SUNRISE — In a season where just about everything has gone wrong for the Florida Panthers, Eetu Luostarinen has been one of the few constants.
The 24-year-old forward has broken into a top-6 role after spending last season as the team’s fourth-line center.
His sturdy defensive approach and will to win puck battles along the boards stuck out to new head coach Paul Maurice going into the season as a viable option to step into a more prominent role.
“We had some players leave and had (Anthony) Duclair get hurt so we had some holes there. We felt he was very capable of playing in our top-9,’’ Maurice said at the start of the season.
“It didn’t matter the wing; Lundell can play the wing as well but we want to develop him as a center.
“Luostarinen can play both and at some point in his career, he could be first-line left wing. He has a skill level that is above the fourth-line now.”
That decision has paid off so far to the tune of 7 goals and 15 points in 31 games.
He does not have the flashiest offensive numbers in the world but his impact goes much further than that.
At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, Luostarinen has both the reach and the strength to win puck battles that most players are not able to.
“There is a percentage of forechecks where you would not expect to be able to hold the line or gain possession that he gets by stick alone,” Maurice said. “The play is dead, they have full possession and you will be running some defensive routes and he will get his stick on something. When he gets a stick on the puck, they get to play in the offensive zone more and everyone likes that.”
The ability to get after the puck and hold possession of it from any end of the ice has been a huge reason why his transition to wing has been as smooth as it was.
And at times, the Panthers have needed him to wear both hats.
With an illness running rampant through the Florida locker room and the injury bug biting at the exact same time, Luostarinen has had to move back and forth between winger and center on multiple occasions.
Despite the constant change, he has been one of their most consistent players.
Luostarinen has spearheaded a Panthers penalty kill that was one of the best in the league in the month of November and has recently earned himself some power play time with the increasing number of players out of the lineup over the last month.
He has been ready for whatever has been thrown at him.
“It has been really useful for the coaches that I can play both positions,” Luostarinen said.
“I have been getting a little more ice time this year and I’ve been getting some time on the power play so that gives me the confidence to make plays and keep pushing.”
That defensive ability he mastered as a center has helped in his transition to the wing as well.
“At center ice, you can see the plays a little more clearly and you can stay under the puck and be able to see the whole play,” Luostarinen said.
Being able to spend time watching how plays develop from that perspective at the NHL level for a whole season last year has given him the ability to be able to jump in on the wing and shut down the opposing offense.
“It’s definitely tough when you are switching back and forth between center and wing and he has done a great job of getting to the wing,” Sam Bennett said.
“Once you are a natural center going to the wing, you are able to play the defensive zone really well. You are filling in for your center sometimes and he is just a really smart player.”
The 2017 second-round pick arrived from the Panthers as part of the trade that sent Vincent Trocheck to the Carolina Hurricanes as somewhat of a project.
When the Panthers arrived in the 2020 COVID playoff bubble that same year, Luostarinen watched on as a healthy scratch as Florida was sent home quickly by the New York Islanders.
Two years of developing on the fourth line later, he has become a player that many around the team want to have on their line.
“He is a guy that does all of the little things right,” Bennett said.
“You know where he is going to be and he is defensively sound. He will cover for you if you’re making a mistake and he has some sneaky good skill. I don’t think he gets enough credit for how good of a player he is.”
While Luostarinen attributes that ability to a deep complement of offensive talent on the roster, a lot of what makes his lines so good has been his play.
In increasing his role from the fourth line role he had last year, Maurice has been trying to utilize Luostarinen in a way where he has a direct influence on the game.
That vote of confidence and the utilization of his skillset has made him one of Florida’s hidden gems.
“He can really sink his teeth into it and make a bigger impact in the game,” Maurice said.
“We needed to train him to do that. As a younger player, he needed to find a piece to the game where he can make a major impact. When [Sasha] Barkov and [Aaron] Ekblad come to the rink, they know how they play has a major impact.
“Sometimes young guys come to play because it is not really their team or their game, so you try to put these young guys into roles where they feel how they play directly impacts our chance to win and makes them invest more into the game.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT NEW JERSEY DEVILS
- When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
- Where: Prudential Center, Newark
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM 2; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Florida won 2-1
- All-time regular season series: Devils lead 56-33-7, 7 ties
- Up Next for the Panthers: Monday at Boston Bruins