SUNRISE — Eetu Luostarinen has received a lot of praise from the Florida Panthers this season.
Enough so that Panthers captain Sasha Barkov wanted to pump the brakes a little bit — at least jokingly — when asked about his new linemate.
“I don’t want to give him too many compliments,” Barkov said, “but he’s been really good this year.”
Yes, he has been.
The 24-year-old center has developed from a quiet, two-way fourth line center to a consistent fixture in Florida’s top-9 in the span of a year while smashing his career-highs in the process.
“He is making those plays that not too many guys can do,’’ Barkov said. “He is always there so you can count on him whenever you’re open.
”He is a really good hockey player.”
Barkov has had a pretty big hand in helping his fellow Finnish countryman develop into the player he has become.
The two have had their lockers parked next to each other the whole season and it is clear that the knowledge from one of the NHL’s premier two-way centers has rubbed off on the young Luostarinen.
“For him, I think learning off Barky has been huge for him and you are starting to see it now,” Anthony Duclair said.
”He is becoming a very reliable centerman where he has played in all situations of a game and he has become a huge part of this team. Guys go down with injuries and he always finds a way to step up so that’s a big credit to him.”
Sometimes by choice and sometimes by circumstance, the Panthers have leaned on Luostarinen a lot this season.
Florida coach Paul Maurice made it a point to do whatever he could to put Luostarinen in the top-9 at the beginning of the season and his confidence in him seemed to light a fire under him.
He has taken on the role as the team’s top line center on multiple occasions when Barkov, Sam Bennett and Anton Lundell have missed extended periods of time this season.
And he has parlayed that into a career-high 15 goals and 34 points with 18 games still to go.
“What you need eventually is for the center to carry the line, and he is a young player who is able to carry a line now,” Maurice said.
“I think we could put another young player with him and they’d still be very good, or you could put a more one-dimensional player with him, and he could still be very good, because he can carry the line defensively.”
When Barkov and Bennett missed time over the last two weeks, he rose to the occasion and helped the Panthers keep themselves from falling out of the playoff race as much as he could.
He stepped in and put up two goals and seven points in seven games since Bennett sustained an injury that kept him out for over two weeks on Feb. 14.
“He’s such a smart player,” Sam Reinhart said
“I don’t know many guys in this league who could fill in for Barky. His game has really elevated this year. His composure out there—offensively he’s making a lot of plays, defensively he’s always kind of had that game. So, it was nice to see him jump in there and you kind of expected it out of him.”
When he is not stepping up in the face of injuries, his impact is really felt on the penalty kill.
Maurice entrusted him on the top unit alongside Eric Staal in November and he has stuck with it ever since.
“There are a bunch of reasons [why I like that combination,]” Maurice said. “Luosty’s got a lot of giddy up, he can cover some ice and he’s got a good, long stick.
”At this point of his career, we don’t have him running big minutes on the power play so he can really sink his teeth in and make an impact on the game and we need to train him to do that. As a younger player, he needs to find a piece of the game where he can invest in and know he has a major impact.”
The numbers are not in Florida’s favor — mainly due to a host of injuries to the aforementioned centermen — but when healthy, the combination of Luostarinen and Staal have allowed the Panthers to have a wave of three units that kill penalties efficiently.
And it allows for top players like Barkov, Bennett and Lundell to have a lighter load in the long run.
But Luostarinen has become a player that the Panthers will continue to rely heavily on even with Barkov and Bennett back in the lineup.
He finds himself flanking Barkov’s left side on the top line alongside Duclair on a line Florida hopes will stick for the rest of the season.
And it already paid off with a goal for Luostarinen in the line’s first game together on Saturday.
”He is amazing,” Barkov said. ”He’s a great guy and I’m really happy for him. I am excited to be with him. He is one of those guys you love to play with.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- This season (Vegas leads 1-0): Golden Knights 4, Panthers 2 (Jan. 12)
- Last season: Split 1-1
- All-time regular season series: Vegas leads 6-2-1
- Up Next for the Panthers: Friday vs. Chicago. 7 p.m.