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Florida Roll Call: Future of Noel Acciari with the Panthers

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Noel Acciari
Florida Panthers center Noel Acciari celebrates his first NHL hat trick on Dec. 16, 2019. — Photo by @GeorgeRichards

After losing his spot as a regular in the Florida Panthers lineup, it looks like Noel Acciari’s three-year run in Sunrise is coming to an end.

The 30-year-old forward will be a free agent on Wednesday and, with the Panthers’ cap space dwindling down to less than $1 million, they like cannot afford to bring him back.

Coming into the season, it was expected that Acciari would be the Panthers’ fourth-line center.

Only things took a turn for the worst during a preseason matchup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in Orlando on Oct. 5.

Acciari’s shoulder muscle popped as he was separating a Tampa player from a scrum. The push from Pat Maroon in the aftermath worsened things as he appeared to hit his head on the ice.

The shoulder injury he sustained required surgery and he would not return until after the All-Star break in February.

While he was gone, Eetu Luostarinen broke out and ran with the fourth-line center role.

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Luostarinen emerged as one of the best defensive forwards on the team and became a crucial piece to the team’s penalty kill unit.

After putting up 26 points in 78 games, he earned himself a new two-year deal with an annual cap hit of $1.5 million this offseason.

When Acciari returned to the lineup in February, he did not exactly have a full-time role.

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With Anton Lundell missing time during the latter half of the season and Andrew Brunette cycling pieces around in the bottom six, Acciari did get some playing time last year.

In 20 games, he had three goals and eight points while shuffling around from defacto fourth-line center in Lundell’s absence to fourth-line winger as the Panthers were gearing up for the playoffs.

During Lundell’s absence in mid-March, it was Luostarinen who was asked to play a bigger role, not Acciari.

It was quite clear that Acciari’s role was diminished to a depth role at that point, which was a departure from the playing time he was seeing when he first signed his three-year, $5 million deal in 2019.

He was brought in after making the Stanley Cup Final with the Boston Bruins in a bottom-six role.

Acciari, 27 at the time, was given an expanded role with the Panthers and he ran with it.

During the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 campaign, he broke out and scored 20 goals in 66 games while earning a top-six role during the 2020 Stanley Cup Qualifiers when the Panthers returned to play in the bubble.

After a quick four-game exit at the hands of the New York Islanders, Dale Tallon was out as general manager and Bill Zito started getting to work.

Patric Hornqvist, Carter Verhaeghe, Alex Wennberg and Anthony Duclair all filled in holes during the offseason that pushed Acciari into a bottom-six role.

The later arrivals of Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart along with the emergence of Lundell and Luostarinen pushed him into becoming a depth piece.

Acciari was called on to play in nine of Florida’s 10 playoff games and did not register a point.

Brunette shuffled the lines quite a few times and Acciari found himself playing in Ryan Lomberg’s spot on the fourth line or on Lundell’s wing in Mason Marchment’s absence.

Neither line was able to get a whole lot going with him on it.

After spending a good chunk of the first round on the fourth line, it was Lomberg who got that line going in his return to it during Game 6.

Acciari’s value comes from his face-off ability and his defense and with the Panthers having their center core pretty much set in stone, there is not much room for him in the regular lineup.

Even if the Panthers are unable to free up cap space to bring back Claude Giroux and Mason Marchment, the success he had in 2019-20 does not seem to be coming back.

It remains to be seen if he would be willing to sign another contract as a depth piece, but there will be teams on the open market looking for the value he brings as a bottom-six center.

Florida would be smart to look internally for depth with young guns Aleksi Heponiemi and Grigori Denisenko and veteran Zac Dalpe — likely returning as Charlotte captain — all under contract.

Cole Schwindt also provided some value in a couple of NHL appearances last season.

While a cap clearing move in the coming days could afford the Panthers the luxury of paying a premium for Acciari in a depth role, they likely will not act on it.

Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar both need new contracts, so Florida needs to save money where it can — in the depth department.

Look for the Panthers to pursue cheaper depth with Acciari signing a contract elsewhere.

Florida Panthers Roll Call is a recurring feature at Florida Hockey Now leading into the start of trade and free-agent season.

The NHL Draft was held Thursday and Friday in Montreal; free agency opens Wednesday. 

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