The Florida Panthers had one of the top lines in the NHL for much of last season before changing things up. Even by moving some things around, the Panthers’ top line continued to be the team’s engine thanks in great part to the play of center Sasha Barkov.
Florida had Barkov centering Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair for the majority of the 2021 season but the top line will look different this season.
On Friday night, the Panthers are expected to roll out their top line of Barkov, Verhaeghe and newcomer Sam Reinhart for the second time this preseason as Florida plays host to the Dallas Stars at FLA Live Arena at 7 p.m.
The three have been working as well as anyone could have hoped when word came down that the Panthers traded for Reinhart over the summer.
”That type of player, a superstar in this league, is a huge addition to our team,’’ Barkov said. “You can see what he did in Buffalo and he comes here and is a huge addition for sure. Not just on the ice, it’s off the ice as well. He works hard and that is contagious. I want to work hard and he wants to work harder than anyone else.”
“Those three have a ‘wow’ factor,’’ coach Joel Quenneville said.
Added Verhaeghe: “It’s going to be fun this year.”
Barkov, who seemingly can play with anyone on his wings and get results, said things are only going to get better as the three get more and more accustomed to each other.
“It wasn’t our best game and we didn’t feel the puck that well,” Barkov said earlier this week. “You can see that it is there. When we get the feeling of the puck and the area around you. I got frustrated because I saw Reino, saw the play and want to make it. That game I just couldn’t. But I can see as we practice more and more, we’ll get the chemistry going.”
The Panthers are stacked when it comes to forward depth and it all starts from the top.
”They do some good things,” Quenneville said on Tuesday. “I like when they start getting a feel for one another and you saw progress today at practice as far as knowing when to hit a hole, where to throw it, those saucer passes, the give-and-goes. That’s high-end stuff. The imagination these guys have … they’re only going to get more creative.”
The Barkov line is expected to put up even better numbers than it did last year when Duclair was a big part of their success.
That trio ranked third among lines playing more than 200 minutes according to MoneyPuck.com by scoring an average of 3.51 goals per 60 minutes with an expected-goal rate of 65.6 percent.
The only line combination Florida ran more often last year than Verhaeghe/Barkov/Duclair (238 minutes) was Alex Wennberg centering Jonathan Huberdeau and Patric Hornqvist (316).
”I don’t think about pressure but I do think about the opportunity to be better,” Barkov said. “With the addition of Reinhart, he is great. He sees the play, can make the play, can score, can pass. I don’t really think about pressure on us, just opportunity and creating something special.’’
That second line should also be improved with Sam Bennett taking over as the center upon his arrival at the trade deadline with Huberdeau and Owen Tippett on the wings.
Those three played together in the final week of the regular season and in the playoffs and produced at a high level. Tippett, now in his second NHL season, should benefit and increase his scoring exponentially after bouncing around the lineup throughout last season.
When it comes to the top line, however, the more they get used to one another, better production should follow.
”It was fun,” Reinhart said Sunday night. “It was a little tough in the beginning only having one shift as a group aside from the power play in the first period. But as the game went on, we got familiar with one another and started moving the puck around a lot more, finding the open ice. We got some confidence as a group.’’
In their first preseason game Sunday against Nashville, Barkov recorded three assists but lamented afterward that he didn’t have more. He certainly could have.
Barkov’s highlight assist came on the power play when he slipped a beautiful pass through a pair of Nashville defenders right to Verhaeghe.
“I’m used to it,” Verhaeghe said. Then, he looked at Reinhart.
“He has to get used to it. He made a great play, he is an unbelievable player and has unbelievable vision. I just shot the puck and it went in. He made a great play.”