Now that the Panthers are considered Stanley Cup contenders, for what seems like the first time, the 2021-22 Florida Panthers defence is something we all should keep our eyes on. Led by a first overall pick and a 206th overall pick. Florida’s defensive core may be better than most realize. Will it be enough to help take them to the promised land? As we continue, we will take a deeper look at the Florida Panthers’ defence and what they bring to the table.
What to Expect from the 2021-22 Florida Panthers Defence
Coming into the 2021-22 NHL season, the most significant question mark for the Panthers might actually be their defensive core. It quite honestly could be the defence that causes the most issues for this team—looking at the group on paper, after the top paring of Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar. They were one of the best defensive pairings in the league last season. The rest that follows is nothing to rave about. In comparison, most experts and fans are worried about the goaltending situation between Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight. Yet, that may be a good thing.
Heading into the start of the season, the team has already lost Kevin Connauton, who played exceptionally well during the pre-season. As well as John Ludvig and now Markus Nutivaara, all to injuries, This creates an even bigger question for the defence. Nonetheless, it will be a minor setback for a major comeback for this group. The Panthers need to do whatever is necessary to achieve a hot start to the season. With the first 20 games being incredibly crucial to any club, the teams need their defenceman to make a statement right off the bat.
A Norris Calibre Defensive Pairing
Despite all the hype and noise surrounding the Panthers offensive group; Another big storyline heading into the season is Norris Trophy calibre players’ pairing in Ekblad and Weegar. Suppose they are even half as good as they were last season. Then there will be nothing to worry about.
Before his season-ending leg injury, Ekblad was a Norris Trophy favourite for the Panthers. With 22 points in 35 games played, Ekblad led all the NHL defencemen in scoring at one point. Heading into his eighth NHL season, Ekblad is just 25 years old, and he improves every season that he plays. Given that his defensive game looked subpar in the previous season. He was playing scared and timid in the corners and only effective when the puck was on his stick. Ekblad silenced all haters with this past season, especially this writer. He played some of his best defence and held the eighth-best Goals Against Per 60 on the team last season. At the same time, he was complimenting that with a complete 200-foot game. Ekblad is bound for another monster season.
Lining up beside him, MacKenzie Weegar is the definition of finding a diamond in the rough. He was drafted 206th overall back in 2013. Weegar launched himself into the spotlight with one of the best five-on-five performances in a season in a long time. After finishing eighth in Norris voting, Weegar shocked the NHL world with how calm and poised he was with the puck. Overall, an exceptionally responsible player with that defence-first mindset while being able to add offence. Weegar played even better with Ekblad on the injured reserve list.
The Bottom Pairings
Yet, regardless of who fills that role, the remainder of the group draws forth some uncertainty. As mentioned before, both Connauton and Nutivaara are out for a little bit. They are leaving some openings for young guys like Matt Kiersted and Chase Priskie to shine. At the same time, Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour are playing some of their best hockey since joining the team. It remains to be seen if these guys can stay consistent—especially Montour.
Playing in 50 games last season, Brandon Montour improved tremendously while in Sunrise. He is coming off a 44.5 Corsi For percentage through 38 games with the Buffalo Sabres. Once he joined the ‘Cats, ‘ Montour jumped up to an incredible 58.6 Corsi For percent. Now, one could argue that 12 games are not enough to validate the trade for Montour. All signs point to Montour continuing to improve. Suppose he can find a way to stave off his inconsistency on the ice, he will have a tremendous season with Florida.
While Forsling had a breakout season for himself, not only did he play the most he has ever played, averaging 19:57 minutes worth of time on ice. He made the most of his ice time by setting career highs in goals, assists, and points. At the same time, it is not spectacular to improve from nine points in 43 games, the season before last, to then 17 points in 43 games last season. Forsling was granted a new contract because of it. Now that the Swede is comfortable in the Panthers’ system, there is nowhere to go but up from here.
Last but not least, the calming yet punishing presence on the backend that is Radko Gudas. He lead the entire NHL in hits last season with 250. He actually played exceptionally well despite the lack of offensive production. With his offensive metrics being higher than most would expect, Gudas brings that calming veteran presence to help these young guys continue developing. He’s never been afraid to stick up for his guys.
The Young Guns
Wrapping up the 2021-22 Florida Panthers defence, the Panthers have some promising young guys who just need to be given a shot. With Nutivaara out, the Panthers and coach Quenneville are looking to Kiersted to fill that slot. There could be some basis to this move given his short stint with the team last season. Coach Q would not put Kiersted in if he weren’t ready. Showing many signs of promise, it will be fun to watch Kiersted’s development moving forward.
On the other hand, there is one more young guy that is due for some NHL reps. South Florida native Chase Priskie had a tremendous pre-season with the Panthers. He was playing in a reasonable amount of the pre-season games. Priskie carried himself like he has been playing in the league for a little bit. In comparison, he is not the most defensive or physical player. His decisions with the puck were that of an NHL blueliner. You could tell that every time the puck was on his stick, the game slowed down for him. Given the injury bug has already started to hit the team, Priskie’s time to shine is closing in.
Rounding out the Panthers defensive group, we have Olli Juolevi. Traded from the Vancouver Canucks recently, Juolevi is someone who may do well with a change of scenery. Prior to being drafted, Juolevi was considered a complete all around player who plays a full 200-feet. A strong and balanced skater and an overall, a well-rounded blueliner. While that has yet to translate to the NHL level. It will be fun to watch if Zito and the Florida Panthers can revive another career.