Frank Vatrano always believed he could be an effective NHL player if given the opportunity.
Well, it turns out he was right.
Acquired from the Boston Bruins in exchange for a third-round pick at last year’s trade deadline, the 25-year-old forward broke out during his first full season with the Florida Panthers in 2018-19, reaching new career-highs in goals (24), assists (15), points (39) and games played (81).
In 124 career games with Boston prior to the trade, he had accumulated only 25 goals.
“It’s a great accomplishment for myself,” Vatrano said after cleaning out his locker at BB&T Center on April 8. “This was my fourth year in the league, so you kind of start to figure things out, like what you need to do on a nightly basis in order to be effective.
“For me, I think that I started to figure that out a little bit this year. Not just what I need to do to just score goals, but also doing the little things right every single night. I think that’s why I got rewarded on the scoresheet some nights. I had an opportunity to play with some great guys.”
Moving up and down the depth chart throughout the season, Vatrano was able to carve out a regular role in the team’s top-nine – including a good amount of time in the top-six – due to his consistency, especially in the goal-scoring department. From opening night until mid-February, he only endured one goalless drought longer than four games (a six-game slump in December).
When asked about his clockwork-like work on offense, Vatrano smiled and said that his points were actually more a part of the journey rather than the final destination. Hoping to become a more well-rounded player, he spent the season focusing on his intangibles. As a result, ended up setting a new career-high in hits (139), while also leading the club’s forwards in blocks (74).
“I think the past couple years I’ve been known kind of as a streaky goal scorer, where I’d score five in six games or so and then don’t score or get a point for the next 20 games,” Vatrano said. “My goal for me this year is not just to obviously score goals, but to have an overall game, to make sure that if I’m not scoring goals or putting points up that I’m bringing something every single night. I think because I’m doing that more I’m getting on the scoresheet a lot more.”
As an additional reward for his outstanding season, Vatrano was invited to compete for Team USA for the second time in his career at the IIHF World Championship (he previously donned the Red, White and Blue in 2016). Already underway, he’s notched a goal and an assist in four games at the tournament, which will run from May 10-26 in Bratislava and Kosice, Slovakia.
“It’s nice that they thought highly enough of me as a player to bring me over there,” Vatrano said of the honor. “Hopefully I can help bring home a gold medal… I played in them before in the U-17 and U-18 tournaments, and then again in the main tournament back in 2016. It’s a dream come true. You get to play with some great guys. Overall, it’s just a really great experience.”
Inked to a three-year contract extension on Feb. 25, Vatrano said he’s eager to build off his career year during the 2019-20 campaign, the first under new head coach Joel Quenneville.
“I know the guys here are all really excited about the future of this organization,” Vatrano said. “Hopefully we can contend for a Cup every single year now.”
Vatrano didn’t need the power play to do his damage this season.
Of his 24 goals, a whopping 22 of them came while the Panthers were at even-strength. That total placed him not only tied with Aleksander Barkov for the team-lead, but also put him ahead of several other NHL stars like Brayden Point (21), David Pastrnak (21) and Claude Giroux (19).
Also worthy of mentioning as a second “cool stat” is Vatrano’s knack for closing out games, as his three empty-net goals this season led the team and were tied for 19th in the entire league.
Vatrano tallied a career-best four points (one goal, three assists) in just 13:30 of ice time to nab first-star honors and help push the Panthers to a 6-2 win over the San Jose Sharks on Jan. 21.
“It’s obviously good to get rewarded, but it’s great to get a win,” Vatrano said afterwards. “Going into the break, that’s three wins in a row against some pretty good teams. For me, I’m playing with some great guys. I’m just trying to get open and make the plays when they’re there.”
With three helpers already to his credit, Vatrano capped off his unforgettable evening by slipping behind San Jose’s defense, taking a pass from Evgenii Dadonov and burying a filthy backhand insurance goal that extended Florida’s lead to dominating 5-2 margin at 7:22 of the third period.
“Sometimes that’s how hockey goes,” Vatrano said. “You feel good and you feel real confident going into game after game. That’s how I’m feeling right now. Obviously there’s a break coming up, but we’ve got to keep it going. I think the team, all around, is just making me better.”
GOAL OF THE YEAR
Vatrano couldn’t have asked for a better present on his 25th birthday.
Driving towards the crease, the birthday boy collected a silky backhand pass from linemate Mike Hoffman before sending both the puck and himself flying into the back of San Jose’s net to light the lamp and put the Panthers ahead 4-2 in the third period against the Sharks on March 14.
“I didn’t know that Troch [Vincent Trocheck] was going to slip that pass through to Hoff,” Vatrano said of the goal after the game. “I kind of couldn’t see a little bit, but he slipped that pass to Hoff. I knew there was a chance [Hoffman] was going to pass it. If it was me, I probably would have shot it. But he made a great pass to me. It was a great all-around effort.”