Florida Panthers: How do they Answer their Defense Questions After the All-Star Break?

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 21: Alex DeBrincat #12 of the Chicago Blackhawks chases the puck against Riley Stillman #61 and Anton Stralman #6 of the Florida Panthers in the third period at the United Center on January 21, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images)
CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 21: Alex DeBrincat #12 of the Chicago Blackhawks chases the puck against Riley Stillman #61 and Anton Stralman #6 of the Florida Panthers in the third period at the United Center on January 21, 2020 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Bill Smith/NHLI via Getty Images) /
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One of Joel Quenneville’s greatest strengths as a head coach is a keen sense of creating something that may work, then riding it until it doesn’t anymore.

This instinct is how Noel Acciari scored eight goals in three games playing with Jonathan Huberdeau in December. This instinct is also why the Florida Panthers almost never make lineup changes when they’re winning, so as the Cats are on a six-game winning streak, it stands to reason there won’t be any changes when they return from their eleven-day break.

When they return against Montreal, MacKenzie Weegar will be eligible to come off LTIR and will be healthy to play. Weegar played top pair minutes earlier this season and is easily the best pure defender the Panthers have on the blue line. Quenneville is now faced with a decision: does he bring Weegar back in the lineup immediately, and if he does, who makes way?

Weegar is one of the most solid defensive defensemen no one knows about. He’s incredible in puck possession, his defensive instincts are the best on the Panthers roster, and for a team that runs and guns on the blue line as much as any team in the league, Weegar’s steady presence is a needed difference and an asset. His season has been derailed by health more than anything, but when he’s right, he could play top pair minutes with Aaron Ekblad again.

For most teams, a player like Weegar would immediately return to the lineup upon being healthy. But with the Panthers, and with their coach especially, changes aren’t often made in the midst of success. Not only is there a question of whether Weegar returns immediately, but there is also the question of who he replaces.

Riley Stillman should have started this season with the Panthers rather than the Thunderbirds, and his play over the last month should explain why. He still makes mistakes in his own zone more than the coaching staff would like, but he – like Weegar – is positionally sound, willing to defend and play without the puck and he’s improving in every game. He’s in Springfield now to get games during the eleven-day layoff, but with the deployment and minutes he’s getting, it’s hard to imagine Quenneville going away from Stillman especially during this stretch.

Josh Brown is playing some of the best hockey of his career, but he’s not as good a defender as Stillman and Weegar, and offensively, he’s a non-presence though he’s currently in the midst of a hot streak. Brown is more physical than the other two, but that’s because he’s not as instinctive a defender, nor as clean of a skater, meaning he uses his physical tools to compensate for deficiencies elsewhere. He’s playing sheltered minutes too.

Not bringing Weegar back immediately could help him ease into the lineup during a very busy February, but the Panthers need to tighten things down in their defensive zone and there’s no one on the roster who could do that better than him. Replacing Stillman with him would be an upgrade, but Stillman is playing great hockey in difficult minutes and his bell curve is heading upwards.

Sending Stillman down now might send the wrong message to the young players in this organization who are going to have a key role very soon. Replacing Brown with Weegar would be the biggest upgrade, but Brown is playing the best hockey of his career, and would giving that up in the present also harm him in the longer term?

Quenneville has plenty of time to deliberate his decision, and with the way the Panthers are playing in spite of being loose defensively, he might not lose a ton overall in the short term. But with tougher, tighter checking games on the horizon, the Panthers need to be a better defensive team, and bringing back Weegar makes them better in that regard. Do they want to give up on the future or present upside to get there?

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The decisions made here could go a long way in seeing whether this win streak continues or falls.