SUNRISE (CBSMiami) – The first quarter of this season has been a challenging obstacle course for the Florida Panthers.
Led by new head coach Bob Boughner, the Panthers have stumbled out of the gate and been near the bottom of the Atlantic Division standings for much of the season.
Recently things have appeared to be turning around.
Florida (10-12-2) has won three of their last four games and enter Thursday night just four points back of third place Boston in the Atlantic.
For a team that has battled injuries and is in the process of learning a brand new system, it’s no surprise that things aren’t moving along as quickly as many fans hoped.
The inability to keep consistent forward lines has surely slowed the process as well.
Boughner points to the injury woes that Florida has dealt with as the main reason for continuously having to move players around.
“We’ve lost for the most part of the season, whether its [Sceviour] or MacKenzie or Vrbata or McCann, it’s just been a circumstance where we’ve had to put guys on different lines,” Boughner said. “In a perfect world, if we had a healthy team and we’re scoring I’d love to keep the lines the same almost every game.”
For some players, such as Vincent Trocheck or Nick Bjugstad, the constant shifting has not impacted their offensive production.
Trocheck has played on more line combinations this season than any other Panthers forward but that hasn’t stopped him from being on track for the best scoring year of his career.
He leads the team with 10 goals and has 23 points in 24 games despite playing with six different linemate combos that has included Bjugstad, Radim Vrbata, Jamie McGinn, Dryden Hunt, Colton Sceviour, Connor Brickley and even one game playing on the wing with top line forwards Aleksander Barkov and Johathan Huberdeau.
“[Trocheck] is a pretty low maintenance guy,” Boughner said. “When you talk to him and sort of get his suggestions on who he likes to play with, and [his] strengths and weaknesses…he creates a lot by himself but any time you put skilled guys with other guys that can score, obviously some good things can happen.”
As for Bjugstad, the 24-year-old is coming off an injury-and-struggle-filled campaign in which he had 14 points (7 goals) in 54 games.
But this season, playing in Boughner’s high-energy system, Bjugstad is looking better than he has in years.
Through 24 games, Bjugstad has already accumulated 11 points and has seen a steady improvement in his all-around play.
He’s also stayed healthy and has played at a consistent level. It’s the kind of positive progress that the Panthers have got to be pleased to see out of Bjugstad.
He was recently rewarded with a move to the second line alongside Trocheck, but we’ll see how long that lasts.
“[Bjugstad is] playing pretty good right now so hopefully that line has some chemistry and they gel quickly,” Boughner said.
It isn’t just the players that were expected to produce that are seeing success despite having to adjust on the fly.
Forward Connor Brickley, who is still working to establish himself as an everyday NHL player, has skated with several line combinations and missed time due to an upper-body injury earlier this season.
Despite the obstacles, he’s having big best year as a pro.
“Personally, I just focus on my game and what I can help bring to others,” Brickley said. “I really just try to focus on my high-energy, try to be first on pucks and try to get to the gritty areas. Whoever coach puts me with, no matter which line, I just hope to compliment. The only thing you can do as a player is try to make everyone around you play their best and I just focus on trying to bring high-energy every day.”
As a rookie last season, Brickley picked up 5 points in 23 games.
This year he’s got 8 points (2 goals, 6 assists) in 18 games and seems to be flourishing in the fast-paced brand of hockey Boughner has been implementing since arriving in Florida.
“The system is pretty simple here, we’re just playing fast hockey, playing north-south hockey and everyone is pretty familiar with the systems and what we’re trying to accomplish so it makes everything a lot easier,” Brickley said. “When I start trying to overthink the game, I start playing a lot slower and when I’m not moving my feet, that’s when I get caught into some bad positions. I just try to focus on myself and my style of the game. The systems in play help me a lot as well, it’s pretty simple so everything is going well.”
LIKE A WELL-OILED MACHINE
Two Panthers that have played almost every shift together over the past three seasons are Barkov and Huberdeau.
Barkov, the second overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, and Huberdeau, third overall in 2011, have worked extremely well together while their respective talents have matured.
“Playing with a player like Barkov makes it so much easier,” Huberdeau said. “He’s such a good two-way player. He doesn’t have much exposure around the league but I think he’s one of the best players in the league and I’m fortunate to play with a guy like him. He helps me a lot and I try to help him as much as possible.”
So far this season Huberdeau is leading the Panthers in scoring with 26 points (8 goals, 17 assists) while Barkov is tied with Trocheck for second on the team with 23 points (8 goals, 15 assists). Each has played in all 24 of Florida’s games.
This year the pair has played nearly every game with Evgenii Dadonov on the right wing, but the KHL-transplant went down with an upper-body injury last week during a loss to Chicago.
Boughner said he expected Dadonov’s injury to “be something a little longer than shorter,” which indicates it could be several weeks before he returns to the lineup.
Florida called up Denis Malgin from the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds to fill Dadonov’s spot with Barkov and Huberdeau and through two games, the newly formed trio has shown some promise.
Malgin scored the game-winning goal on Tuesday against the Rangers and while the strong offensive shifts have been there, the line has also been caught in the defensive zone and allowed multiple quality scoring chances.
Barkov understands that chemistry doesn’t happen overnight but it remains to be seen if Boughner will keep Malgin on the line.
“It’s always different when there’s different players [on your line] and you’ve gotta use that player’s strengths,” Barkov said. “If he’s good in the offensive zone, you’ve gotta think that you’re going to play there all the time and then if he’s fast you gotta use his speed.”
Considering the success that Barkov has had while playing with Huberdeau, his confidence in the line is understandable.
“We’ve had a couple players playing on our wing this season and I think we have been fine,” he said.