Coming into last season, no one really knew how good or how bad the Florida Panthers defense was going to be. Many wondered is Brian Campbell really worth the seven million dollars the Panthers are paying him. Will Dmitry Kulikov continue to grow into a great defender? Is Erik Gudbranson ready to play with the big boys? Well, I’ll answer your questions with one simple word, yes.
Last season the Panthers not only had one of the best defensive units in the Southeast Division, but their defense also ranked as one of the best in the league. The Panthers ranked 12th in the league last season in goals allowed per game and also had a penalty kill percentage of 79.5.
The defense last year was led by All-Star Brian Campbell. Last season, Campbell was one of the best defenders in the NHL. Not only did he lead the league in time on the ice, but he also accounted for only six penalty minutes. With those great statistics already on his resume for last year, he had even more accomplishments to add on. Campbell served as the quarterback of the Panthers last year as he lead the team in assist with a total of 49.
Campbell wasn’t the only player on the defense last year who made some noise. Jason Garrison set a franchise record for most goals scored in a season by a defender with 16. Unfortunately this past offseason the Panthers lost Garrison’s offensive presence to free agency; however, they have done a great job filing the hole that was left when Garrison signed with the Canucks. Another player that stepped up big for us was the rookie, Erik Gudbranson. While Gudbranson only had eight points last season, he provided the cats with a much needed physical presence. In his rookie campaign, Gudbranson looked like a veteran and with years of hockey left in him, he showed off how good of a player he could be.
This season with the exception of Garrison, our entire defense is returning. For much of last season the defensive lineups looked like this, Campbell and Garrison, Kulikov and Weaver, and Gudbranson and Jovanovski. With the loss of Garrison, the newly added Filip Kuba is the most likely candidate to take the ice next to Campbell.
I believe that head coach Kevin Dineen will go with the same matchups from the previous season.
Leading the way will be Brian Campbell and Filip Kuba. We all know that last season; Jason Garrison provided much of the goal scoring from the blue liners. Despite the fact that Campbell played a huge role in our offense last season, he needs to continue to improve his game and be an even bigger factor this year. He is our guy defensively and our offense runs through him. He knows that he needs to become a bigger goal scorer heading into next season because of the loss of Garrison. Next to him will be Filip Kuba. During his time in the NHL, Kuba has been a great player, not only defensively but also with his offensive contribution. Kuba is another guy that likes to distribute the puck around, that is why he has never had a season where he scores more goals than assist. He is another one of those guys who normally has a low goal scoring total with a high assist total. With Campbell needing to score more goals, Kuba will be right there dishing out the puck to the wingers for them to create goal scoring opportunities.
In my opinion the second defensive line will consist of Erik Gudbranson and Ed Jovanovski. These two players are almost identical. When on the ice the only difference between these two players are the name and number on the back of their jerseys. You could put Gudbranson in a Jovanovski jersey and people will think it’s Jovanovski. These two physical hockey players served as the enforcers last year. Although between the two they didn’t score that much, they provided something even more valuable. The two of them played great defense and were always in the right position to make a play. Last year they put on a show for the fans with their hitting ability and their admiration for fighting. In fact Gudbranson placed second on the team in penalty minutes behind Krys Barch, who is now on the New Jersey Devils. This line of defenders is pretty much the perfect match. The experienced guy teaching the rookie everything he needs to know about the way the game is played in the NHL. If this line is kept together next season, the opposing team might want to wear some extra padding.
Last but certainly not least is Dmitry Kulikov and Mike Weaver. Weaver and Kulikov both have a different approach to the game. Weaver is more of the tough guy who will throw his body in harm’s way in order to help the team win, while Kulikov is more of the flashy skater with tons of offensive potential. Don’t get me wrong, just because they are different players, doesn’t mean anything bad. Their contrasted styles are just what this team needs. The two of them on the ice together gives the offensive a little more to work with. They both can play defense at a high level and if needed to, Kulikov can turn on the jets and become an offensive weapon. If Kulikov can stay healthy this season, this line can produce a lot more than they did last season.
The Panthers didn’t do too much this past offseason when it came to shaking up the defense. Maybe they didn’t need to do anything big though. With Kulikov and Gudbranson still maturing as defenders, the defense has been set for the future and with Campbell and Jovanovksi, the defense is also set for the present. The blend of both young talent and veteran experience for the defense has helped the Panthers be successful. Hopefully everyone could stay healthy this season, because if they do, this defense could be one to watch out for.
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