It’s not just Tkachuk: What to know about other newcomers’ potential roles with Panthers

Two types of moves have so far defined the first two years of Bill Zito’s tenure with the Florida Panthers.

The first is the big splash: In the two years, the Panthers have traded four first-round picks to get players such as Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart and Claude Giroux. The second is the reclamation project: In his first offseason alone, Zito pulled Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe and Gustav Forsling off the scrap heap to become key contributors.

This offseason, Zito did plenty of both. Of course, the trade for Matthew Tkachuk — sending Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames — generated the vast majority of the headlines, but he also filled out the edges of his roster with the sort of unheralded players he built the foundation of this turnaround upon.

The key to Florida’s success this year really might be the play of Colin White, Nick Cousins and Rudolfs Balcers.

“They get bought out early, they leave the team, especially coming in if they were younger, and they had these expectations and it didn’t pan out,” new coach Paul Maurice said. “We’ve had some success doing that.”

White was a first-round pick by the Ottawa Senators in the 2015 NHL Entry Draft, but the Senators bought him out with three years left on his deal in July. Balcers was a fifth-round pick by the San Jose Sharks in the 2015 NHL Draft, but the Sharks bought him out in July, too. Even Cousins, who wasn’t bought out by his previous team, is about to play for his sixth team in eight years.

Matthew Tkachuk makes debut and Spencer Knight stars: More Panthers preseason takeaways

Last year, Florida manufactured the NHL’s most prolific offense in more than 20 years by putting together one of the deepest lineups in the league and those three, who signed with the Panthers for a combined four years and $4.2 million, will determine whether Florida can replicate it.

Although Balcers signed for the smallest deal of the three, he’s the one with a chance to play the biggest role. Already in the preseason, the 25-year-old winger has gotten a shot to play on the top line with star center Aleksander Barkov and left wing Carter Verhaeghe, and he could ultimately be a possible fit next to center Sam Bennett and All-Star right wing Matthew Tkachuk on the second.

On Thursday, Florida will use him on the third line in a preseason game at 7 p.m. against the Tampa Bay Lightning in Sunrise, playing him on next to centers Anton Lundell and Eetu Luostarinen. After he scored 23 points in 61 games last year, Balcers is exclusively getting looks as a top-nine forward right now.

With the regular season set to begin next week, the Panthers’ lineup has a few certainties:

  • Verhaeghe and Barkov will play on the top line,

  • Bennett and Tkachuk will play on the second,

  • and Lundell will play on the third, with Luostarinen likely next to him.

Forward Sam Reinhart will also certainly play somewhere in the top nine, potentially as the first-line right wing. This leaves Balcers, Cousins, White, left wing Ryan Lomberg and right wing Patric Hornqvist to fight for those last two top-nine spots, with Cousins or White poised to center the fourth line.

White and Cousins, however, won’t suit up Thursday because of injuries.

Cousins, 28, is a natural fit on the fourth line as a well-above-average defensive player coming off a 22-point season, but White is a bit harder to figure out. The 25-year-old forward scored 41 points in the 2018-19 NHL season, parlayed the breakout year into a six-year extension and promptly fell off a cliff, bottoming out with just 10 points in 24 games last season before Ottawa bought out the rest of his deal.

“It’s one of the hallmarks of the Florida Panthers is they’ve brought in an awful lot of players that were maybe at the crossroads in their career,” Maurice said. “That opportunity is there for White, and Balcers and Cousins.”

Florida Panthers forard Colin White (6) takes a shot on goal while guarded by defender Marc Staal during 2022-23 Training Camp presented by Baptist Health at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, Florida, on Thursday, September 22, 2022.
Florida Panthers forard Colin White (6) takes a shot on goal while guarded by defender Marc Staal during 2022-23 Training Camp presented by Baptist Health at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs, Florida, on Thursday, September 22, 2022.

Panthers’ Hurricane Ian relief efforts

All ticket proceeds from Florida’s final home game of the preseason Thursday will go to Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The Panthers will also be accepting donations of water, nonperishable food, hygiene supplies, blankets, pillows air mattresses and other goods at FLA Live Arena’s JetBlue Tarmac. The team’s 50/50 raffle will also raise money for relief efforts.