As we await news on the details of Aleksander Barkov’s contract extension, and since I have a substitute teacher today, I decided to write an article that would project the Florida Panthers starting lineup for the 2021-22 season when they face off against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday.
Line #1: #23 Carter Verhaeghe-#16 Aleksander Barkov-#13 Sam Reinhart
Aleksander Barkov is a man on a mission. With a new contract in his cap, Barkov has looked the best he ever has during training camp according to Coach Joel Quenneville. I mean when you are calling a performance where you put up 3 assists awful, you know you are in for a good year. Barkov has played in three preseason games with a goal and 5 assists. The reigning Selke winner and Team Finland selection is poised for his best season yet.
Carter Verhaeghe is back after an impressive breakout season last year with 18 goals in 42 games, which is a 35 goal pace. Verhaeghe is no slouch riding off Barkov either, as he managed to put up a hat-trick in a game with Barkov out. Verhaeghe signed a contract extension this offseason and will be a Panther for the next four years. The biggest concern I have with him is his durability, as he has had injury issues with the Panthers.
Sam Reinhart is the newest mercenary brought in by Bill Zito. The former second overall pick, Reinhart was reunited with fellow OHLers of the 2014 draft class Aaron Ekblad and Sam Bennett to form a trifecta of three of the first four overall picks of one draft on one team. Reinhart escaped the hell of Buffalo after a fantastic season in what was an awful season for the Sabres. Reinhart has struggled in his preseason outings, but a lot of that has been without Verhaeghe, and Barkov’s minutes have been limited to protect him. Once the season gets going, he should be fine.
Line #2: #11 Jonathan Huberdeau-#9 Sam Bennett-#74 Owen Tippett
The second part of the 2014 trifecta, Sam Bennett was brought in at the trade deadline after several years of futility in Calgary. Bennett has exploded in Florida, obtaining instant chemistry with Jonathan Huberdeau and putting up 15 points in 10 games, as well as 5 points in 5 playoff games. Bennett has modeled his game after Barkov since arriving in Florida and this has paid dividends. The biggest issue is Bennett’s discipline. Bennett takes a lot of stupid penalties and makes a lot of stupid plays, such as getting suspended for boarding Blake Coleman, which also cost the team Game 1 and running over Andrei Vasilevskiy for no reason in a preseason game, causing a massive fight-night. Bennett is a skilled player and he is more valuable on the ice than off it.
Jonathan Huberdeau is a superstar. The longest tenured Panther, Huberdeau is the highest scoring player in franchise history and is two points away from 500 career points, and will become the first Panther to hit that mark with all of those points as a member of the Panthers. Huberdeau was separated from Barkov and it paid dividends as he helped create a 1b line that is just as dangerous, if not more dangerous than Barkov’s line. Huberdeau is eligible for an extension next offseason and it may not be completely affordable for the team.
Owen Tippett has been having an absolutely incredible preseason. Tippett is firing on all cylinders, and has been the undisputed MVP of the Panthers preseason. Tippett is far more confident this season, and has carved a role for himself with Huberdeau and Bennett, after a solid postseason. He also had his first career fight, defeating Corey Perry in a match of fisticuffs. Tippett is expected to be a breakout player this year. The biggest concern is living up to his potential.
Line #3- #77 Frank Vatrano-#15 Anton Lundell-#70 Patric Hornqvist
Anton Lundell enters his rookie season as the likely 3C for the Panthers. After being held out of most of the preseason, Lundell made his debut yesterday. With the injury to Acciari, Lundell will play a key part on the Panthers penalty kill. Playing with a solid sniper in Vatrano and a grizzled vet in Hornqvist should be very helpful for his development. The biggest concern is if he is NHL ready.
Frank Vatrano is entering what will likely be his final season as a Panther. A phenomenal sniper, Vatrano had 24 goals in 2018-19, before putting up 16 goals the season after. In the pandemic-shortened season, he had 18 goals, but did not get too many assists. He was average in the playoffs. Vatrano is a great sniper and decent defensively, but he is a bit of a hothead and agitator. Vatrano will play a key role on the Panthers this season. The biggest concern is if Vatrano can stay consistent.
Patric Hornqvist had an excellent season last year, but was hampered by injuries and has significantly slowed down. Hornqvist is great at standing at the front of the net on the powerplay. However, he is best for his locker room presence. Hornqvist’s durability is his biggest question mark.
Line #4- #17 Mason Marchment-#19 Joe Thornton-#10 Anthony Duclair
Joe Thornton will likely start as the 4th line center, due to Noel Acciari’s injury. Thornton is a solid grizzled veteran and is cup chasing, believing that the Panthers are the team best suited to help him capture that elusive stanley cup. Thornton’s biggest concern is his speed.
Mason Marchment likely starts as the 4th line left wing. He is great at sliding up and down the lineup and will serve as a valuable energy guy and forechecker. Marchment;s biggest concern is his skill.
Anthony Duclair is another solid guy who can slide up and down the lineup. Duclair is super fast and is a very good playmaker. He can create plays and uses his speed. He can help on the forecheck as a fourth liner. Duke’s biggest concern is his consistency.
Juho Lammikko and Ryan Lomberg both will likely be the extra forwards. Lammikko will likely serve as the 4th line center, splitting time with Thornton, while Lomberg will serve as a good agitator and likely play to give Hornqvist some rest (Duke would likely move up to line 3 when that happens).
Noel Acciari will start the season on the Injured Reserve, likely LTIR while rehabbing from an upper-body injury. Acciari is expected to be out months.
D-Pair #1: #52 Mackenzie Weegar-#5 Aaron Ekblad
Coming off a year where he got Norris votes, Mackenzie Weegar enters this year with Aaron Ekblad back. Weegar is a phenomenal two-way defender who can eat up minutes and will likely serve as the #1 defender this year, as Ekblad gets up to speed. Weegar does have the odd game where he struggles and the biggest concern is making sure that he can stay consistent.
Aaron Ekblad was having a Norris caliber season until he went down with a freak injury. Ekblad was one of the best defensemen goal scorers last year and hasn’t seemed to miss a beat in the preseason. Ekblad will serve as the PP quarterback with Yandle gone. Ekblad’s biggest concern is making sure that he is able to recover from that injury and be able to skate efficiently.
D-Pair #2: #42 Gustav Forsling- #62 Brandon Montour
Gustav Forsling had a great return to the NHL after a season in the minors. Forsling is a prototypical Coach Q player who Coach Q has used to get the best out of. Forsling stepped up big last season when Ekblad went down, playing big minutes with Weegar. Forsling does struggle a bit defensively and that can be an issue.
Brandon Montour was very solid with the Panthers after being acquired from the Buffalo Sabres. Montour needs to work on his defensive game however.
D-Pair #3: #65 Markus Nutivaara-#7 Radko Gudas
Markus Nutivaara is solid, but he has some issues defensively and has issues with durability.
Gudas is a great physical presence and a great locker room guy, but he can sometimes have issues trying to make a big hit, which allows the offense to get prime chances.
Extra Defender: Kevin Connauton
Starting Goalie: #72 Sergei Bobrovsky
Backup Goalie: #30 Spencer Knight