Florida Panthers: Veteran Defense Essential for Development and Winning

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - MARCH 07: Mike Matheson #19 of the Florida Panthers defends Brad Marchand #63 of the Boston Bruins during the first period at TD Garden on March 07, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - MARCH 07: Mike Matheson #19 of the Florida Panthers defends Brad Marchand #63 of the Boston Bruins during the first period at TD Garden on March 07, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

With the Florida Panthers’ playoff chances officially over, it’s time to speculate on free agency and offseason moves for next year.

This season was particularly frustrating, not because they missed the postseason – which has happened all but two years since 2001 – but because a lot of pundits and hockey enthusiasts viewed the Florida Panthers as a dark horse for a deep playoff push.

Having a strong team on paper makes it difficult to understand what holes can be improved without causing major turbulence, something the Panthers have a knack for doing.

The trade deadline this year provided some insight on what free agency could look like for the Panthers. Much of the focus and rumors circling the Panthers revolved around Blue Jackets netminder Sergei Bobrovsky and forward Artemi Panarin.

Both are set to become free agents after this season and would fill some much-needed holes that were exposed. Unfortunately, Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo showed his age this season.

While he can still dazzle with some great saves now and then, being the primary backstop proved too taxing on even a healthy Luongo some games.

James Reimer, once again, showed he is just not capable of filling the starting goalie position as well. And while a lot of Panther forwards had career seasons, it was very evident that the team lacked secondary scoring after the Barkov line and their 2nd ranked power play.

Both Bobrovsky and Panarin would provide improvements that Panthers Coach Bob Boughner and company are needing.

It will be interesting to see how General Manager Dale Tallon maneuvers the roster to accommodate those players, particularly with goaltending.

Although much of the focus this offseason is surrounding goaltending, I believe there is a major flaw that needs to be addressed at defense: the youth needs mentorship.

According to CapFriendly, the average age of the Panthers’ defensemen is 25. Yandle is the only defenseman breaking the thirty mark at 32.

Outside of Mark Pysyk at 27, the rest of the defensemen drop to 25 or below. The cornerstones of the defense, Matheson and Ekblad, are 25 and 23 respectively.

While Yandle has a lot of experience under his belt, the remaining defensemen, including the major role players, are still developing.

All of them are mobile defensemen, with the ability to get in on the offense, but none of them are traditional, stay-at-home dependable defensemen at heart.

It seems like management has put the pressure on Ekblad to fill that position, but that is a lot to ask of the young defenseman. Especially when there’s no role model to seek guidance from.

To show an example of this mentorship in action, let’s take a quick glance at a team in the same division. The Bruins have had a myriad of defensemen play for them this season.

As of game No. 79 this season, a full 12 different defensemen started games this year – with 10 of them playing in 15 or more games this season: most of them being young and or inexperienced.

This is an enormous obstacle for any team to overcome and find success with. However, the Bruins currently sit in 3rd place in the NHL and 2nd in the East, only behind the near historic season the Tampa Bay Lightning are having. Plain incredible.

As much as I hate acknowledging the accomplishments of a Boston sports team – mostly out of jealousy due to their city’s success in all four major league sports – you have to give credit to a remarkable obstacle they have overcome.

The organization is solid and continuously provides the culture necessary for developing young players. One of the reasons Boston has success in developing defensemen undoubtedly comes from having a veteran like Zdeno Chara.

Having a mentor like him apart of their team makes the development a lot easier for not only the players but for the coaches as well.

There’s no question that Krug, McAvoy, and a slew of young players that have played this season, on both defense and offense, have benefited from his presence in and out of the locker room.

From the off-ice conditioning and preparation to practice and game situations, Chara provides ample leadership and mentorship to their youth. That is what’s missing from the Panthers’ defensive core.

It’s no surprise that from a visual and plus/minus perspective, Ekblad’s best season came when he was guided by and played with Brian Campbell.

During that season, Ekblad saw a tremendous increase to his defensive zone game. Gerard Gallant, his coach at the time, had more flexibility in exposing Ekblad to difficult game situations, improving his chances to succeed.

Without that veteran presence, it’s tough to place a fault on the young defenseman, Ekblad, during difficult developmental times.

He needs a guidepost. Someone to learn from through success and failure. Not to mention, the lack of defensive defensemen puts a lot of pressure on Matheson and Yandle, who are best utilized for their two-way offensive prowess.

So, who can the Panthers go out and get? It’s not like teams don’t know the value these players bring as well, which can be seen from the one-year, two-million dollar extension Chara signed with the Bruins this past March. However, free agency does have a few interesting options the Panthers can consider.

The first on the list must be Anton Stralman. He is the exact defensive-defenseman needed as a mentor for Ekblad.

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He’s been a wonder for Tampa Bay defensively, allowing Hedman and others to activate in the offense and has been excellent on the penalty kill as well.

Although he’s been injured this season, he still has an impressive stat line of 2G-15A-17PTS, with a +12 rating while averaging a little more than 20 minutes of ice time per game.

The problem would come with his salary as signing Bobrovsky and Panarin will not come cheap. Stralman has also been playing at a discount, with his recent contract carrying only a $4.5 million-dollar cap hit per year.

It’s expected he will be looking for top dollar with his next contract. It will also be hard prying Stralman away from Tampa which looks to have built a foundation for long term success, even if General Manager Yzerman were to leave after this season, per speculation.

Some other great picks also come from Tampa Bay in defenseman Braydon Coburn and Dan Girardi. While both players were staples of their previous teams, the Flyers and Rangers, they both have seen their statistics and playing time reduce since heading to Tampa.

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Which, in all fairness, was expected considering Tampa’s defensive unit includes Ryan McDonagh, Victor Hedman, Anton Stralman, and the young stud Mikhail Sergachev.

It would be hard for Tampa to keep both unless they decided to take major pay cuts to stay with the franchise. However, they both should be able to bring a plethora of experience and wisdom to the Panthers coaching staff and player Ekblad.

Brooks Orpik from Washington is another interesting free agent as well. He’s coming off a Stanley Cup win with Washington.

In addition to winning the Stanley Cup with the Penguins in 2009 and he might repeat this year with Washington as well.

His defensive acumen is solid behind his Stanley Cup and playoff experience, and being 37, would probably command the smallest contractual obligation.

Although, Orpik would also offer the least amount of time to provide mentorship considering he’s nearing 40, but there’s no doubt that he has a large amount of wisdom to provide and can still get the job done at his age as he’s showing with Washington this year.

Overall, the team has a lot of work ahead of them and free agency has been rumored to be action-packed. But the team needs to focus on finding a mentor figure defenseman for their youth.

Matheson, Weegar, and Ekblad are all progressing well, but if they want to maximize their potential – especially a cornerstone $7.5 million-dollar per year investment in Ekblad – they should follow the route of the Bruins and make mentorship a priority this summer.

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Stralman, Corburn, Girardi or Orpik will add tremendous benefit towards the youth, and for management going forward.