The Florida Panthers are in an envious position when it comes to their depth chart: They have too many centers.
The Panthers pride themselves on being strong up the middle, and since Panthers GM Dale Tallon took over, building a strong core of pivots has been a top priority.
If one positive emerged from a dismal 2013-14 season, it was Florida solidifying itself up the middle with more than enough assets — and each player in that core is under 24.
"As I look back on it, [Aleksander] Barkov, [Nick] Bjugstad, [Vincent] Trocheck, [Drew] Shore, [Brandon] Pirri, all those kids give me optimism for the future," Tallon said.
Beyond Florida’s top five, there’s a glut at the position. The Panthers have top college prospects Rocco Grimaldi and Kyle Rau likely to join the franchise sooner than later. And although they’ve spend time at wing in the minors, Quinton Howden and John McFarland are also listed as centers.
"All these assets we have, some are going to go to the wing," Tallon said. "They can’t all play center. We only have four lines. But it is easier to go from center to wing than it is to go from wing to center."
The one area Florida lacks up the middle, though, is a consistent performer in the faceoff circle. Marcel Goc, moved to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the trade deadline, was the only full-time center to post a faceoff percentage above 50 percent.
Given that most of Florida’s centers barely have a full NHL season to their credit, the kids may improve in this area. But it may also force the Panthers to bring in a veteran, free-agent pivot like Paul Stastny, who finished with a 54.1 faceoff percentage last season.
Aleksander Barkov, 18: Florida’s first selection in 2013, Barkov did not garner the hype top pick Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche did. But anyone who watched the Finn recognized the Panthers may have nabbed an elite talent with the second overall pick. Having plied his traded in the Finnish Elite League for two seasons alongside men, the teen showed incredible offensive vision and defensive prowess in his first season. Teammates describe Barkov as the next John Tavares or Patrice Bergeron.
In late December, the NHL game clicked for Barkov, who registered points in eight of nine contests to pull himself among the top five rookie scoring leaders and earn an invite to play for the Finnish Olympic team. But a knee injury suffered during January resurfaced in Sochi, effectively ending Barkov’s rookie campaign.
"Missing Barkov, I don’t think people realize how good this guy is, how important he is," Tallon said. "Once he went down, we struggled before the break and then we lost him and that was tough for us."
Barkov, who was back on the ice for light practice before seasons’ end will be ready for training camp. Expect to see him centering Florida’s first or second line upon his return.
Nick Bjugstad, 21: Long before Bjugstad joined Florida, general managers around the league tried to pry the former Minnesota Mr. Hockey away in a trade. It is easy to see why Tallon would not budge. Bjugstad finished as Florida’s scoring leader in his rookie season, registering 16 goals and 22 assists.
After missing training camp with a concussion, Bjugstad was expected to spend time in San Antonio (AHL), but instead worked his way up the depth chart, earning a spot on Florida’s second line. When Barkov when down, he centered to the top trio and continued to produce.
For a former college player who had to adjust to the rigors and extended schedule of an NHL season, Bjugstad never went more than five games without registering a point. He finished with a respectable 48.9 faceoff win percentage and finished among Florida’s top four in hits with 117.
"I think Bjugstad and Barkov surprised us," Tallon said. "We knew they were good. We didn’t know they were this good."
And if one moment captured that sentiment about Bjugstad, the 6-foot-6 pivot’s manhandling of Detroit superstar Pavel Datsyuk en route to the net sums up his potential.
Brandon Pirri, 23: Like Panthers defenseman Dylan Olsen, the former Chicago Blackhawks prospect could not crack an NHL lineup until joining Florida. And Pirri may be the type of offensive talent the Panthers have lacked for many years.
The American Hockey League’s leading scorer in 2012-13, Pirri was one of Florida’s most consistent players over the final two months, recording seven goals and seven assists in 21 games. Aside from a six-game slump in mid-March, Pirri recorded four multi-point games and wrapped up the season with points in six of his last seven.
As it stands, Pirri figures to end up anywhere from the first to third line, depending on his performance and that of Barkov and Bjugstad. Given Pirri’s playmaking and scoring ability, he’ll likely become a constant on one of Florida’s power play units.
Drew Shore, 23: Despite an impressive rookie season in 2012-13 in which he found chemistry with eventual Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau, Shore could not crack the Panthers lineup out of camp. He spent the duration of the season in San Antonio, battling through a long goal drought. But in that stretch he also worked on his faceoffs and defensive game. When he received a call-up in December, Shore established himself as a solid penalty killer and managed five goals and two assists despite limited ice time on the fourth line.
The Panthers returned Shore to San Antonio for contract reasons in March. But he caught fire in the minors, recording points six of his final seven games.
Given Shore’s versatile skill set and willingness to adjust and re-adjust, he could be an ideal candidate to be shifted to wing if others are not. But it is also possible those characteristics make him a valuable trade commodity if he is unable to secure a roster spot out of camp this fall.
Vincent Trocheck, 20: A former 50-goal scorer with Saginaw/Plymouth (OHL), Trocheck excelled in his first pro season, posting 16 goals and 26 assists in 55 games with San Antonio. When he earned a call-up in March, then-coach Peter Horachek thrust the rookie into every situation imaginable. Trocheck found himself on the power play, penalty kill and occasionally taking crucial faceoffs — and he succeeded.
In six of his 20 games with Florida, the center logged more than 20 minutes of ice time. Once he registered his first NHL point in his fourth game, Trocheck never went more than three games without a point.
Outside of a poor training camp, Trocheck figures to be lock for next year’s roster. Although whether he sticks at center or gets some looks at wing remains to be seen.
IN THE SYSTEM
Rocco Grimaldi, 21: Florida’s second-round pick in 2011, Grimaldi signed with the Panthers in early May after wrapping up a successful career at the University of North Dakota. In 86 games with the Fighting Sioux, he registered 31 goals and 46 assists. On the international level, he won gold medals with Team USA at the U20 and U18 World Junior Championships.
It is possible the diminutive Grimaldi may compete for a roster spot in training camp, although it also seems likely he could spend some time in the minors. Grimaldi, who boasts incredible speed, could also find himself as one of the players Florida shifts to the wing.
John McFarland, 22: Drafted in the second round of 2010, McFarland has split time between San Antonio and Cincinnati (ECHL) in each of his past two seasons. At best, he’s a depth center in the minors. For McFarland to warrant an NHL call up, he would need to produce more consistently at the AHL level.
Scott Gomez, 34 (UFA): Signed days before the 2013-14 season, Gomez ended up being an experiment which did not work in Florida’s favor. An elite playmaker during his tenure with the New Jersey Devils, Gomez never quite clicked in Florida’s system. He finished with just 12 points in 46 games. He spent long stretches of time as a healthy scratch, although the Panthers commended his veteran leadership in the locker room and professionalism for being ready to step in at a moment’s notice. Florida is already struggling with which young players to keep at center, so it is hard to envision Gomez returning next season.