Double vision: Panthers experiment with Barkov, Lundell together on top line in preseason

Daniel A. Varela/dvarela@miamiherald.com

The Florida Panthers believe Anton Lundell can be something like an heir to Aleksander Barkov — an elite two-way center, who could one day anchor their top line and coincidentally is also from Finland.

They also think they can coexist next to each other.

The Panthers are tried out some new lines for their third preseason game Thursday against the Carolina Hurricanes at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, and the top group took a distinctly Finnish flavor with Barkov and Lundell playing together on a line for the first time.

“I just want to see it,” coach Paul Maurice said Wednesday.

It’s a very different look for Florida, compared to what it ran a year ago on the way to the Presidents’ Trophy. Last season, the Panthers stuck with Barkov on the top line, Sam Bennett on the second, Lundell on the third and fellow center Eetu Luostarinen on the fourth, essentially whenever all four were healthy.

Lundell, still only 20, thrived playing next to wingers Sam Reinhart and Mason Marchment, but Marchment signed as a free agent in the offseason with the Dallas Stars.

Marchment’s departure — along with All-Star forward Claude Giroux’s and an injury to winger Anthony Duclair — left Maurice with a philosophical debate to work through in his first season as coach.

“Have you decided, with Anthony’s injury, are you loading up two lines or are you going to split them across three?” Maurice said, thinking out loud. “We’re going to see.”

With Reinhart and Bennett now potentially set to play with All-Star right wing Matthew Tkachuk, Lundell’s move up to the top line to right wing play next to Barkov and fellow forward Carter Verhaeghe is a look at the former option.

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Last year, Lundell scored 18 goals and handed out 26 assists in only 65 games — his 0.68 points per game were fifth most among rookies — to finish sixth in voting for the Calder Memorial Trophy. He also frequently played next to Barkov on Florida’s top penalty-killing unit and finished in the top six among Panthers forwards in average time on ice.

Although Lundell’s move to the top line could potentially sacrifice some of the depth Florida had in the 2021-22 NHL season, it could be the path to ensure the Panthers get the most out of their best forwards.

On this top line, Barkov and Lundell can both make plays, score and defend, and Verhaeghe adds a dimension of pure speed the two centers lack.

“I was joking,” Verhaeghe said. “I was like, I don’t have to play any defense.”

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A one-game test run doesn’t mean the idea is here to stay, either.

The plan, Maurice said, is to keep experimenting for the next three preseason games and then have an idea of what an opening-day lineup could be in time for the preseason finale in October.

This is one experiment with a chance to reshape the ideas of a Florida lineup completely.

“I really like this young man as a player, and the more positions a young guy can play, the more you can move them around,” Maurice said of Lundell. “There will be a fair amount of experimentation in the next three games.”