FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — There is a lot riding on the Florida Panthers’ blue-line performance this upcoming season. With world-class talent up front and in net, the defense corps is the Cats' X-factor. Here are 5 key storylines to watch for.
The Panthers’ season took a cosmic shift on March 28, when Aaron Ekblad when down in Dallas with a left-leg fracture, sidelining the 25-year old for 12 weeks. Leading up to the injury, Ekblad had been jostling between No. 1 and 2 in the league for goals by defensemen.
Leading the Cats in average ice time with 25:05 minutes per game, Ekblad was putting together a strong case for the Norris Trophy. Ekblad’s absence was most noticeable on the power play, where he served as the anchor of the unit.
Florida’s power play went from one of the best to one of the worst in the NHL after the Ekblad injury, and the special teams unit never recovered before heading into the playoffs. His return will be an enormous boost to the Cats’ defensive corps.
“I feel right around 100%,” Ekblad said.
Last year in a postgame interview, Aleksander Barkov dropped the nickname “Gustav Orrsling,” for Gustav Forsling, in reference to the All-Time great offensive defenseman Bobby Orr. Coach Q quickly shut that down, but the message was clear: The Panthers are pleased with the play of their young Swedish blueliner.
A possible pairing partner, MacKenzie Weegar, arguably made greater strides than any other Cats player last season—doubling his point production from the 2019-20 season and leading the league in even-strength points by a blue liner. When Aaron Ekblad went down to injury, Weegar stepped up admirably as the leader of the D-corps. In Forsling and Weegar, the Panthers have two dynamic defensemen who not only play with tenacity but can also get up in the action and tally points.
“Hopefully, with Ekky coming back, it’ll make my game even better.” Weegar said of Ekblad. “Obviously Gustav, having him back as well—just the chemistry back there; I think it’ll make everybody better.”
Radko Gudas led the NHL last regular season with 250 hits. Gudas, who doesn't have the scoring prowess of Forsling or Weegar, is a quintessential solid defensive defenseman; he makes his presence felt with his hard-nosed physicality and rarely commits a mistake between the hash marks.
Gudas is the type of player that refuses to allow opposing forwards any comfort — a wonderful teammate but a dreaded opponent. One of the biggest questions facing the Panthers is whether their D-lines have the physical force to impose their will against the league’s top lines — especially their cross-state rival.
If the Florida Panthers’ defensive corps is the X-factor, then the X-factor of the X-factor will be the play of Markus Nutivaara and Brandon Montour. If Nutivaara and Montour have outstanding seasons, it means the Panthers are very deep and will be hard to beat.
Nutivaara and Montour certainly have the potential to be a strong third D-pairing and showed,— toward the end of the regular season,— that they play well together. Look to this April 17, 2021 quote by Markus Nutivaara on Brandon Montour after the Panthers beat the Tampa Bay Lightning 5-3. “He moves well. I like him; I got nothing bad to say.”
Replacing ‘The Iron Man’
Lastly, Keith “the Iron Man” Yandle was a big piece of the Panthers’ defense for the past five years. Now that Florida has bought out his contract and he recently signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, who will fill that leadership role, power-play facilitator and best-guy-in-the-locker-room role? The obvious choice is Weegar, but the Panthers will have to experiment some to see who they’ll pair up with Aaron Ekblad on a power play that needs to get better.
Run Reminiscent of ’96?
The Florida Panthers D corps —the X-factor— will play a huge this upcoming season. It will look different, it will be tested and unknowns (the power play, pairings and pecking order—to name a few) will have to be settled. If the Cats blueliners can stay healthy, increase their physicality and get continued improvements from their young defensemen and recent newcomers, they’ll have themselves positioned for a run reminiscent of 1996.