In a season where the Panthers broke most of their own ignominious records for defensive futility, there was one bright spot who bucked the trend: MacKenzie Weegar. Where most Panthers failed to survive defensively, in a limited role, Weegar thrived.
Over the last two seasons, MacKenzie Weegar has evolved into a very useful and capable defensive defenseman who deserves more ice time for the Florida Panthers. He only played one more game last season compared to the season prior and played less than 1,000 even-strength minutes. With Joel Quenneville and a new defensive system, Weegar’s skills should flourish even more.
Courtesy of Micah McCurdey, you can see here just how good Weegar last season on a very bad defensive team. When he was on the ice, the Panthers weren’t just better defensively, they were markedly better. Some of this would come while playing lower quality competition compared to other Panthers defensemen like Mark Pysyk, Bogdan Kiselevich, Josh Brown, etc., but a picture like this cannot be ignored for just this reason.
For another marker, let’s compare Weegar’s season to that of Mark Pysyk, a player who had a bigger role, but was asked to do fairly similar things. Plugging in Pysyk and Weegar to Evolving Hockey’s RAPM tool, we see that Weegar was worth about the same in defensive expected goals while giving up far fewer shots and playing 175 fewer even-strength minutes.
While playing Weegar more sacrifices a little on offense, the defensive gain is beyond notable, it’s noteworthy. If you compare Weegar’s numbers in the same tool to another fairly solid defensive defenseman, Boston’s Matt Grzelcyk, Weegar’s numbers look even more impressive still.
And it isn’t just in the analytics where Weegar impresses. His game is different from that of other Panthers defensemen, in that he is not a puck rusher or puck carrier. Florida’s top four D for the last handful of seasons have been puck rushers, in that they want to drive play through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone by carrying the puck themselves rather than passing it to a forward.
Weegar’s game is simpler because his first option is always to pass. His head is always looking up to see where his forwards are after retrieving the puck, unlike even Pysyk, who wants to drive zone exits himself. That’s especially true with Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle and Mike Matheson.
Under Bob Boughner and Jack Capuano, Florida’s defensemen were tasked with driving the play themselves, and did not play a simple game. Even in the modern NHL where defensemen are tasked with driving more offense than they ever have, Panthers defensemen were asked to take on too much risk and drive so much of the play themselves that it not only cost the Panthers offensively by wasting some of the talent they have upfront to drive play, but it leads to myriads of defensive errors and mistakes, many of which have been documented extensively.
Weegar was almost never on the ice for these mistakes because of his positioning, his calmness and his first instinct to pass rather than carry.
For a player on a team with that bad of a defense, with that history of mistakes to have someone with the defensive numbers that Weegar had is borderline shocking. When he does his job better than someone making more money than him, in this case, Mark Pysyk, the calls to trade Pysyk to elevate Weegar can’t be seen as a surprise.
Under Joel Quenneville‘s system, Weegar’s skillset should be magnified. With an emphasis on smart and simple plays in the defensive zone, Weegar should be in prime position for more ice time. Combine this with his different style of play to Florida’s other defensemen, could Weegar be the answer to the question that Anton Stralman was brought in to answer?
Perhaps not, since Weegar hasn’t played the kind of minutes that Stralman has, nor against that competition, but there’s no way to answer that question without trying it out. Could Weegar work as a partner for Mike Matheson?
His game complement’s Matheson well, and could allow him to play his game while not worrying so much about the defensive aspects where he fails. Could he be a long-term partner for Aaron Ekblad, even?
Because he offers little offensively, it’s unlikely. But a player with this kind of defensive acumen who showed it in positive ways even on a historically bad defensive team cannot be ignored.
This could be a breakout season for Weegar with better coaching, a better system, and a better spotlight on what he does so well. After what he’s been able to show on teams that cannot defend, imagine what he could show on a team that could with more minutes coming his way.
Every team needs a player with the skillset that Weegar brings. Florida would be wise to spotlight Weegar’s far more than they have, and they stand massively to benefit if they do.