Seth Griffith walked into practice on Friday hoping to see his name on the Panthers’ board as a member of the fourth line.
If he were feeling especially lucky, maybe he would allow himself the thought of being on the third line.
But for a guy who’s with his third NHL franchise in two months — the Boston Bruins released him on Oct. 10 and the Toronto Maple Leafs did the same on Nov. 12 — anywhere in the lineup would be fine.
So with those as his expectations, Griffith checked the board.
“I saw [Jaromir] Jagr’s name,” Griffith said. “I kept going, and I saw [Sasha Barkov’s] name. And then there’s my name — it was pretty crazy.”
Welcome to the big time, kid.
Griffith, a 23-year-old Ontario native and a former fifth-round draft pick, said he grew up watching Jagr and never dreamed he would get this chance in just his 10th game with the Panthers.
He had been a healthy scratch four times since he joined the organization.
Given this opportunity, Griffith was determined to make an impact — and he did.
Just two minutes into Saturday night’s 4-2 home victory over the Vancouver Canucks, Griffith came out as if he had been propelled by a giant slingshot, skating past opponents, the puck on his stick as he maneuvered behind the Vancouver net.
That’s when he spotted Barkov, in the slot. Griffith connected with a wrap-around pass, and a grateful Barkov scored to give the Panthers a lead they would not relinquish.
“That was a nice pass,” Barkov said. “All I had to do was put it in. The whole game, [Griffith] kept giving me great passes. Everything went to the net, perfect player.”
Moving Griffith up was a decision made by interim coach Tom Rowe, whose Panthers (13-12-4) open a two-game trip on Tuesday night against the Minnesota Wild.
In truth, the Panthers would rather have Jonathan Huberdeau playing with Barkov and Jagr.
That’s the top line that powered the Panthers to an Atlantic Division title last season, helping set franchise records for wins and points.
But with Huberdeau injured, they turned to Jonathan Marchessault, a second-year NHL player who put up 10 goals and nine assists in 25 games — already career numbers for him — while working on that top line.
The Panthers, though, can’t seem to keep their third forward on the Jagr line healthy, and with Marchessault injured — he could return this week — Rowe posted Griffith’s name atop his big board.
“We wanted to see what Seth could do with those guys,” Rowe said, “and he played great. He took full advantage.”
‘a skilled guy’
It remains to be seen how long Griffith remains in that rarefied air, but Barkov and others believe he’s miscast as a fourth-line forward.
“We knew he was a skilled guy,” Barkov said. “We need to use him on offense and not in a shut-down [defensive] role. He was the best player out there [on Saturday].”
Griffith said having his teammates’ confidence means a lot.
“I’ve been a top-six forward my whole life,” Griffith said. “But in the NHL, guys are skilled on every line.”
Friday’s practice, skating and talking with Jagr and Barkov, meant just as much for Griffith as the game.
“I enjoyed it,” Griffith said.
“We talked a little bit, how they like to play close, down low, in the cycle game. I’m not a huge guy (5-9, 190 pounds), so I had to adjust a little bit and use my speed rather than my strength.
“They are great passers. They’re going to find you.”
Panthers center Vincent Trocheck, while certainly happy for Griffith, smiled and noted how much easier it is to play with Barkov, who has nine points in his past nine games.
“You put anybody with [Barkov] … it’s [Barkov], he’s going to make plays,” Trocheck said. “He’s going to put guys in different positions to score.
“Guys were saying earlier in the year, ‘We’ve got to get [Barkov] going.’ [He] has been one of our best players since he got here. Even in the beginning of the year, when he wasn’t scoring every game, he was playing great defensively.”