The post-mortem on the 2018-19 Florida Panthers will likely start with a note about how bad their defense was or a joke about a turnover writing the sentence.
Only four teams have given up more goals than the Florida Panthers have. According to morehockeystats.com, only one team has more defensive zone giveaways than Florida (Montreal), and the Cats’ top three defensemen all are in the top 10 in giveaways.
As the Panthers season comes to another fruitless end, the defense woes must be put under a major microscope, both of coaching and construction.
Coaching has been a sore spot for the Panthers throughout their history, and this season is no exception, particularly the defensive coaching from Jack Capuano.
He’s wanted his defense to be active in the offense by trying to drive play and get offense from the back end.
That’s not a bad stylistic choice in the modern NHL as the game has gotten faster. However, with the Panthers, it has proven to be ineffective and at worst, a major liability.
Because Matheson reacted late, he’s caught up ice leaving Ekblad to deal with a 2-on-1, since all of the forwards are stuck in the offensive and neutral zones.
Then, Ekblad commits to making a check along the wall he doesn’t need to make, leaving Matheson out on his own, late into the play, to slide down with nothing to gain, which gives up a goal against.
This is a classic example of a defensive breakdown for the Panthers because of a coaching decision; what Jack Capuano and Bob Boughner want their D to do. Let’s watch this goal from the Bruins game to see another example.
There should be no danger here whatsoever with Halak playing the puck and the Panthers defending the neutral zone.
However, the gap between the D is so wide (Ekblad and Matheson again), that since everyone is late to react to the cross-ice pass, it leaves an easy breakaway for Pastrnak.
And these breakdowns happen again and again because of coaching decisions and styles that are easy to defend.
Capuano and Boughner want their D to be active in the play directly, not indirectly. They want them to rush the puck up the ice and lead the breakout themselves, and drive the play offensively by not only taking point shots but pinching up the wall constantly to support the forwards.
Because the Panthers defense are not great without the puck, the miscommunications and breakdowns lead to turnovers, and lead to either offensive zone “one-and-dones” so to speak or extended defensive zone shifts and breakdowns in front of the net.
Again from the Boston game, courtesy Micah McCurdy, look at where many of the Bruins shot locations are. Breakdowns lead to high-quality shots, hence why the Panthers are often in front in a game in terms of raw puck possession, but always trail in high-danger chances.
While coaching is a major problem, composition and construction of the D corps is another major problem that goes hand-in-hand with the coaching issues.
All of the Panthers defensemen are puck rushers; they want to be active in every part of the game with the puck on their stick.
They want to rush the puck out of the zone, they want to take the puck and shoot, and they want to be the major players in puck retrieval.
The problem with having so many defensemen that are puck rushers is they become easy to defend against.
If you force them into situations where the players that are comfortable with the puck cannot retrieve it, then they become easy to take out of the play in both zones. Florida’s D are also nowhere near good enough without the puck, as ridiculous as that sounds.
They can be rushed into making decisions without the puck that puts them out on islands, out of the play, and out of position.
Once two of them are paired together as well, one cannot cover for the others mistakes, and the mistakes are then compounded one on top of another. This is why Ekblad, Matheson, and Yandle have so many giveaways.
Panthers defensemen are not facilitators of the play in either zone and since they are not comfortable without the puck, it forces mental mistakes and turnovers in bunches.
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Not only do the Panthers need a radical change in coaching of the defense corps to be better next season, but they also must change the construction of the blue line in order to eliminate the problems that have plagued the unit all season, because they are all so similar in their games.
What the Panthers need are defensemen who are just as comfortable without the puck as they are with it, and are comfortable passing the puck to set up forwards to drive the breakout and the play.
They can contribute offense just as easily as the puck rushers, but are more defensively sound and harder to play against.
There are many others out there who the Panthers can and should acquire while shifting out players like Pysyk and maybe even Matheson to change the look of what the Panthers have on the blue line.
They need those players to pair with Ekblad/Yandle/etc. to cover up for their mistakes and to play games tailored to their strengths, instead of being asked to do what they cannot and do not want to do.
Florida’s goaltending has been on the whole bad this season, but with this kind of defense in front of them, it’s almost impossible for any goalie to have success.
Both coaching and composition are huge factors in why the Panthers defense has been such a problem this season, and unless both are dramatically changed and altered this offseason, the problems will not go away, and the Panthers cannot and will not be a playoff team; they won’t even be better than this year’s team.