Ask anyone what this Panthers season has been about, they’ll tell you the offense. And rightfully so. This forward group has put together the greatest offensive season since Mario Lemieux’s Penguins. However, the player who should be considered the MVP of their season is Aaron Ekblad.
While the offense hummed, Ekblad stabilized the back end. He allowed this team to be more than your typical run-and-gun shootout team; he made them dominant. This most recent Aaron Ekblad injury shows his importance to this team, and why he will need to come back if the Panthers want to have any chance at winning the cup.
Defensive numbers faltering
Since the Aaron Ekblad injury against Anaheim on March 18, the Panthers have gone 7-1-0. Certainly not the mark of a team feeling the absence of a star player, but the underlying numbers tell a different story.
Prior to Ekblad’s departure, the Panthers gave up 2.84 goals per game, a top-10 defensive ranking (Vancouver currently ranks 10th in the league with 2.84 GA/GP.) In the eight games he’s missed, the team is giving up 3.75 goals per game. This mark would have them 30th, ahead of only bottom feeders Montreal and Detroit.
They managed to hold their opponent under three goals only once in those eight games, and they have surrendered six twice. These eight games increased their goals against average from 2.84 to 2.94, which ranks 14th.
The Panthers have a historically great offense and, with Ekblad, a strong enough defense to force any opponents to work hard for their goals. That is what makes them special. Without him, games have shown to be more or less a shootout. Sure, the comebacks are fun, but we have to wonder why this team falls behind so frequently. For the Panthers to have success in the playoffs, their defense needs to be formidable. That hinges on an Ekblad return.
Defensive pairs do not work without him
Obviously, losing a Norris Trophy candidate would make any team’s defense worse. However, for the Panthers specifically, there is simply no viable replacement for him. The Panthers were hoping trade deadline acquisition Ben Chairot would be able to eat up much Ekblad’s defensive responsibilities, but he has disappointed thus far.
Of course, it would have been unreasonable to expect for him to duplicate Ekblad’s production, but his lack of a natural fit on the roster raises concerns. Over the eight games Chairot has played, he has been paired with both Mackenzie Weegar and Radko Gudas. When paired with Weegar, the two give up 4.56 goals against per 60 minutes. With Gudas, the pair surrenders a slightly better 3.7 goals against per 60 minutes. Obviously, the small sample size should be noted, but the eye test backs the numbers up.
Unlike the offensive core, the defensive players have not shown the ability to step up when a star goes down. When Barkov missed six weeks, players such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Reinhart, and Anthony Duclair all took advantage of increased opportunities to make sure the offense stayed level.
When Ekblad went out, it has been up to the offense to score even more goals. To be clear, all of Florida’s defensemen have shown to be more than capable in their roles, but not out of them. For them to go back to their roles, Ekblad must return for the playoffs.
Special teams slumping
One underrated loss for the Panthers since the Aaron Ekblad injury has been the loss of their special teams maestro. A fixture on both the power play and the penalty kill, Ekblad’s presence has been missed on both. The penalty kill has stopped 19 of 27 opponent chances over the last eight games, a 70% success rate.
That mark would be last in the league over a full season. This also includes giving up multiple power play goals in three of the eight games. Simply not good enough for a cup contender.
The same is true for the power play unit. Despite its many admirers, the five forward power play the Panthers have been using recently has some inherent weaknesses. Namely, the increased likelihood of surrendering shorthanded goals. Over the past eight games, the Panthers have given up two shorthanded goals at crucial junctures in the game, and should be thankful they have yet to give up more.
The Panthers may still choose to experiment with five forwards on the power play in the playoffs. Their unique collection of talent affords them that opportunity. Still, they miss the option of a reliable two-way defenseman out there as a security blanket.
Aaron Ekblad is one of the best defensemen in the league. Of course, the team needs him for their best shot at a deep playoff run. Over these last few games, it has become increasingly clear what his absence truly means to this team. It takes them from genuine cup contender to another high variance team. The kind of team that flames out in the playoffs. After years of heartache, that is the last thing this franchise needs.
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