With preseason hockey underway and the regular season set to begin in under two weeks, the Florida Panthers find themselves facing an ever-growing reality: the team has a surplus of forward depth. This is by no means a bad issue to have; it’s quite the opposite. Too much depth is never a bad thing for an NHL organization. Regardless, the Panthers will still need to find a way to cut their training camp roster from its current 41 players to 23 by the start of the regular season. Out of the 25 forwards at camp, the team will likely go into the season carrying 14 on their day-to-day roster. With the Cats forced to cut players soon, they are faced with two main questions: who makes the team out of training camp, and what happens to those who don’t make the cut?
Let’s start with the obvious. The Panthers’ projected top line of Carter Verhaeghe, Aleksander Barkov, and Sam Reinhart will all make the opening night roster. Jonathan Huberdeau and Sam Bennett are also locks to make the team, playing together on the second line. Owen Tippett has emerged as the favorite to round out Florida’s top six, and the Cats likely won’t be shipping off Anthony Duclair fresh after signing him to a 3-year extension. Veteran leader Patric Hornqvist will continue to be a presence in the bottom six after a solid first year in Florida. Finally, Noel Acciari has his name all but engraved into the lineup as the team’s fourth line center. These players make up nine of the 14 forwards that will end up on the final roster, and it’s here where we can truly start questioning which of the remaining players will round out this Panthers team up front.
Ever since being acquired in exchange for a third round pick from the Boston Bruins, Frank Vatrano has been a fan favorite among Panther fans. The 27-year-old winger is coming off one of his most productive NHL seasons, scoring 18 goals and 26 points in 56 games last year. Despite sometimes being criticized by the fanbase for his one-dimensional playstyle, it’s safe to say that Vatrano has proven to be a top-14 forward on the team and will easily make the roster as a third liner as long as he’s still with the organization. But, that’s where the big question with Vatrano pops up: is it time to move on from him? While I’m sure no Cats fan would be happy to see him go, none of them would deny that Vatrano plays a hot-and-cold style of game that is heavily reliant on his scoring touch being present at any given time. Given his streaky style of play, as well as his likely diminishing role on the team due to new acquisitions such as Sam Reinhart and the growing presence of younger players like Owen Tippett, who knows if Vatrano will ever match his scoring rate from this past season? Entering a contract year, his trade value may never be higher than it is now. With tons of talent gunning for a role in the bottom six, it may be best for the Cats to cash in on Vatrano’s value before he is given the chance to walk in free agency.
What other options do the Panthers have returning from last year besides Vatrano? One option is 26-year-old Mason Marchment, who made quite an impression on coach Joel Quenneville during his rookie campaign last year. Marchment played solidly in the bottom six, and even filled in on the top line when Carter Verhaeghe suffered an upper-body injury, where he managed to fill the role well until the team was fully healthy again. He would be a cheap addition to the roster who proved in a small sample size that he could reliably play up and down the lineup on a nightly basis.
Another cheap option would be Eetu Luostarinen, who made the opening night roster out of training camp last year. Despite struggling during his stint in the NHL(posting 8 points in 44 games before being assigned to the Liiga to finish the year), the 23-year-old put up a strong 15 points in 17 games with KalPa of Liiga, and has once again turned some heads with a strong training camp. Furthermore, depth center Juho Lammikko and Stanley Cup Playoff overtime hero Ryan Lomberg will be competing for a roster spot. Both players may not have tons of untapped potential, but are still relatively young depth pieces that can reliably fill out a bottom six should they need to.
About a month before the start of training camp, the Panthers inked 42-year-old legend Joe Thornton to a one-year deal. Last season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Thornton scored 5 goals and 15 assists in 44 games, proving he can still be effective in a limited role. Due to his age, he will likely be given plenty of off days to rest, and will probably see the ice for 20-30 regular season games. While its likely that the Panthers simply keep Thornton on the final roster, perhaps they try a similar strategy to what the Maple Leafs used last year with forward Jason Spezza. The Leafs cleared a roster spot by assigning Spezza to the taxi squad, with Spezza threatening to retire if another team claimed him off the waiver wire to ensure he remained in Toronto. Given Thornton’s similar status to Spezza as a respected veteran, a maneuver like this one, where Thornton is assigned to Charlotte of the AHL, could help to give the Cats more roster flexibility during the season.
Thornton wasn’t the only signing the Panthers made during the offseason that generated some buzz. The Cats also managed to sign highly-touted Finnish prospect Anton Lundell to a three-year entry level contract. The 12th overall pick in the 2020 entry draft, Lundell turned in a sensational season last year after being drafted by the Panthers. He attracted attention league-wide when he scored 16 goals and 25 points in 26 games with HIFK of Liiga as a teenager. The 19-year-old was expected to get every opportunity to make the Cats’ roster out of training camp when he signed his ELC. Unfortunately, Lundell suffered a minor injury during camp that has kept him from practicing with the team or playing in any preseason games. Due to his not getting a chance to prove himself prior to the season’s start, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is sent to develop his game with the Charlotte Checkers in the AHL to start the year. Lundell would get the chance to fully recover from the injury he sustained, as well as get more acclimated to North American ice, while likely being slotted as one of the first callups to the main roster in the case of an injury.
There are other rookies besides Lundell looking to crack the opening night roster. Neither Serron Noel nor Logan Hutsko have played an NHL game in their carrers. but both have performed well enough during preseason to get some looks from the coaching staff; so much so, in Noel’s case, that he’s been getting reps with the main roster during practice. Both Noel and Hutsko have one goal during preseason play, with Noel adding on a shootout winner during Wednesday’s game against the Dallas Stars. Aleksi Heponiemi and Grigori Denisenko are also looking to slot themselves into the lineup this year. Each of them saw limited NHL action with the Cats last season, with Heponiemi scoring 1 goal and 1 assist in 9 games and Denisenko scoring 4 assists in 7 games. Denisenko put up a solid showing during the Cats’ three game rookie showcase, scoring a goal and an assist. Heponiemi has scored once in his two preseason appearences.
With all of that being said, what course of action will the Panthers take heading into next year? At this point, the Cats would have five forward slots up for grabs on their final roster, with Vatrano, Marchment, Luostarinen, Lomberg, Lammikko, Thornton, Lundell, Noel, Hutsko, Heponiemi, and Denisenko all competing for a spot. Earlier, I discussed the possibility of the Panthers trading Frank Vatrano to clear room on the roster for younger players. While a few rumors have come and gone on that front, nothing even remotely concrete has come out hinting that Vatrano will be leaving South Florida for the time being. With the season right around the corner and the speculation mostly dead, it’s safe to assume that Vatrano will take his spot on the Panthers’ third line come opening night.
As for the remaining four spots, the Panthers have a boatload of options. If I had to guess, I would say Marchment, Luostarinen, Thornton, and Noel round out the forward group, with Lundell, Denisenko, and Hutsko penciled in as the first callups from the AHL when needed. But that’s only one of many different routes the Cats can take, and the best part is that there isn’t any one right answer to the problem at hand. As I said before, having too much depth is never a bad issue to have. Most NHL teams would kill to have this many options within their organization. The Cats may have some tough decisions on their hands, but I definitely don’t think that’s something to complain about. No matter who the Panthers send out on opening night, they should consider themselves lucky to have enough quality pieces in the system to create this dilemma.