In the Florida Panthers preseason win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday in Orlando, Noel Acciari sustained an injury that will keep him out of the lineup for the foreseeable future.
On Thursday, Florida coach Joel Quenneville said Acciari’s injury “is not good” adding that “it’s going to be a while.”
The Panthers do have some center depth and quite a few options to hold down the fort while Acciari recovers.
Rookie Anton Lundell and far-from-rookie Joe Thornton both made their preseason debuts on Thursday in Tampa.
It appeared Lundell may start the season at AHL Charlotte after missing most of training camp, but after how he looked in Saturday’s exhibition centering a third line of Patric Hornqvist and Frank Vatrano, he will be here.
Acciari’s injury certainly opened the door for him to have a spot in the opening night lineup.
Quenneville mentioned that the rookie hasn’t missed a beat since returning to practice on Monday.
Saturday night, Quenneville said he was more than impressed with how Lundell played.
“I thought he was good in Game 1 and I though he was really, really good tonight’’ Quenneville said. “I thought he did a lot of good things. He had the puck a lot, made a lot of good decisions with it. He sees plays, makes plays. He has good instincts and a real feel for the game.”
The Panthers’ 2020 first-round pick spent last season with Liiga’s HIFK scoring 16 goals and nine assists for 25 points in 26 games. With the experience he had playing in a pro league in Finland, Lundell is more NHL ready than a lot of other players from his draft class and could make an impact on the team from Day 1.
He showcased a unique sense of hockey IQ over the course of his career in Finland, being a threat in the offensive zone by reading the defense and making plays like he knew what the opposition was going to do beforehand.
Lundell uses that IQ without the puck as well, always being in the right position to receive a pass and unload his wicked wrister in the back of the net.
That ability likely has him slated to play on the Panthers’ third line alongside Vatrano and Hornqvist, if the combinations that the Panthers have been running with stick. Vatrano in particular is a player whose abilities could bring out the best in Lundell, as his speed and scoring ability fit perfectly with Lundell’s playmaking prowess.
Thornton, 42, could fill Acciari’s role on the fourth line, playing alongside the likes of Mason Marchment and Anthony Duclair.
That creates more of a fourth line with a heavy offensive presence rather than the physical, defensively-minded fourth line that the Panthers had usually rolled out with Acciari in the lineup
Standing at 6-4 and 220 pounds, Thornton still has the size to provide physicality to that fourth line, but after 23 seasons of NHL play, he likely doesn’t have the same two-way presence he had in his prime.
What Thornton didn’t lose with age is his ability to make plays and his smarts on the ice, having 15 assists in 44 games for the Maple Leafs last season.
With Marchment’s size and Duclair’s speed and scoring ability, that fourth line could provide a unique presence of both physicality and scoring which could make for a dangerous fourth line.
But this combination still begs the question: Who takes Acciari’s spot on the penalty kill?
Lundell got a lot of time on the PK on Saturday and says he relishes the chance to help out.
In Charlotte, Aleksi Heponiemi could come into play as he had an impressive preseason, scoring a goal in two games while making plays on the defensive zone and playing on the kill.
While Maxim Mamin also remains on the preseason roster and could be an option after returning to practice from his injury, Heponiemi’s defensive abilities makes him a dark horse to be called up and fill that role.
Heponiemi is effective on both sides of the ice and could help both the penalty kill and provide some of the depth scoring that Florida was missing last season.
Eetu Luostrainen is also an option to play in that role.
Juho Lammikko is known to be a guy who can make plays defensively and kill penalties, but it looked like he was not going to make the team and be lost on waivers, so he was traded on Sunday.
No matter who steps up to fill in the hole that Acciari leaves, the Panthers are in good hands right now.
The depth that they have in their system allows them to play a group that gives them a good chance to win on any given night.
Colby Guy is a staff writer for Florida Hockey Now. Colby spent the last four years covering Florida Atlantic Athletics and currently serves as a football reporter for FAU Owl’s Nest.
Colby is currently a senior at FAU and previously served as Editor-In-Chief for the University Press.