Florida Panthers: Projecting the 2019-20 Defensive Lineup

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 17: Keith Yandle #3 and Aaron Ekblad #5 of the Florida Panthers play against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period at the Air Canada Centre on November 17, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 17: Keith Yandle #3 and Aaron Ekblad #5 of the Florida Panthers play against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period at the Air Canada Centre on November 17, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images) /

With training camp approaching, the Florida Panthers will be looking to build chemistry down their lineup and with their defense in particular.

While a few new faces arrive, their youthful core remains intact. A new future hall of fame coach and all-star goalie highlight the additions this offseason, putting pressure on the franchise to start well early during the season and make a postseason appearance.

A less hyped addition to the team – although it’s hard to follow-up on an all-star goaltender and head coach – is the acquisition of Anton Stralman. A much-needed defensive defenseman added to a team that placed bottom ten in most defensive categories. The only defensive addition, but enough stir up questions as to how the Panthers’ top six will line up.

Filling in with Anton Stralman (age 33) is Aaron Ekblad (23), Keith Yandle (32) Mike Matheson (25), Mark Pysyk (27), and Mackenzie Weegar (25). Those are the likely top-six defensemen during the season, barring any injuries, with Josh Brown (25), Ian McCoshen (24), and Brady Keeper (23) the most likely call-ups for defensive scratches.

In the top six, we have an uneven mix of left and right-handed defensemen, a typical precursor for developing pairs as most teams like to pair opposite-handed defensemen to optimize the pairs for different situations. For right-handed defensemen, we have Stralman, Ekblad, Weegar, and Pysyk, while Yandle and Matheson line up on the left side.

Another way to select pairings is with play style. Some defensemen are “stay at home” typical defensive defensemen, while others are offensive defensemen that are prone to join the rush and usually very smooth skaters.

Although there are two styles of play, the game has changed in such a way that most defensemen are joining the rush more often no matter the play style, but some are much better than others.

In rare circumstances, you have the merging of both styles of play that are usually found in generational players like Drew Doughty, Duncan KeithNicklas Lidstrom, Ray Bourque, Chris Pronger, and others.

For our offensive-minded defensemen, we have Yandle, Matheson, Weegar, and Ekblad (a prospect for that rare combination of styles should he be able to develop).

Pysyk and Stralman are the typical stay-at-home defensemen on the team, with Stralman being one of the stronger defensive defensemen in the league for the last few years running when healthy.

Lastly, some coaches pair defensemen based on experience, leaning on the veterans to mentor the youth during in-game experiences.

This has proved successful for teams like Boston with Chara, Los Angeles with Doughty, Minnesota with Suter, and others. This option becomes more considered when a strong defensive prospect can be paired with a mentoring veteran, as opposed to youthful depth defensemen filling in at the bottom pairing.

As we look at the Florida Panthers, the coaching staff have a lot of options and ways for developing their pairings. As we have seen over Coach Q’s career, he tends to make pairings that can be used in varying situations but also doesn’t mind mixing up the roster in times of need.

This can be seen with his tendency to pair Kane and Toews along with Keith and Seabrook when needing offense in any capacity.

Ultimately, the team is going to be designed with the intention of winning, but a secondary goal is positioning Ekblad, their first overall pick from 2014 and second-highest-paid player (second to newly acquired Sergei Bobrovsky), in a position to develop and succeed.

While Ekblad has played well in his first five seasons, the fans and organization are looking for more. The question is what can they do to stimulate his game.

With this in mind, the Panthers should opt to place Ekblad with newly acquired Anton Stralman. The pairing provides a lot of benefits for the team and former first overall pick.

Stralman relieves Ekblad of the burden of being the “defensive-minded defenseman” of the pairing, allowing him to join the rush and engage in offensive opportunities.

This will also provide a strong defensive pairing in high-pressure situations, allowing the young defenseman to be deployed in defensive situations with a strong partner for greater chances of succeeding.

In addition, the skill set between the pair allows for continuity with the ability to be utilized in all situations: first penalty kill unit, tough defensive zone starts, line up against team’s first lines, as well as utilization on the second power-play unit.

The pairing also removes the difficult defensive pressures from our more offensive defensemen such as Yandle and Matheson, something that was a noticeable difficulty for the two.

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With Stralman and Ekblad set as the top pairing, we move to the second pairing of Yandle and Weegar. Weegar had a wonderful season last year and has shown consistent improvement through his first two seasons with the Panthers.

This provides similar benefits for Yandle – as the previous pairing for Ekblad – which allows him the ability to be utilized with a more offensive lens in mind.

With Stralman and Ekblad taking the pressure of most of the defensive zone starts and matching up with the opposing team’s first line, this pairing can be given preference to offensive zone starts (opposing team’s icing calls in particular) and preference to being matched with our top two lines for an added offensive punch.

Lastly, we have Matheson and Pysyk. The duo has played most of their time over the last three seasons together. While we haven’t seen a lot of success out of the two previously, the continued development and maturity in Matheson’s game will yield better results, irrespective of his partner.

As they begin to develop chemistry together, the two should begin to see better results, especially if relegated to low-pressure, third-pairing situations and penalty kill (something both have shown competence in).

Matheson also provides Coach Q offensive flexibility as well, as Matheson’s offensive prowess provides a perpetual scoring threat on the back end from all three pairings.

Stralman (R) – Ekblad (R)

Yandle (L) –  Weegar (R)

Matheson (L) – Pysyk (R)

Overall, these pairings best accentuate the Panthers’ depth, offensively and defensively, throughout the lineup and allows for flexibility at both ends of the ice. With these pairings, all four lines become scoring threats while optimizing key players with their best skill sets.

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We will see how the pairs develop but there is no question the team has some weapons on the back end but struggled severely to utilize them properly.