‘He does everything right:’ How Eetu Luostarinen worked his way into Panthers’ core

Eetu Luostarinen’s evolution during the past three seasons has been one of the underrated yet keenly important stories of the Florida Panthers’ rise.

He went from a sparingly used, bottom-six center to a do-it-all, two-way forward who can contribute in just about any situation asked of him.

And after a breakout 2022-23 season, the Panthers recognized Luostarinen’s value by signing him to a three-year extension. The deal begins with the 2024-25 season, putting the 24-year-old forward under contract through the 2026-27 season.

“It feels good to get a deal like that,” Luostarinen said Thursday during the Panthers’ first day of training camp. “I guess that’s some kind of [sign] that you’re doing something right.”

That he did.

Luostarinen flashed for the Panthers last season and was a key contributor on the way to Florida reaching the Stanley Cup Final for just the second time in franchise history.

He set career highs in goals (17), assists (26) and points (43) through 82 regular-season games and added five points (two goals, three assists) in 16 playoff games. He did not play in the Stanley Cup Final after breaking his tibia in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.

“We missed him a lot in the Finals. It was very unfortunate he wasn’t able to play. We could have really, really needed his help in the finals,” Panthers captain and top-line center Aleksander Barkov said. “It’s been very amazing for him. He comes in and his hockey IQ is very high. It’s fun to see what types of things he does in the games and the practices and how good he is with the puck.”

Luostarinen’s biggest asset is his versatility. He played both center and on the wing last year depending on the Panthers’ need as injuries took a toll on the team’s depth at times. He generally played on Florida’s middle-six forward lines but moved up to top-line winger occasionally as well.

“Coach can put me out there in any position,” Luostarinen said. “It’s good for the team.”

While Luostarinen doesn’t have the same name recognition as some of the Panthers’ top players such as Barkov or Matthew Tkachuk, the up-and-coming forward proved to be vital for the Panthers on both sides of the ice last season.

According to the advanced hockey statistics website Natural Stat Trick, the Panthers allowed just 2.08 goals per 60 minutes in 5-on-5 play when Luostarinen was on the ice. That was the best rate among all of Florida’s regular forwards.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Panthers’ goals scored per 60 minutes at full strength when Luostarinen is on the ice was 3.32, trailing only Tkachuk (4.76), Carter Verhaeghe (3.55) and Barkov (3.51) among Florida forwards.

His defensive prowess was key on the Panthers’ penalty kill throughout the season. He led Panthers forwards in short-handed time on ice last season (193:37).

“He does everything right,” Panthers general manager Bill Zito said. “All the guys like to play with him. He knows how to play the game. He prepares. He focuses. He executes. He’s a great teammate. For him, [it’s] just to continue to do the things he does well and enjoy playing hockey.”

Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice speaks to players during practice at Florida Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, Florida on Thursday, September 21, 2023. Al Diaz/
Florida Panthers head coach Paul Maurice speaks to players during practice at Florida Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, Florida on Thursday, September 21, 2023. Al Diaz/

This and that

Defensemen Brandon Montour and Aaron Ekblad, both of whom are expected to be out until at least December while recovering from offseason shoulder surgeries, were both on the ice in between the Panthers’ two group sessions on Thursday.

“Both are upper-body injuries. They can skate now,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said. “If they’re on the ice, that means the restrictions or the fear that they would fall and cause a re-injury are gone.”

Forward Ryan Lomberg was the only healthy player not on the ice for the first day of camp. It was for good reason: His wife, Marissa, is due to give birth to their second child.

Patric Hornqvist, who retired from the NHL after a 15-year career (the last three with the Panthers), is staying with the Panthers as a scouting and development consultant. The club announced the move Wednesday, along with four other promotions inside their hockey operations department. The other moves: Paul Krepelka as senior vice president of hockey operations, Gregory Campbell as assistant general manager, Sunny Mehta as assistant general manager and head of analytics, and Joakim Hedlund as director of European scouting.