A season ago, the Florida Panthers’ bottom six was a revolving door of fringe NHL players. The most frequently used third line posted a 45.3 SAT% getting 60 shots on goal and allowing 132 shots to the opposition. This season, it looks like two players who appear to be reaching their ceilings at the same time will he joined by the Florida’s top prospect to make up a third line that looks primed to not only rectify but to vastly improve upon those numbers.
Entering the third preseason game in Montreal, Henrik Borgstrom and Denis Malgin had not looked bad in training camp and in their first preseason game, they just hadn’t exactly been living up to their true potential as standout playmaking and scoring talents. After the Panthers 5-2 victory over the Canadiens, both Borgstrom and Malgin have emerged as potential locks to make the squad. All that the pair of prospects needed was to be paired together as wingers flanking Jared McCann who, after a shoddy and mismanaged start to his pro career by Vancouver, looks ready to re-assume his natural position of center.
Borgstrom, a key factor in the Denver Pioneers success over the past two seasons which included two Frozen Four appearances and a national title, broke into the professional ranks at the end of his Hobey Baker nominee-worthy season last year.
After rooming and training with new Panthers captain and fellow Finn Aleksander Barkov this offseason, Borgstrom participated in his first NHL training camp. During camp and the Panthers first preseason game, Borgstrom put his second-to-none hands on display, winning faceoffs and performing well in space and on his finish. However, the one-way (at least right now) offensive forward struggled with the defensive responsibilities attached to a centerman. He spent too much time away from the play, looking to be the recipient of a breakout pass rather than being the guy that created and made that pass to one of his wingers.
In the Montreal game, with less defensive responsibilities attached to him, Borgstrom was able to focus more on looking and skating ahead. In his first pro action on the wing, we saw Borgstrom get free in space more often than ever and we saw him use his prodigious stickhandling skills to shake defenders and get pucks deep. He also came a post away from his first goal of the preseason.
Although he hasn’t played the wing since high school and although he is thought to have a natural center’s skill set, Borgstrom still needs to learn how to balance his game and cover more two-way ice, placing his *current* talent level at that of a gifted finishing winger. Just 19 and on a team chock full of center depth, there is no reason to put the pressure of playing the middle on Borgstrom right now.
“They’re good players and I feel comfortable with them,” Borgstrom said. “Playing center in this league is super tough. I haven’t played on the wing in a long time but I thought I played better in Montreal than I did against Nashville. I felt pretty comfortable on the wing.”
On the plus side, Borgstrom sees turnovers before they happen and gets in good transition position on the blue line, usually behind the defense, a great quality for a dominant scoring winger to have and a trait that plays up even further considering he will be skating with arguably the best distance passing forward on the team McCann and not so arguably the second fastest guy on the team, Malgin.
The move to the wing will allow Borgstrom to continue to adjust to the speed of an NHL game while assistance from McCann and Malgin will allow him to showcase his best tools, his hands and finish, more often as he earns the confidence and rapport as a plus-plus NHL scorer. All the while, Borgstrom will continue to spend his time off the ice within earshot of Aleksander Barkov, not a bad resource for a prospective top six center to have.
While moving Borgstrom protects him and his development in what will be his first full season of NHL play, it does exactly the opposite to the Panthers’ opponents as he will be focusing more exclusively on offensive output. Be aware of #95 whenever he is on the ice. At any given moment, you may see something special.
Like Borgstrom, Denis Malgin is a guy who was an elite center coming up through juniors in Switzerland and who has spent time at center early in his career but who will be put to work as a winger in 2018-19. Also like Borgstrom, Malgin has looked more comfortable as a winger early this camp. Unlike Borgstrom though, who will eventually move back to center, Denis, the speed-first and nearly exclusively offensive forward who is two years older than his new teammate, may permanently stick as a winger. And that’s not a bad thing for Malgin, a team player who just wants to help the team wherever and whenever he can.
“I just want to progress, have fun with the team and make the playoffs,” Malgin said.
Even though he’s still just 21, Malgin has been playing recognized competitive hockey since he was 10. A standout for his native Switzerland in juniors from 2013-2016, Malgin made the Panthers out of camp in 2016. Skating as a bottom-six center, Malgin recorded 10 points in 46 games. Last year, Malgin again made the Panthers out of camp. 46 games later, he had jumped up to 22 points in 46 games. Of course skating with the likes of Vincent Trocheck played a factor in Malgin’s increase in point production. However, it wouldn’t have been possible without a more concerted and more focused all-around offensive effort from the young man himself.
After showing up at camp with a more solid core, Malgin continued to put those who doubt him due to his size in check. During the season, Malgin got every bit of his 5’9”, 180 pound frame involved in his game, gaining a better ability to protect the puck and even becoming an effective forechecker. He also showed more muscle behind his already accurate shot. Along with his elite speed, Malgin suddenly became a pesky, sneaky and overall effective little player. Often seen getting behind the defense by streaking down the wing, using an active stick to win loose puck battles, playing pucks in deep and using his fantastic hockey IQ to get pucks to the Panthers skill forwards in prime shooting areas, Malgin was of the Panthers’ most consistent possession players proven by his 2.2 CF% and one of, if not the, hardest working player on the ice every shift.
He ended the season on pace for 36 points while getting an average of just 12:30 TOI/G.
McCANN AGAIN!@jaredmccann19 scores his second goal in under two minutes from Malgin who forechecks Niemi into a mistake and centers it with a no-look pass!— Alex Carver (@hammerhead33065) September 20, 2018
Great hustle play by Malgin who is battling for a roster spot!
4-1 #FlaPanthers pic.twitter.com/gDAzZ9BuEx
So far this preseason, Malgin has looked as though he’s been playing with McCann for a lot more than a single season, anticipating his location on the ice and getting the puck to him with space to work.
Malgin may not be the best faceoff guy or defensive zone coverage man but he’s traded those traits in favor of growing into a near-elite, creative, Jonathan Marchessault-esque offensive zone talent. He appears to be a favorite to put a tick on the score sheet at least 40 times if not more this year.
Holding this third line together as the glue in the middle will be Jared McCann. McCann made his NHL debut in 2015-16 with the Canucks following his posting of 44, 62 and 81 points with the Sault St. Marie Greyhounds of the OHL in 2012, 2013 and 2014. He appeared in 69 games with Vancouver in 2015-16 where the then 6’1”, 170 pounder who struggled through the stark transition process of going from pure scorer to two-way center. After flashing his ceiling in his first nine games scoring five goals and convincing the Canucks to allow him to enter into the first year of his ELC, McCann potted just four more goals over his last 59 games.
After he finished the year with a 9-9–18 line, questions about his size and a history of minor injuries as well as well as an overall bad relationship with the rest of the Vancouver locker room potentially due to his frustration stemming from his slow adaptation to the NHL, McCann was shipped to Florida in the controversial Erik Gudbransson trade.
That September, McCann came to Panthers camp 20 pounds heavier and, after he was given proper time to adjust to it by spending most of 2016-17 in Springfield, with a better feel and understanding for North American hockey. Prior to camp, McCann returned to the NHL full time. Splitting time between center and the wing, he posted 28 points in 68 games while averaging 13:15 TOI/G.
This offseason, the Panthers re-signed McCann, whose ELC had expired, to a two year deal. in 2018-19, in the first year of that contract, McCann, now nearing complete development, will forego shuffling lines and linemates game to game (health permitting). Instead, he will be locked in as the 3C on the most skilled line he’s ever been a part of.
Already this season, that job security, his natural chemistry with Malgin and having the ability to help mold Borgstrom have already begun to pay dividends. On top of that, McCann has shown an keener mind for his own zone, staying well positioned between his defenders, playing an effective center field and making quicker and more accurate outlets, allowing the Panthers to spend more time on the attack. McCann’s possession play and newfound solid defensive zone prowess has also been put to work on the PK where it has already paid positive dividends.
According to McCann, he is already gelling with his new linemates and is excited about the prospect of spending the season with them.
“We all seem to have pretty good chemistry together,” McCann said. “They’re both skilled and both very quick. That’s the way I play. To have two guys compliment you like that it definitely makes you a better player.”
With the news of Owen Tippett being sent back to juniors and with Maxim Mamin skating as an extra at times, it appears as though this line has been all but confirmed as the Panthers’ third grouping for Opening Night. Made up of a pure scoring elite finisher, a responsible two-way stay at home and breakout leading quarterback and a pesky forechecking speedster who wins battles and keeps pucks in the zone, each member of this grouping has gone through similar experiences and trials in the start to their pro careers in terms of being centers that moved to the wing to adjust to the competition level. Already feeding off of each other and their analogous upbringings, the trio is helping each other through one another’s trials and tribulations and they are driving each other to succeed.
With each member of this new third line bringing a lot of plus tools and with each one of them bringing their own different plus-plus aspects to the table all while still each working to reach their ceilings, this is a group that looks primed to break out and excite fans and coaches alike this season. Health and further growth together permitting, the potential is there for this group to contribute more than 120 points to the Panthers’ very real playoff hopes this year.