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.

follow samdman12321 on twitter

Aaron Ekblad Injury Leaves a Crater on the Panthers’ Blue Line

Since Aaron Ekblad’s injury, the Panthers have not been as consistent defensively, they will need him to return to be the cup contenders they want to be.

Aaron Ekblad skating off the ice after an injury
Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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.

follow @samdman12321 on twitter

follow @ATB_network on twitter

Panthers vs Lightning: post-game recap

The Panthers played their in state rival on Tuesday, with plenty of takeaways to discuss.

Panthers vs Lightning
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Panthers continue to impress, this time vs in-state rivals the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In the most recent hockey battle of Florida, the Panthers pulled off one of their most decisive wins against the defending Stanley Cup champs. They improve to 3-0-0 after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning 4-1.

Although Tampa was without Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning played a strong team game in both the offensive and defensive zones. They gave the Panthers all they could handle, but the Panthers still prevailed.

While it is only game three of the season, this game could mark a passing of the torch for the best team in Florida. The Lightning have dominated that matchup for the better part of last decade. If this most recent game is any indication, however, the next decade could be very different.

Panthers vs Lightning Game Recap

In the first period, both teams failed to put a puck in the back of the net. Through a combination of good defense and stellar goaltending, the teams went into the first intermission tied at 0.

In the second period, Brandon Montour broke the ice. As a Panthers power play winded down, Anton Lundell won a faceoff. He threw the puck back to Sam Reinhart who tossed it cross ice to Brandon Montour. Montour, wide open on the right side of the ice, capitalized with a beautiful wrister to beat Andrei Vasilevsky glove side. It was the first goal of the season for Montour and the first points for Lundell and Reinhart.

Early in the third period, Brayden Point evened the game for the Lightning. Not even one minute later, the Captain answered. Barkov and his line generated a lot of activity in front of the net, and Barkov tipped it in.

Later in the third, the kid had his moment. A beautiful transition two man game was only outshined by Lundell’s beautiful snipe. His first career goal game on a pass from newcomer Sam Reinhart, and put the Panthers up by two.

Anthony Duclair put in an empty net a few minutes after, extending his goal streak and icing the game for the Panthers vs the Lightning.

Quick Takeaways

  • While Penalties are still a problem, Penalty killing is not. The Panthers took 6 penalties and killed off every single one, including an extended 5 on 3. Anton Lundell specifically has shined on the penalty kill.
  • The power play still needs work. The Cats failed to score on the man advantage yet again. To remedy this, Coach Q swapped Reinhart for Hornqvist on the top line. This changed seemed to help a bit, but has not bore fruit yet.
  • Goalie Spencer Knight continues to live up to the hype. He made 30 saves on 31 shots. That type of performance against this caliber of team at 20 years old is borderline unheard of.
  • Rookie Anton Lundell had his best game of his career thus far. Besides the goal and assist. He led the team with over 4 minutes of penalty kill time. He is starting to look like a future all star.
  • Sam Reinhart seems to have good chemistry with Lundell on that third line. Undoubtedly a fair bit of talent to keep on a third line, but if it aint broke…
  • After a shaky first two games, Radko Gudas had some shutdown penalty kill minutes. They will need more of that from him going forward.

Looking Ahead

The Panthers play the Avalanche at home on Thursday at 7 P.M. Another good test for this team against another cup contender.

Florida Panthers 2021-2022 Season Preview: The Cup Window Opens

Floirda Panthers head coach Joel Quenneville
(Quenneville pouring Champagne into the Stanley Cup/Origin Unknown)

The preseason is over, the final cuts have been made, and the regular season awaits us. The Florida Panthers finally kick off their most anticipated season in franchise history. Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the FLA Live Arena.

On paper, this is the deepest Panthers team I’ve ever seen. Guys who were regulars in the lineup last season will see their ice time reduced. Via off-season acquisitions and the rise of several of the Young Cats. 

Recap

Patric Hornqvist, started last season on the second line and was a lock for PP1 minutes. He is now looking at a bottom six role and a role on the PP2 unit. Anthony Duclair floated between the top two lines last season, earned a contract extension in the offseason. He is projected to be a third line winger just because that’s how good this team is.

So much credit has to be given to the front office for getting the team to this point. Bill Zito and Co turned this team around from pretenders to contenders in a little over a calendar year.

But at the end of the day, roster moves do not determine who wins the Stanley Cup. The games have to be played. I know the boys are up for the challenge, and while minor I think the team’s new social media hashtag describes the energy in the locker room, it’s #TimeToHunt

This is a team that’s hungry. A team that knew they were good enough to win last year. They were just a bit unlucky with injuries and having to face the Lightning in the first round. This isn’t a group of individuals who are going to make excuses though.

It’s a team who would rather go out on the ice and show just how good they are. It’s a team filled with highly motivated players who all want to win and win together HERE. Aleksander Barkov’s comments at his extension press conference highlight this belief.

Opening Night Roster

As I mentioned before, this is the deepest Florida Panthers team we’ve ever had. The team has changed a bit since we recorded our season preview episode a few weeks ago though.

Noel Acciari received shoulder surgery and is expected to be out for a few months, while 7th Defenseman Kevin Connauton is currently on the IR with the expectation that he joins the team sooner rather than later.

On top of that, the team made a trade with the Vancouver Canucks for Olli Juolevi. Juolevi was the fifth overall pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and has had an underwhelming start to his NHL career. The Panthers acquired him for Juho Lammiko and Noah Juulsen and the team hopes a change of scenery can help revive his career. We saw this work out for the Panthers last season with the acquisition of Sam Bennett, and it will be interesting to see how Juolevi plays with an opportunity to impress Joel Quenneville early.

(Panthers Opening Night Roster / @FlaPanthers twitter)

Forwards

The initial list is not surprising at all. Prospects Grigori Denisenko and Aleksi Heponiemi were cut early in camp, showing that they still have a ways to go in their development. This is a good thing for the Panthers, as they can get a full season of AHL hockey under their belts before being expected to become significant contributors for the team in the 2022-2023 season.

Of all the names on the list, all eyes will be on Anton Lundell. Lundell has been described as “Barkov Jr.” by fans and beat reporters since he was drafted, and we’ll get to see him start in the big leagues. How he plays will be a major area of focus when it comes to the personnel moves made by the team, as they may be forced to move lines around or acquire another center if he isn’t ready.

Defensemen

RIP the Matt Kiersted 7D hype train. Like the forwards list, the defensemen come with zero surprises as well. The team made clear who their six defenders were by their offseason moves, and Juolevi is a shot in the dark until Kevin Connauton returns.

If the Panthers are to make a big move in season, I think it’ll be to shore up their bottom four defensemen. We already know Mackenzie Weegar, Aaron Ekblad, and Gustav Forsling are locked in on defense. Radko Gudas plays the enforcer role, leaving Brandon Montour and Markus Nutivaara. Their play early in the season will tell Zito and Quenneville whether or not a personnel change is needed, and the front office has shown they’re willing to make moves.

Goalies

With Chris Gibson heading to Charlotte, the Panthers begin the season with Sergei Bobrovsky as their starter. Rookie phenom Spencer Knight as his backup. The word all offseason has been a goalie by committee approach, similar to last season, with Bob getting the bulk of the starts. However, I believe Bob will have a shorter leash than he used to. Knight’s development and play last season has accelerated the timetable for him to become the #1. As he went from winning the World Juniors with Team USA, playing at Boston College, to starting in the Stanley Cup Playoffs within a calendar year.

If Bob can figure it out in Year 3 here, that’s a good thing for the Panthers. The goalie by committee approach worked last season and if the former Vezina winner can get back to that level. The Panthers can ease Spencer Knight into becoming a full-time starter. This will be his first full season in the league.

Opening Night Line Predictions

Take these with a grain of salt, as Q loves to throw his lines in a blender throughout games and change things up.

*Original predictions from a few weeks ago have been scratched out and replaced with those now occupying their spots*

(also shoutout the voice of the Florida Panthers Steve Goldstein for taking the guessing work out of it)

LWCRW
1st LineCarter VerhaegheAleksander BarkovSam Reinhart
2nd LineJonathan HuberdeauSam BennettOwen Tippett
3rd LineFrank VatranoAnton LundellAnthony Duclair
Patric Hornqvist
4th LineNoel Acciari
Joe Thornton
Joe Thornton
Eetu Luostarinen
Patric Hornqvist
Anthony Duclair
LDRD
Defensive Pairing 1Mackenzie WeegarAaron Ekblad
Defensive Pairing 2Gustav ForslingBrandon Montour
Defensive Pairing 3Marcus NutivaaraRadko Gudas

When the team is fully healthy, I expect the guys with their names crossed out to return to their spots.

Line 1- Verhaeghe, Barkov, Reinhart

By the end of the season, this might be the best top line in the league. I wrote earlier this offseason that the team needed another Top 6 forward, and Reinhart is exactly that. Not only that, but Reinhart offers roster flexibility with experience playing at Center. He can help the team should Lundell or Bennett miss any significant time. If that were to happen, Anthony Duclair can be elevated to the top line and we’ve seen what 23-16-10 can do together. Reinhart’s skills should mesh with Verhaeghe and Barkov nicely, and I’m excited to see what they can do throughout the year.

Line 2- Huberdeau, Bennett, Tippett

Huberdeau and Bennett are locked into this line, but it’s the RW position where the debate begins. After finding his footing last year and having a strong preseason camp, I believe 74 has earned the right to start on the 2nd line. The chemistry they showed together in the postseason brought out the best in Owen Tippett, and the franchise needs to find out whether it was a fluke or the real deal. If it doesn’t work, Anthony Duclair is still there for the return of the 9-1-1 line (although it’ll need a new name with Duclair now wearing 10)

Line 3- Vatrano, Lundell, Hornqvist // Vatrano, Lundell, Duclair

I’ll break this into two parts, one to talk about early in the season and the other about the playoff push. Vatrano, Lundell, and Hornqvist isn’t a sexy line but I think it can work. You have a proven goal scorer in Vatrano with a guy who has made a career out of parking himself in front of the net in Hornqvist. Those pieces can complement Lundell’s style of play and help him settle into the NHL. I think the Duclair/Hornqvist swap was made to add some speed to the fourth line, and should swap once Acciari comes back.

If we get to see Vatrano, Lundell, Duclair later in the season watch out. We saw how well Duke played with Barkov last season, so we can expect similar results playing alongside Barkov Jr. With Vatrano playing for a contract (and most likely his last as a Panther) he’ll be even more inclined to produce and potentially be an attractive trade chip for the team as the deadline nears.

Line 4- Thornton, Luostarinen, Duclair // Acciari, Thornton, Hornqvist

With the team shipping away Lammiko, we found out Luostarinen is the team’s preferred 4th line center. I’m interested to see how much Thornton plays this season, as Ryan Lomberg and Mason Marchment are younger and can handle the wear and tear of an 82 game season. I’d expect Hornqvist to get similar treatment too, as he and Thornton are going to be more beneficial to the team once the playoffs roll around.

Once Acciari gets back, we’ll have a true grit line. Especially if guys like Lomberg and Marchment get regular playing time. Acciari, Thornton, and Hornqvist are capable of setting the tone and will be a tough line for opposing teams to play against. They’re capable of making teams frustrated and have enough offensive power to make a play when the game is on the line. Thornton came to South Florida to chase a cup, so we know he’ll be hungry and give his all.

Power Play Units

The first Power Play unit is already out there, and it’s lethal. Barkov, Huberdeau, Reinhart, Bennett, and the return of Aaron Ekblad. Like the top line, the power play has a chance to finish on top of the league. Tampa’s power play gave them the edge in the playoffs last season, and the Panthers upgrades should level the playing field.

The second Power Play isn’t set yet, but it’s going to include players like Verhaeghe, Tippett, Duclair, Hornqvist, Montour, or Weegar. That’s an upgrade from last season and should create some good scoring chances if the first unit isn’t able to get it done (which I suspect will not be often)

Penalty Kill Units

Off all units affected by the roster changes, the Penalty Kill took the biggest hit. Alex Wennberg is no longer here and Acciari is out for a portion of the season. I’m not saying that there will be a significant decline in the PK %, just simply stating that the personnel is going to change and we don’t know how effective it will be. Will be interesting to watch how Q and his coaching staff handle the personnel decisions here as the season goes on.

Quick Takes:

  • Barkov leading goalscorer
  • Huberdeau points leader
  • Owen Tippett breakout season
  • Knight takes over as the 1 before the Olympic Break
  • Everyone in the Top 6 finishes with 20+ goals
  • Panthers win the Atlantic

Season Prediction:

As I sit here today writing this, I can see this Florida Panthers team winning it all, which has never been a thought I’ve had as a Panthers fan going into a season. The teams bond is so strong, and that’s accredited to the culture change that’s taken place inside the building since Q arrived. They’re highly motivated to win together, and they’ll play harder than most teams across the league.

While this is just year one of the team’s newly formed Cup Window, I think this may be their best shot. The Cats kept their core together, had the best offseason of any team in the NHL, and have the prospect pool and roster flexibility to be buyers at the deadline. On top of that, this is probably Joe Thornton’s last year in the league, and he chose to chase a cup here.

Personally, I’d just love to see us win one playoff series, but the expectations are higher than that. This is a team that can make and win the conference finals, and this is a team that can win the Stanley Cup.

We’ll have to see how the team navigates through the season and the moves they make at the deadline, but it’s going to be a special few years in Sunrise.

Until next time, we move 🤝