Florida Panthers Defense showing signs of improvement

Florida Panthers celebrate after a win over the Anaheim Ducks, thanks to the defense
Photo Credit: FloridaPanthersPR

Following Florida’s 7-6 comeback win over Toronto on April 5, most fans felt nothing but elation. For the Panthers themselves, that game marked a need for change. The Florida Panthers defense had been struggling mightily in the first eight games Aaron Ekblad missed due to injury, and that game marked the tipping point for the team’s coaching staff.

After the game against Toronto, head coach Andrew Brunette mentioned the need for stronger defensive showings. He knows the importance of a formidable defense in the playoffs. With the regular season winding down, the team needed to begin to shut down their opponents. Even with Ekblad presumably returning for the playoffs, the team needed defensive answers with the current group.

In the four games since that shift, the team has allowed only seven goals. Excluding the first period against Buffalo, the team surrendered only four goals in the past 11 periods of hockey. That impressive turnaround can be attributed to several factors which have re-energized the Florida Panthers defense.

New Florida Panthers Defensive Pairings

One change Bruno implemented with the Florida Panthers defense was to change up the pairings. For these combinations, Bruno decided to pair strength with strength. He paired offensive defensemen Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour together, as well as physical defensemen Robert Hagg and Radko Gudas.

These changes create some interesting wrinkles for opponents. The high-powered offensive duo have used their collective speed to grab the puck and push it out of their own zone. In the past four games the pair each have four points (Forsling 3g 1a, Montour 0g 4a.)

Conversely, Hagg and Gudas use their physical nature to shut down opposing chances. Because neither are offensively gifted, the team opts for a separation of responsibilities when they come on the ice. Indeed, the duo disrupts all opposing chances and the forwards do the heavy lifting on offense. So far, it has worked to perfection. In the 27 minutes of the Hagg-Gudas pairing thus far, the tandem boasts a remarkable 72.4 expected goals percentage.

Improved Goalie Play

Of course, none of this would be possible without the goalies. Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight have given amazing performances this past week. Bob was 3-0-0 with a 0.931 save percentage while Knight stopped 24 of 25 shots and won his lone appearance.

Specifically, this last start for Bobrovsky stands out. Against Winnipeg, Bobrovsky stopped 30 of 31 shots. He finished with a goals saved above expected of 1.43. After a horrible couple of starts against New Jersey and Toronto, these games have meaning. They help build confidence and rhythm going into the playoffs. Bobrovsky will likely be the team’s starting goalie come playoffs, and his play can make or break the cup run.

However, if Bobrovsky’s inconsistency proves to be Florida’s weakness in the playoffs, the team should feel encouraged about Spencer Knight’s progress. Knight played one of the best games in his career against Nashville last week. He finished with 1.45 goals saved above expected, which brought his total number for the year into the positive.

After a terrible start to the year, Knight has given the team very consistent play in net. While he likely won’t be the starter, he will end up in net at some point come the playoffs.

New Additions Getting Comfortable

When looking back at the terrible two-week defensive stretch, it is clear that working in some new additions played a part in it. Earlier this year, Sam Reinhart discussed the difficulties of getting acclimated to Florida’s unique system. After 15 games, he became one of the teams best players. His slow start was quickly forgotten by fans and media alike.

The same should have been expected of the deadline acquisitions, namely Ben Chairot and Roberg Hagg. We talked earlier about Hagg finding his fit with Gudas, and the same could be said for Chairot. Now spending his time with Weegar, the two increased their expected goals percentage together from 55% to 62%. Chairot also has two assists over his last four games.

With the chemistry this Florida Panthers defense gained in the past week, the team may have solved its biggest problem. If the team regains its strong defensive play AND adds Aaron Ekblad going into the playoffs, they instantly become the team to beat. Indeed, the ceiling is high, but the team needs to make tweaks in these last few games more than most in their position.

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Comeback Cats: Saturday’s may be team’s most impressive comeback

Gustav Forsling scores the game winning goal for the Panthers, AKA the Comeback Cats
Photo Credit: FlaPanthersPR

The game was all but over, until the Comeback Cats showed up.

Down 6-2 to start the third period in New Jersey, fans of both teams would have told you to put this game on ice. The Panthers have staged several comebacks this season, but this game felt different. Whether it was the 12:30 start or a late night before, the team simply had no juice through the first 40 minutes.

Whatever was wrong, they fixed it during the second intermission.

The Panthers reminded everyone a game is never over against the Comeback Cats, and turned what might have been the worst showing of the season into their greatest resilience story to date. Four goals in the third and the game winner in overtime left the home crowd stunned. For the Cats, it was nothing they didn’t already know they were capable of.

“There was no doubt in the room. We’ve been doing that all year. This was a big win for us” said Brandon Montour, who’s third period goal started the comeback. “The game’s not over until the 60 minutes are done. We believe in each other in that room.”

Admittedly, the team did not earn the “Comeback Cats” moniker for nothing, but this game is likely their most impressive. For 40 minutes, the team earned the 6-2 score they faced. In fact, one could argue that this was one of their worst games of the season. Knowing that another game awaits them tomorrow, most teams would not have even had the energy or ability to make this game competitive.

The Panthers are not most teams, and this year has proven that. They have their eyes set on a much bigger prize than winning their first round series for the first time since 1996 — they want to win it all. They want their names etched on the Stanley Cup for eternity. Games like Saturday’s show they can do just that.

Managing to beat a young and motivated Devils team on their home ice by only showing up for the third period marks a team confident and talented enough to go deep into the playoffs. They’re good and they know it. Head coach Andrew Brunette said after the game, “We’ve shown we’re a gritty team, we have resilience… You felt it on the bench after we made it 6-4 that anything was possible. A proud group of guys that are never out of it.”

If anyone needs more of a reason to believe in this team, just look at Saturday’s game. While the true test for this team lies in the playoffs, they have earned their status as a legitimate cup contender. In a season that has raised the bar for the franchise, the team keeps finding new ways to impress.

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The best and worst cases of the Panthers’ most recent contract signings.

The Panthers played the lottery and won big with several players. Now the time has come to pay them. Will they regret any of it?

The Panthers resurrected an unprecedented amount of careers this past season, and rewarded most of those players with contract extensions. In many cases, these are the first large contracts handed to these players. Will these players live up to their new cap hits? Let’s dive into the best and worst case scenarios for each of the players the Panthers rewarded with new contracts this offseason.

Gustav Forsling

Forsling impressed during the second half of last season with the Panthers. Offensively Forsling drove play with his speed and vision and defensively he used great anticipation and stick checking to make up for his lack of size. He went above and beyond being an injury replacement for Aaron Ekblad on that top pairing. Nothing during his season with the Panthers would suggest any precipitous drop off in play. However, Forsling did not show he could be an NHL caliber defenseman before this season. During his first four seasons in the NHL with Chicago and Carolina, he spent more than half of his time in the AHL. He had shown flashes of offensive excellence during those seasons but could not be counted on defensively. Was this sudden improvement in play a result of a change of scenery and being put in the right position, or just plain luck? Nobody can know for sure, but for only eight million dollars over three years the gamble is certainly worth it for the Panthers.

Best case: strong top 4 defensemen

Worst case: 7th defensemen, gone in 2 years

Anthony Duclair

Duclair has always had strong underlying numbers, but has had issues with upper management at several of his previous stops. In hindsight, it seems those issues were largely the fault of the coaches and management, and less so on Duclair. Regardless, he seems to have found a home in South Florida. Even with his impressive play last season, his shooting percentage was only 9.6%, down from 12.4% career average. With shooting percentage being a good indicator of player luck, it could mean Duclair is in for some positive regression this upcoming season. Even if that regression never comes and Duclair maintains the level of play he had last season, this contract is an absolute win for the Panthers.

Best case: Reliable top 6 forward

Worst case: high ceiling top 9 forward

Sam Bennett

Bennett burst onto the scene with superstar level production during his short 10 game stint with the Panthers last season, registering 6 goals and 9 assists during those games. Those numbers are obviously unsustainable, especially his 15.4 shooting percentage. The former fourth overall pick in the 2014 draft left Calgary as somewhat of a disappointment. He never cracked 40 points in a season (his career high is 36 during his rookie season) and played much of his time as a bottom 6 forward. To his credit, Bennett has talked openly about how a change of scenery was necessary for him. His instant chemistry with winger Johnathan Huberdeau helped Bennett embark on the greatest stretch of his career. With that in mind, it is possible this handful of games with the Panthers could be just the start of what is to come for the 25 year old. The Panthers took a pretty big risk with this contract. His AAV of 4.425 million means he will be expected to produce like a top 6 forward regularly. It could certainly happen, but the sample size of him being an average player is much, much larger than his hot streak with the Panthers.

Best case: second line center

Worst case: bottom 6 forward, bought out in two years

Carter Verhaeghe

Ah, Carter Vergaeghe. Talented, Beautiful, Carter Verhaeghe. The steal of last year’s free agency period exceeded all expectations last season, and is only getting better. Verhaeghe may have the most complete game on the team of any forward not named Aleksander Barkov of Johnathan Huberdeau. The undrafted phenom only had one season of NHL experience under his belt, where he impressed in a limited role with the Tampa Bay Lightning. In a larger role with the Panthers last season, he impressed again. Of course, the shooting percentage may come back to earth a bit, but I would bet against it having a major impact on his production. Strong Defense, wicked shot, and blistering speed, the man can do it all. You take his 4.167 AAV any day and pray you can meet his new number in four years time.

Best Case: Top line winger

Worst Case: really good second line winger

Brandon Montour

I’ll be honest, this one gives me pause. Montour did not play badly for the Panthers by any means. From my point of view, Montour just never stood out. He played like just another cog in the machine for a defense which was simply not good enough against Tampa. 3.5 million dollars per year for 3 years is a big commitment for someone who did not show flashes of anything extraordinary. During his last 3 years in Buffalo, Montour gained a reputation as one of the worst defenders in the league. (Granted, Buffalo is a place where careers go to die.) Montour had been a defenseman worth that amount during his tenure in Anaheim, but last played for the Ducks three years ago. Florida wanted to re-sign him even before the season ended, so maybe they see something I don’t. If I had to bet on a contract from the bunch to age poorly, however, this would be the one.

Best case: mid tier top 4 defenseman

Worst case: AHL defensemen being paid like a top 4 defenseman

Sam Reinhart

Speaking of Buffalo reclamation projects, the Panthers may have snagged the best of the bunch — Jack Eichel notwithstanding. What makes Reinhart such a tantalizing player is he actually managed to be good in Buffalo. He netted 20+ goals in each of the last four seasons. The second overall pick in the 2014 draft has as much raw talent as anyone on this roster. He has not quite lived up to his lofty draft expectations — likely a product of being stuck on the Sabres — but the possibility still remains that a new team will allow for that theoretical pre draft Reinhart to become reality.

This season will show if his ordeal with Buffalo stunted his all around hockey development or just masked it in a thick layer of garbage. 6.5 million dollars per year is a steep price, and that comes with expectations, but expect Reinhart to be very productive this upcoming season.

Best case: Elite top line winger

Worst Case: Disappointing but still productive second line winger

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Florida Panthers sign Sam Reinhart to three year deal

The Panthers acquired Reinhart form Buffalo earlier this offseason in exchange for goaltender Devon Levi and a top 10 protected first round pick.

And just like that, the Panthers have opened their cup window.

The Florida Panthers and forward Sam Reinhart have agreed to terms on a three year contract extension.

Reinhart will earn a total of $19.5 million over three years, averaging $6.5 million a year.

The 25 year old winger marks the beginning of the cup window for the Panthers.

Totaling 25 goals and 15 assist in 54 games last season, Reinhart was a restricted free agent and needed a contract from the Panthers before he could play.

“It’s exciting and adds that extra level of motivation knowing the group of guys here, the talent level, and with what they’re setting up to do… I cant wait to do my part and fit into what they’re already building.”

Sam Reinhart

With Reinhart now signed, the Panthers have around 1.3 million in available cap space remaining. Being this close to the cap ceiling removes much of the team’s flexibility going forward. They will be unable to acquire a major player without trading one away.

Panthers’ GM Bill Zito made an effort to lock up his core for the future. He signed all of the major free agents on the team to similar three or four year deals.

Namely, Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe, Sam Bennett, Gustav Forsling, and Brandon Montour all signed new contracts this offseason, each lasting either three or four years.

Barkov is expected to sign a long term deal with the team in the coming weeks.

Sam Reinhart is one of the pieces for a Stanley cup run as management believes this team can make it happen.

The front office’s vision of this team has manifested into a team which has three seasons to win the Stanley cup. If the Panthers are successful during this window, expect the same players to receive contract extensions.

If they cannot win the ultimate prize, expect major changes in the 2024 offseason.

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