Anthony Duclair nears a return to Florida Panthers lineup

The Florida Panthers are in the thick of the NHL’s Eastern Conference Playoff hunt, and with less than two months of regular-season hockey left, it appears some much-needed help is on the way in the form of veteran left wing Anthony Duclair.

A solid scorer for Florida last season, as the Panthers raced to the No. 1 postseason seed in the NHL, Duclair was a key cog before his offseason Achilles tendon injury sidelined him in June.

But, as the team returned from the All-Star break earlier this month, Duclair, 27, resumed skating with his teammates. He is wearing a non-contact jersey while working out on the ice at the club’s training facility in Coral Springs, so there’s still some progress that needs to be seen. But his return to the lineup seems simply like a matter of time.

In 74 games for the Panthers last season, Duclair was a pivotal part of the team’s high-octane offense on the second line. He accounted for 31 goals and 58 points — both career highs — as the Panthers captured their first-ever Presidents’ Cup Trophy, given to the NHL’s top regular-season club.

“You miss him,” Florida coach Paul Maurice said in a media availability, illustrating the depth of his offense even without Duclair. “But when you are healthy, you think there are enough pieces there (without him). When you start to feel it, is when you are five or six (players) down, and you start to think ‘it would be nice to a guy who can score 30 goals and skate like the wind.'”

Duclair can do just that. And given the club’s spot in the postseason is hardly the guarantee that it was last season, he’ll be a welcomed addition that Maurice is “excited” about.

“I don’t think cautious is the right word,” the first-year coach said. “We’re just trying to be as smart as we can with such a dangerous injury.”

Where Duclair won’t help, is on the back end, where the Panthers have struggled this season. Florida’s defense has failed to help the offense, ranking among the bottom of the league in goals allowed (3.41, 23rd) and penalty minutes (12.3, 31st) through last week.

Where Duclair can provide the most help is on the power play, as his speed and agility helped him carve out nine power play goals last season. This is notable, considering only fellow left wing, Matthew Tkachuk, is the team leader with 10, followed by Sam Reinhart with eight.

Placing Duclair back on the power play would allow the offense to create more scoring opportunities with his speed, combined with the relentless play of Tkachuk.

The Panthers have managed to remain competitive despite their lack of defensive proficiency, but they are in a logjam race for a wild-card berth with the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders and Buffalo Sabres.

Duclair, who has 120 goals and 252 points across his career, could be the difference.

“I think we’re getting to the place,” Maurice said, “where we are happy where it is at.”