Panthers’ forwards struggle to find consistency during the 2016-17 season

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

Solid offensive performances for the Panthers added up to a division title a year ago. However, this year was just opposite. Here’s a brief recap of the 2016-17 season for each Panthers forward that played in at least 30 games.

Aleksander Barkov

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

The Panthers’ best two-way centerman had another solid year, although an apparent back injury marred his second half, keeping him out for all of January and the final weeks of the season.

Despite that, Barkov managed to tie his career high in assists (31) in 5 fewer games (61) than last season (66) while scoring 21 goals, 7 short of last year’s total.

Barkov’s 14 power play points and 5 game-winners were both second on the team, and his points per 60 rate of 2.19 led the Panthers.

At times, he was delegated to facing the opposition’s second line even though he’s been arguably the team’s top defensive forward.

Barkov also led the NHL in shootout goals with 7 shootout goals, a league-most 3 of which were game-deciders.

As one of their most important players, the Panthers need Barkov to play as many games as possible, and it still remains to be seen whether or not he can at least reach the 70-game mark on a consistent basis. When he’s healthy and used like the number-1 center that he is, the Panthers could see even more production than what he’s already given them.

Reilly Smith

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

Like many of the Panthers’ forwards, Reilly Smith struggled to reach the offensive numbers he produced a year ago. After putting up a career-high 25 goals in 2016 and falling a point shy of his highest mark of 50, Smith scored just 15 times and finished with 37 points this time around.

At the 65-game mark, Smith was shooting a career-low 7.4 percent before rising to 9.4 percent at the end of the season. For Smith, the difference between more goals and the season he had can be measured in inches as he seemed to hit the post with his shots more than any other Panther.

When that frustration combined with the team’s lack of consistency and success, it resulted in Smith being called out by now former head coach Tom Rowe.

The usually reliable 25-year old left the defensive zone early leading to a goal against, essentially costing the Panthers the game on March 4th against Dallas.

Fortunately, Smith is a useful player even when he’s not generating offense, but seasons like this won’t be enough if he wishes to remain in a top-6 role.

The upcoming season will be the first of a new 5-year, $25 million extension signed last off-season. The hope is that Smith will rebound, but it’ll take a brand new season to do that.

Nick Bjugstad

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There’s no denying that it was a difficult year for Nick Bjugstad. It was the second season of the 6-year, $24.6 million contract that he signed over 2 years ago, and he’s still working to live up to its value.

Bjugstad’s season started late after a freak play resulted in a broken hand on October 4th in a pre-season game against the Dallas Stars. The injury forced him to miss nearly two months before he made his debut on November 22nd, and he didn’t collect his first point, an assist, until a few weeks later on December 15th.

Bjugstad had just a goal and an assist between his first game of the season and January 6th before missing another 3 weeks with a lower-body injury. While he showed sparks of returning to form, he only managed to finish with 7 goals and 7 assists for 14 points in 56 games.

It was a struggle for the 24-year old to find a groove, and that wasn’t helped by the fact that ice time was hard to come by. Bjugstad saw the lowest average ice-time total of his 4-year career at 13:09, compared to 15:31 a season ago and over 16 minutes in the two seasons prior.

Bjugstad’s most frequent line-mate was Jonathan Marchessault, and he found himself playing with trade-deadline acquisition Thomas Vanek down the stretch.

However, it was clear that having the 7th-shortest average even-strength shift among every player that played for the Panthers this season wasn’t benefitting Bjugstad. Not only that, but he averaged just 1 minute and 25 seconds of power play time per game, one of the lowest marks among the Panthers’ offensively-capable players.

The Minnesota-native will certainly need to put in some work to find his game again, but whether or not he’s handcuffed by in-game decisions – and a little confidence from the powers that be – will be a contributing factor to his success (or lack thereof).

Vincent Trocheck

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

It was the second solid season in a row for Vincent Trocheck, who set career-highs in assists (31) and points (a team-leading 54) while being one of just 5 Panthers to play in all 82 games.

For most of the year, Trocheck carried the Panthers with many of their top offensive players out of the lineup and others struggling to produce. From December 28th through February 20th, he tallied 26 points in 23 games and was chosen to represent the Atlantic Division at the All-Star Game in January.

He finished 4th on the team and 6th in the NHL among forwards in average ice-time per game at 20:49 and averaged the second-most shifts per game at 25.6, also good for 9th in the league among all forwards.

An apparent upper-body injury sustained in late-February – as well as his overuse by the coaching staff – seemed to impact his offensive effectiveness in the final quarter of the season, finishing with just 1 goal in the final month-and-a-half.

Trocheck was deployed regularly against the opposition’s top players, and while he handled just about everything with no issues, it may be more advantageous for the Panthers to – at the very least – split the top-6 center time between him and Barkov more evenly when both are healthy.

It was a tough season for everyone, but Trocheck still managed to deliver, and that says a lot about the type of player he is now and still has room to become.

Jonathan Huberdeau

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Jonathan Huberdeau, the Panthers’ main offensive catalyst, was poised for a huge year after posting career numbers a season ago. However, an Achilles’ injury suffered in the team’s final pre-season game against the Devils at West Point forced Huberdeau to begin the season on the shelf. When he made his season debut on February 3rd, it was as though he never missed a beat.

Huberdeau went on to score 10 goals and record 16 assists for 26 points in 31 games, giving him the best points-per-game average of his career (0.84), and led the Panthers in assists per 60 at 1.49.

He tallied 4 points in a game for the second time in his NHL career when he scored once and added 3 assists in a 7-0 win on March 25th.

It was clear the Panthers missed Huberdeau’s presence and offensive ability as the power play and goal-scoring output saw improvements from time to time.

There’s no doubt they would’ve benefited from him playing a full season, but now they’ll have to wait until October for that.

Regardless, the 23-year old remains the Panthers’ – and the league’s – best winger and one of their most important players.

Jonathan Marchessault

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

Marchessault recorded career-highs in just about every offensive category en route to one of the best seasons by a first-year Panther. Signed in the off-season to a bargain 2-year deal worth $750,000, Marchessault quickly became the best free-agent signing of the 2016 off-season.

He more than tripled his goal total entering the season by scoring 30 and becoming the first Panther to do so since David Booth in 2009.

The pre-season injury to Huberdeau opened the door for Marchessault to take on a bigger role right out of the gate rather than one that was expected to be in bottom-6. He helped lead the Panthers’ offensive attack for most of the early part of the season, recording 20 points in the first 26 games.

Marchessault was tied for the team lead with 8 power play goals and posted his first career NHL hat-trick (and second of his pro career) in a 7-0 drubbing of the Blackhawks on March 25th. He closed out the season with 11 goals in the final 17 games, tying him for the second-most in the league during that span.

The 26-year old became a mainstay on the Panthers’ power play and continued to produce despite frequently bouncing around the top-9. There’s no question that Marchessault has the ability to keep up and be an offensive threat in the NHL; he proved that to be the case this year.

The next question is whether he’ll be able to sustain it or not, and although he may not be a perennial 30-goal scorer, the 20 to 25 goal range is certainly within reach.

Jaromir Jagr

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There’s not much more to say about Jaromir Jagr that hasn’t already been said. The 45-year old played in all 82 games this season while putting up 46 points, most of which came without the help of Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov.

His 30 assists were good for 3rd-most on the team, and it was his 14th of the season on December 22nd that gave him 1,888 career points, passing Mark Messier for sole possession of 3rd-place on the all-time scoring list.

Jagr became just the third player in league history to reach 750 goals with his tally on October 20th, and he recorded his 1,900th point on his birthday, February 15th.

The Panthers seem to have interest in bringing Jagr back for another season, and rightly so. However, newly-reinstated General Manager Dale Tallon has mentioned on several occasions that not only will the Panthers be younger next year, but he also wants to see them play faster.

Jagr doesn’t exactly fit either mold anymore, so if he sticks around, it may be to the team’s benefit that he not play in the top-6, although he’d tell you his average time on ice (16:00) doesn’t really match up with that part of the lineup.

There’s no doubt that Jagr can still produce and be an effective player, but if the Panthers want truly what they say they want, they’ll have to reconsider where he belongs in the lineup.

Colton Sceviour

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Colton Sceviour didn’t turn in the same prolific scoring season as fellow bargain-bin signing Jonathan Marchessault, but he proved to be a useful and effective player nonetheless.

Sceviour played an integral role on the Panthers’ 2nd-ranked penalty kill and was relied upon in key defensive situations while posting 9 goals and 15 assists, including a hat-trick on October 30th against the Red Wings.

The 28-year old’s 3 short-handed goals led the team and made him the first Panther to reach the mark since Radek Dvorak in the 2009-10 season. He averaged over 14 minutes per night for the second time in his NHL career, and although he spent most of it in the bottom-6, scoring troubles throughout the lineup often landed him on the 2nd line.

Sceviour is exactly the type of player the Panthers need in their bottom-6 moving forward as he boasts the right combination of skill and grit while playing a reliable game in all three zones.

Jussi Jokinen

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Jussi Jokinen struggled mightily to repeat the success he had a year ago, managing just 17 assists and 11 goals for 28 points in 69 games. The veteran played through most of the season with an MCL injury and even missed time early on, setting the tone for the rest of his campaign.

It was the first time in his career that he recorded fewer than 30 points while playing at least 60 games.

On top of his drop on production, Jokinen was unable to rekindle the chemistry between himself and his linemates, Vincent Trocheck and Reilly Smith, hurting the Panthers’ overall offensive success.

He showed signs of his 2015-16 self, but was unable to find a groove, much like the rest of the team, and often made uncharacteristic plays outside of the offensive zone.

The Panthers’ 34-year old assistant captain still has a year left on his deal, and after a disappointing season, it’s unclear where he stands.

Like with Jagr, he doesn’t fit the speed mold that Dale Tallon has referenced, but a young team needs a smart, experienced veteran like Jokinen. He may see success with the right mix of line-mates on the 3rd line if the Panthers are able to find the right players for the top-6.

Derek MacKenzie

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In his first year as the captain of an NHL team, Derek MacKenzie was tasked with keeping a relatively young team together during what proved to a bumpy ride.

A grizzled veteran, the 35-year old put together yet another hard-working season of his own, recording 16 points – his 3rd-highest point total – while playing in all 82 games for the second time in his career. He also tallied 2 shorthanded goals, including one in the season finale against the Capitals.

MacKenzie saw the second-highest average ice-time total of his career at 12:33 while playing primarily in a 4th-line, penalty-killing role. At times, he would log more ice time at the expense of the Panthers’ younger, skilled centers like Denis Malgin and Nick Bjugstad.

With a two-year contract extension kicking in at the start of the 2017-18 season, MacKenzie is expected to remain in the Panthers’ bottom-6 for the foreseeable future.

However, to get the most production out of their forward group, they’ll need to pay careful attention to the ice time distribution, or at the very least find more compelling options for the 3rd- and 4th-line wings.

Shawn Thornton

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Shawn Thornton’s time with the Panthers – as far as playing is concerned – is over. He’ll now transition into a role on the business side of things under the direction of the Panthers’ CEO Matt Caldwell, and in some ways, the on-ice product will be better for it.

It’s easy to see – and players have talked about it publicly – that Thornton is a great person and leader on and off the ice, but just about everyone will agree that there were better options for the Panthers’ 4th line this season.

The 39-year old played in 50 games this season for the Panthers, recording 2 goals, 2 assists for a total of 4 points, the second of which was the 100th of his NHL career.

He only averaged 7:41 of ice time, but it was valuable ice time taken used on a player that didn’t contribute to winning hockey games. They’re also minutes that the Panthers’ analytically-inclined front office would probably like to have back.

All the best to Thornton, but now, the door of opportunity will open for a young player in the Panthers’ organization.

Denis Malgin

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It was an up-and-down first year in North America for Denis Malgin, but fortunately, he was able to finish it on the right foot.

The 19-year old made a name for himself at the Panthers’ rookie tournament in September, leading all of its participants with 6 goals, including a hat-trick, in the 3 games.

Malgin wasn’t expected to begin the season with the Panthers, but his tournament performance combined with Nick Bjugstad’s pre-season injury forced the team’s hand. He went on to open the year on the Panthers’ 3rd line with Jared McCann and Colton Sceviour.

By far the best stretch of his season came in a 9-game span from October 30th through November 17th when he registered 4 goals – including the first of his NHL career – and 3 assists.

He was scratched for the first time on December 10th to end a streak of 28 straight games played and played in 11 more games before being sent down to the AHL in late January.

Malgin recorded 12 points in 15 games while playing top-6 minutes for the Springfield Thunderbirds before being recalled again at the end of February. The call-up proved to be of little use for the Panthers as he was consistently scratched down the stretch – at one point in 12 of 14 games – in favor of Shawn Thornton.

Malgin was able to cap off his season with 2 goals in the final 3 games, giving him a total of 6 to go along with 4 assists in 47 games.

What’s disappointing, however, is that his playing time wasn’t maximized, and instead he sat on the bench and in the Panthers’ press box while less-skilled options played over him and the Panthers’ AHL affiliate struggled to score.

There’s no doubt he still possesses a ton of skill and a high level of potential, so the Panthers will need to either surround him with the right players to allow him to play more in the NHL or let him spend more time rounding out his game in the AHL.

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