The Florida Panthers have announced that center Aleksander Barkov is out week-to-week with a lower body injury. Barkov, 26, leads the Panthers with nine goals and 17 points through the team’s first 16 games. The Panthers’ captain left Tuesday’s game against the New York Islanders in the second period after suffering an awkward knee-on-knee collision with Islander defenseman Scott Mayfield, who was assessed a five minute major penalty for the play. Barkov was in clear discomfort, struggling to get to the locker room and being helped off the ice by the training staff and teammates.
While news like this is never good, especially when it involves your captain and best player, the Panthers are probably breathing a sigh of relief that Barkov didn’t suffer a more serious injury. After watching Barkov hobbling off the ice, many were concerned that his injury would keep him out of the lineup for well over a month, perhaps even longer than that. Many have seen Barkov’s current status as a “best case scenario”, with the Cats’ captain not requiring surgery and simply having to rehab for a period of time.
Regardless, the Panthers will still be without their best player for several weeks, and a Barkov-sized hole in their lineup won’t be easy to fill. Luckily, if any team in the league is prepared to deal with a blow like this, it’s the Panthers. All year, they’ve been praised as having some of, if not the best, forward depth in the NHL: and now is their chance to prove it.
Barkov’s role on the ice can’t be completely replaced, but the impact of losing him can definitely be lessened by the Panther’s depth. Of course, the usual suspects will be turned to more than anyone. Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, MacKenzie Weegar, and Sergei Bobrovsky will be counted on now more than ever to display their elite talents. But beyond that lies a Florida team littered with talent, and this might be the opportunity that some hungry players have been waiting for.
For the time being, Coach Andrew Brunette has put together a top line of players who grew familiar with each other last year, and will be linemates for the first time this season. The line of Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Bennett, and Anthony Duclair absolutely tore through the league after last year’s trade deadline. Being dubbed the “911 line”, the trio put up a stellar showing seemingly every night, quickly becoming fan favorites and rejuvenating Sam Bennett’s career after being traded from Calgary. It’s no surprise that Brunette would trust the dominant line and reunite them on the top line in Barkov’s absence.
The second line still looks lethal, despite Barkov not being in the lineup. Carter Verhaeghe, Barkov’s usual wingman, will likely be asked to perform in a big way. Verhaeghe had no trouble scoring last year when Barkov missed time due to injury, scoring a hat trick in Dallas and remaining a key contributor as the Cats kept winning without him. The Panthers will hope Verhaeghe can replicate that success this year. Offseason acquisition Sam Reinhart has made a strong impact so far with his new team, with three goals and 11 points through 16 games, but now could be his chance to really prove his worth. The 26 year old finished top-10 in league scoring last year, and could be a huge presence with Barkov out. Centering the line is Anton Lundell, the 20 year old Finnish rookie whose game has been compared to Barkov’s for years. Slotting into the top-6 for the first time, Lundell will get the opportunity to show everyone why he was viewed as one of the league’s top prospects heading into this season.
The Panthers have relied on their bottom 6 to provide depth scoring all year, and that certainly won’t change with Barkov’s injury. Frank Vatrano and Owen Tippett will look to provide some offensive flair on the third line. Veterans Joe Thornton and Patric Hornqvist will look to play their role and chip in on offence when needed. Eetu Luostarinen will look to continue his pleasantly surprising strong start to the season. Ryan Lomberg will likely continue to be a fan favorite. The Cats have a lethal bottom 6 that can probably outscore any other in the NHL, and they’ll be turned to significantly more with Barkov injured.
The ;ack pf Aleksander Barkov’s presence won’t go unnoticed. It’s impossible for any team to replace a player of his caliber. But the Panthers have a lethal offensive unit that will likely make up for their captain’s absence better than any other team could. Players are going to have to step up, but this team has the talent to do so. Barkov’s injury may sting, but Cats fans should be confident that this group can come together and win some games before their captain returns to the lineup.