Projecting the forward lines for the 2021 Florida Panthers season

Following a disappointing end to a stellar regular season, Panthers GM Bill Zito approached the offseason with a clear vision in mind: keep the team together.

For the most part, Bill Zito accomplished what he wanted.

Goalie Chris Driedger and center Alex Wennberg went to Seattle, Zito signed and extended several key overachievers from last year’s squad.

Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Gustav Forsling, and Sam Bennett all received new contracts to stay in Florida long term.

Notably, the team also traded for star forward Sam Reinhart, rounding out the forward corps, while also cut ties with veteran defensemen Anton Stralman and Keith Yandle.

Recap the Magic

The Top 6

The best two forward lines last season were the Verhaeghe-Barkov-Duclair top line and the “9-1-1” second line comprised of Huberdeau, Bennett, and Duclair.

The Barkov line had an expected goals percentage of 65.6% over 230 minutes, while the Huberdeau line had an expected goals percentage of 71.4% over 60 minutes.

While the sample size for the Huberdeau line is quite small, those numbers are still remarkably difficult to maintain over the course of even a few games.

Keeping one of these lines intact for the upcoming season would be a smart move for the Panthers, as no teams have yet shown an ability to slow them down. The better bet here is to keep the “9-1-1” line together simply Barkov’s star power allows for extreme flexibility among the wingers playing next to him.

This leaves one spot open in the top 6, and it ultimately comes down to two players.  

Patric Hornqvist played consistent top 6 minutes last season (and did so quite admirably) until his injuries began to pile up.

While he can certainly play next to Barkov on the right side, newly acquired forward Sam Reinhart is the better option there.

Reinhart scored 25 goals and had 15 assists while maintaining a 55.6% on ice expected goals percentage on an abhorrent Buffalo Sabres team.

He has the talent to play top line minutes and should do so on this Panthers team. As a goal scorer next to Barkov, the fit is seamless, and will free up Barkov, allowing him to focus on playmaking and defense.

As for the bottom 6, things are looking slightly murkier.

Locks for the bottom 6 next year include Noel Accari, Mason Marchment, Frank Vatrano, Patric Hornqvist and highly touted prospect Anton Lundell.

That leaves one spot for Owen Tippett, Gregori Denisenko, Aleksi Heopniemi, and newcomer Maxim Mamin.

Anton Lundell projects most comfortably as the third line center, with goal scorer Frank Vatrano and power forward Patric Hornqvist on his wings. That third line would provide an incredible balance of scoring, defense, and grit — a matchup nightmare for most teams.

The fourth line, Noel Accari and Mason Marchment provided very strong minutes last season in that role.

Both played minutes on higher lines, but their skillsets are best suited to be fourth line grinders and they should be slotted there again next season.

As for who should play beside them, Maxim Mamin is the one.

Mamin came from Russia’s CSKA Moscow team and brings a physicality and selflessness that fits this bottom 6 role perfectly.

Owen Tippett showed flashes last season, but his skillset would be wasted playing on a lower line. He could also be used as trade bait since his play style is replicable on this team.

Denisenko and Heponiemi are both young and should spend time as extra skaters, or on the AHL team.

Shore up the Defense

Looking at the Panthers defense corps, much of the questions were resolved in the offseason.

The two most effective defensive pairings last season were Weegar-Ekblad and Weegar-Forsling. Gustav Forsling was bumped up to the top pairing with Mackenzie Weegar after Aaron Ekblad sustained a season ending injury. With Ekblad coming back this season, I expect the Ekblad-Weegar pairing to return.

That leaves Gustav Forsling in need of a new defense partner.

Forsling is aggressive on offense and the first to jump up on the rush, so a reliable defense-first defenseman would be the best choice here.

There aren’t many great options here, but Radko Gudas is the best. Together, the pair played over 200 minutes together registering a good but not great 51.9% expected goals percentage.

The most encouraging aspect of the pair, however, was their performance in the first round series against Tampa. In that series, they played 54 minutes over 6 games and has an expected goals percentage of 58.3%.

Lastly, Markus Nutivaara and Brandon Montour should play as the final pairing.

Over a small sample size last year, the two played exceptionally well together and could possibly recapture some of what worked well. As a bottom pairing, it is certainly a low-risk-high-reward gamble.

The goalie spot for the Panthers is arguably the easiest part of the roster to figure out.

Sergei Bobrovsky is a lock for one of the two goalie spots, and phenom prospect Spencer Knight is the frontrunner for the other.

Common logic would dictate Bobrovsky, with his experience and $10 million cap hit, is the clear choice to start most of the games.

However, Elliot Friedman on his 31 Thoughts podcast noted that Knight could very well be the starter next year if he outperforms Bobrovsky. That is just one situation which the Panthers will work out in training camp.

On paper, the roster is significantly better than last year’s team, but hockey is unpredictable, and players underperform.

Injuries are certain and lineups will change, but the Panthers have the personnel to weather the obstacles and put together another successful season of hockey in South Florida.

Only time will tell.

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