5 GP, 0 G, 0 A, 0 PTS, 0 PIM, Carolina (NHL) 8 GP, 0 G, 1 A, 1 PTS, 0 PIM

2020-21 Stats: KalPa (Finnish Liiga) 15 GP, 5 G, 10 A, 15 PTS, 12 PIM

NHL Career Stats: 2019 8 GP, 0 G, 1 A, 1 PTS, 0 PIM

Contract Stats: 2 years, $897.5K

Age: 22

Acquired: Trade with the Carolina Hurricanes

Country: Finland

Summary: Acquired in the Vincent Trocheck deal, Luostrainen has been lighting up the Finnish Liiga during the 2020-21 season. Luostrainen’s strong campaign has put him on the map as a possibility to crack the NHL roster. However, the Panthers have a solid prospect pool up the middle with Anton Lundell leading the way, followed by Luostrainen.

Likelihood to Make the Opening Night Roster: 31%

Likelihood to Play in the NHL in 2020-21: 86%

Grigori Denisenko, Winger

The Rink - Draft Prospect Profile: Grigori Denisenko
Grigori Denisenko. Image Credit to The Rink

2019-20 Regular Season Stats: Lokomotiv Yaroslav (KHL) 38 GP, 6 G, 6 A, 12 PTS, 8 PIM

2019-20 World Juniors Stats: Russia (IIHF) 7 GP, 3 G, 6 A, 9 PTS, 8 PIM

2019-20 Playoff Stats: Lokomotiv Yaroslav (KHL) 6 GP, 1 G, 0 A, 1 PTS, 0 PIM

Contract Status: 3 years, $925K

Age: 20

Acquired: 2018 1st Round Pick

Country: Russia

Summary: After captaining Russia to a silver medal at the World Juniors and an impressive sophomore season in the KHL (the Russian pro hockey league, second best hockey league in the world), Denisenko is taking his talents to Florida. Rooming with Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and getting his Florida’s driver’s license, Denisenko seemingly has no plans to leave Sunny Florida anytime soon. However he does face a tough road. Panthers management may want their budding Russian prodigy to play in the AHL for a bit to get used to the North American game, as the rink in the NHL is smaller than the international rink. However, the KHL did shrink its rink size to fit the NHL standard recently, so Denisenko might not face much trouble in transforming his game. There are also concerns about how he would do against the pros. He didn’t light up the KHL, as 12 points in 38 games is not great by North American standards. However, there is a noticeable curve between the European and North American development system. Canadian prospects are expected to light it up at over a point per game pace in the CHL, while collegiate prospects are supposed to put up about a point per game. In Europe, the competition is stiffer, as you are up against professionals. Denisenko’s numbers against KHL pros are what you would expect for a 19 year old to put up against professionals, but there are still concerns about what this means for his NHL future.

Likelihood of making Opening Night Roster: 23%

Likelihood of playing in the NHL in 2020-21: 67%

Anton Lundell, Center

Anton Lundell: 2020 NHL Draft Prospect Profile | A potentially elite  all-around center out of Liiga - All About The Jersey
Anton Lundell. Image Credit to All About the Jersey

2019-20 Stats: HIFK (Liiga) 44 GP, 10 G, 18 A, 28 PTS

2020-21 Stats: HIFK (Liiga) 15 GP, 11 G, 8 A, 19 PTS

Contract Status: Unsigned

Age: 19

Acquired: 2020 1st Round Pick

Country: Finland

Summary: The most hyped up prospect to enter the Panthers system since Aaron Ekblad, Lundell has had an offensive explosion this year. He’s had two huge games, one where he put up 4 goals and another where he put up 6 points. With many scouts comparing him to his Finnish counterpart and new teammate, Panther captain and superstar Sasha Barkov, due to their strong two-way minded games, many are excited to see a 1-2 punch of Barkov and Lundell. Despite seeming NHL ready, the Panthers want Lundell to finish the season in Finland which ends in March. If he is ready, the team could sign him to join the roster at midseason due to the delayed start of the upcoming 2020-21 season because of COVID-19.

Likelihood of Making the Opening Night Roster: 4%

Likelihood of Playing in the NHL in 2020-21: 74%

Henrik Borgstrom, Center

Florida Panthers: Henrik Borgstrom Rumored to Return to Finland
Henrik Borgstrom. Image Credit to The Rat Trick

2019-20 Stats: Springfield (AHL) 49 GP, 11 G, 12 A, 23 PTS, 10 PIM; Florida (NHL) 4 GP, 0 G, 0 A, 0 PTS, 0 PIM

2020-21 Stats: HIFK (Liiga) 3 GP, 0 G, 2 A, 2 PTS, 2 PIM

NHL Career Stats: 2018-19; 58 GP, 9 G, 19 A, 28 PTS, 6 PIM

Contract Status: RFA

Age: 23

Acquired: 2016 1st Round Pick

Country: Finland

Summary: After his development was mishandled by the Panthers, Borgstrom went back to Finland during the pandemic. Borgstrom is not on good terms with the Panthers front office who sent him down to the AHL early last season and he wasn’t recalled. After a lengthy injury kept him off the playoff roster, Borgstrom has gone back home to Finland. It is up to Bill Zito to fix the relationship with Borgstrom. However, there is hope. Zito convinced Juho Lammikko to come back, so anything is possible.

Likelihood of Making Opening Night Roster: 50% (if signed); 0% (if he doesn’t come back)

Likelihood of Playing in the NHL in 2020-21: 95% (if relationship is fixed); 0% (if the bridge is too badly burnt)

Juho Lammikko, Center

Florida Panthers Need to Re-Sign RFA Juho Lammikko
Juho Lammikko. Image Credit to The Rat Trick

2019-20 Stats: Karpat (Liiga) 57 GP, 22 G, 29 A, 51 PTS, 48 PIM

2020-21 Stats: Metallurg Magnitogorsk (KHL) 22 GP, 6 G, 2 A, 8 PTS, 8 PIM

NHL Career Stats: 2018-19 40 GP, 0 G, 6 A, 6 PTS

Contract Status: 1 year $725K

Age: 24

Acquired: 2014 3rd Round Pick

Country: Finland

Summary: Another prospect with burnt bridges, Bill Zito repaired them as he surprisingly signed Lammikko, whom many thought wasn’t coming back. A fourth liner in the 2018-19 season, Lammikko played a defensive shut down role until he was sent down. Lammikko has a chance to make the opening night roster, but it’s slim.

Chance of Making Opening Night Roster: 15%

Chance of Playing in the NHL in 2020-21: 45%