Florida Panthers Testing their Depth on Defence in Ekblad’s Absence

Aaron Ekblad
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After a season-ending injury in late March, the Florida Panthers have been without cornerstone defenceman Aaron Ekblad. Even while in the lineup, coach Joel Quenneville had no problem rotating a few different guys through the bottom pairings. Losing Ekblad compounded things significantly, adding tons of responsibility to the Florida Panthers depth on defence. Throughout most of April to date, the team dressed seven defencemen and eleven forwards. The minutes Ekblad ate up, averaging a team-leading 25:05 a night (but sometimes reaching as high as 29:59), wound up spread across the entire group. That’s something they couldn’t have done a year ago. Thanks to a plethora of new defencemen brought in by General Manager Bill Zito, Florida has options. And in Ekblad’s absence, the Florida Panthers depth on defence is getting tested.

Florida Panthers Testing their Depth Without Aaron Ekblad

In 43 games this season, the Panthers dressed a total of 12 different defencemen. Two of them, MacKenzie Weegar and (obviously) Keith Yandle appeared in all of those contests, and Radko Gudas missed just one so far. Then Ekblad sits tied with Anton Stralman at 35 games, but Ekblad only missed games due to his injury. Stralman represents the first of the remaining eight who all missed games as a scratch from the lineup at some point or another.

None of these remaining eight played well enough on a consistent basis to stay in the lineup permanently. Stralman sits closest to it, but inconsistency keeps his status just below that of a bonafide top four guy. Most of the remaining names became Panthers within the last six months (or, for Riley Stillman, who moved to the Chicago Blackhawks at the trade deadline). Gustav Forsling (30 games), Markus Nutivaara (17), Matt Kiersted (five), and Noah Juulsen (four) all came to Florida sometime in 2021. They all shuffled between the roster and either the taxi squad or IR at one time or another.

For years, Florida bled tons of goals with high paid goaltenders in net (most notably Roberto Luongo and current goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky). Zito took a concerted approach to address that glaring weakness by bolstering the blue line.

Brandon Montour Trade

At the deadline, Zito exchanged defencemen with Chicago (Stillman for Lucas Carlsson essentially). He also moved a third round pick in this year’s draft to the Buffalo Sabres for Brandon Montour. He stepped in and logged 14:59 against the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night, too. Carlsson probably winds up scratched more often than not, controlling for injuries of course.

The depth on defence for the Florida Panthers increased back to 12 bodies thanks to these moves. By netting one additional blue liner, they replaced the season-ending loss of Ekblad. Now Montour by no means replaces Ekblad’s ability and value, but might stick in the top four once he finds his footing. Montour’s contract expires this summer too, so the team’s expansion draft plans remain unaffected by the acquisition so long as he remains a UFA.

Florida Panthers Defensive Pairs

The Panthers currently roll with a top pairing of Weegar and Forsling, beginning back when Ekblad went down. From there, though, everything gets scrambled. Yandle skates on the bottom pairing most often, but usually gets bumps in his ice time thanks to his roll on the top unit. Stralman averages 18:58 a night, ahead of Gudas’ 17:52 and Yandle’s 17:24. Kiersted, Connauton, Nutivaara, Juulsen and Keeper only see from 9:28 to 15:59 on average.

Now with Montour, the team shifted back to dressing 12 forwards and six defencemen. Montour and Nutivaara logged 15:46 on the ice together in Montour’s first game with the team. This put them in the second-pair tier, between Weegar-Forsling (19:55) and Yandle-Gudas (11:49).

That could continue, but Stralman likely factors back in plenty as well. The pairings versus Tampa gave the team perfect balance, with a right and left shot guy on each unit. If Quenneville plans to go that route regularly, Stralman (a righty) would have to replace one of Weegar (won’t happen), Montour, or Gudas. They may very well dress seven again so all four of these right shot players can suit up, or maybe they rotate through to earn some rest before the playoffs.

Florida Panthers Depth on Defence Fostering Competition

The Panthers play just 12 more times this season, but own a comfortable 14-point buffer between themselves and a spot outside the playoff line. This affords them the ability to roll lines a bit more often, and use more of their defencemen down the stretch. And with seven NHL-caliber players battling for six spots, plenty of motivation sits in front of each of them.

Still, injuries always remain an unpredictable factor that could handpick who plays and who doesn’t. Even then, Florida can look beyond the first seven and see five more guys who played NHL minutes already this year. They can feel good about the group’s depth, but the quantity of bodies still cannot make up for what they lost in Aaron Ekblad.

The team hopes the committee approach pays off, especially looking at the playoff picture ahead of them. A first round matchup against either Tampa or the Carolina Hurricanes looks very likely. Those two and Florida all rest within a point of one another atop the Central Division. With the fewest games left, Florida has the outside shot at first. One point might seem small, but the rate these three teams have won at all year long makes it feel huge.

Simply put, there’s still a lot to play for. And these acquisitions to enhance the depth on defence gives the Florida Panthers their best shot at a legitimate run this season, even without Aaron Ekblad.

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