SUNRISE, Fla. - Frank Vatrano is expected to make his long-awaited debut when the Florida Panthers host the New York Rangers at BB&T Center on Saturday, head coach Bob Boughner said after Friday's practice at BB&T Center.
"If he feels good, we're going to play him tomorrow night," Boughner said.
Acquired from Boston for a third-round pick on Feb. 22, Vatrano has been sidelined by a high-ankle sprain since Feb. 6. In his debut, the 23-year-old forward is expected to be deployed on Florida's second line with Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau.
"He's definitely a shooter," Boughner said of Vatrano. "I think that they're going to have a lot of puck possession, that line. For me, for Frankie, he's just got to learn to play within our system and get comfortable with our X's and O's.
"He's been in a lot of meetings with us lately, but [it's different] until you get on the ice and it's actual game time. There's going to be some adjustments for him. He hasn't played in a while and we need to keep that in mind. I think he'll get better as the game goes."
Vatrano said he hopes to develop some early chemistry with Trocheck and Huberdeau.
"They've done a lot in this league and having a really good year this year," he said. "Hopefully I can add some chemistry to that line."
In Boston this season, Vatrano never really had an opportunity to settle into a rhythm. Whether it was due to injuries or healthy scratches, he was limited to only 25 games, scoring two goals and averaging 9:28 of ice time while primarily playing a bottom-six role for the Bruins.
"It was kind of a tough year down there and I kind of needed a change of scenery," Vatrano said. "I'm glad that the Panthers made a move for me and I feel like this can be a place where I can succeed and fit in well with the young group, and fast-skating team."
In the AHL, however, Vatrano was dominant, scoring 39 goals in 43 career games.
"I know I'm good enough to play in the NHL," said Vatrano, who has 20 goals and 11 assists in 108 career NHL games. "That's my goal is to play in the NHL as long as possible."
At 5-foot-9 and 201 pounds, Vatrano is small, but speedy - a build perfect for the increasingly up-tempo pace of the Panthers. During a seven-game winning streak at home, Florida scored 17 of its 23 goals on the rush, which certainly bodes very well for Vatrano's self-described "fast-paced, north-south" style of play.
"I hear he's got a great shot and he's a fast player," said Trocheck, who skated with Vatrano for the first time during Friday's practice. "That plays into me and Huby's game a little bit. I think as long as we can kind of get him to come close to us, support us in the o-zone, we should be alright."
Vatrano's return to the ice comes at an important time for the Panthers, as the team currently sits two points behind Columbus for the second wild card spot into the playoffs in the Eastern Conference with three games in hand. Florida has won seven straight games at home and opened a crucial five-game homestand with a 5-0 thrashing of Montreal on Thursday night.
"It's an exciting time of year," Vatrano said. "Every game is a playoff game. Our goal is make it to the playoffs and make a pretty good run. I want to help the team win as much as I can."
FRIDAY'S PRACTICE LINES
Evgenii Dadonov - Aleksander Barkov- Nick Bjugstad
Jonathan Huberdeau - Vincent Trocheck - Frank Vatrano
Jamie McGinn - Jared McCann - Maxim Mamin
Micheal Haley - Derek MacKenzie - Colton Sceviour
Extras: Radim Vrbata, Connor Brickley, Denis Malgin (non-contact)
Keith Yandle - Aaron Ekblad
Mike Matheson - Mark Pysyk
MacKenzie Weegar/Ian McCoshen - Alex Petrovic
Roberto Luongo (did not practice - maintenance day)