Every passing season, a new player surprisingly emerges for the Florida Panthers. This season, with the amount of talent on the roster, it’s going to be very competitive to see who will emerge.
The Florida Panthers have always been able to find players shockingly develop into punching well above their weight in points tallies. They have mostly been forwards, but there are lots of young players in the Panthers roster all around their core.
Four seasons ago, Reilly Smith, someone who struggled to score goals in his second season in Boston, emerged into a 25-goal scorer in Florida. Three seasons ago, Jonathan Marchessault, who failed to make a name for himself in Tampa Bay, surprised all of the hockey world by bagging 30 goals and 21 assists in 75 games in his one and only season with the Cats. Two seasons ago, Evgenii Dadonov returned from Russia with a point to prove, with 65 points in 74 games. Finally, Frank Vatrano banged in 24 goals, well above his previous career-high of 10.
With training camp well and truly underway, there are a lot of young players that appear to be ready to make the breakthrough. There has been a lot of hype around the forward core, but there is one defenseman who I think could break out.
Firstly, MacKenzie Weegar finally seems to have a spot nailed down. Weegar played plenty of games at the top four level next to Keith Yandle, performing well when he did. Weegar has also been developing his offensive game, and may likely hit a career-high in points this next season.
While he shouldn’t be playing on the top six this season, Weegar could definitely be one of the best defensive players on the roster and should be a player who can emerge for Florida this season and across the NHL.
In terms of the forwards, there are a lot of young forwards on the roster that might break out this season. Making a prediction on a lot of these forwards is going to be hard because so many are competing for the roster.
For example, Aleksi Heponiemi and Rodrigo Abols are both forwards that I personally am very excited about. Heponiemi, a former 2nd round pick, has looked fantastic for Finland in multiple international tournaments and seems an ideal forward for the modern day in the NHL with his good hands and playmaking.
Abols has been the more surprising emergence in camp. Signed on a two way deal for Florida after his performances for Denmark in international tournaments, Abols’ huge frame made him an ideal asset for positioning in front of the goal, drawing comparisons to someone like Brian Boyle.
The only issue with making too big of a projection with those two is how much time the two have at the NHL level this season. Heponiemi and Albols should be bigger effects next season, when players like Colton Sceviour and Denis Malgin (who should be the ones who feature on the bottom pairing this season), have their contracts expire.
For now, my prediction for the break out star of this season is Henrik Borgstrom. Despite the inconsistencies he went through in year one, year two should be much better for Borgstrom.
Borgstrom looks to be the perfect 3rd center for this team, with almost a full season of NHL play under his belt. With that experience, Borgstrom should fix those inconsistencies, have more stamina, and could be able to become a dominant bottom-six center.
Borgstrom should also be playing with a lot better linemates than last season. Brett Connolly and a mixture of Denis Malgin and Owen Tippett or even Heponiemi should give Borgstrom plenty of places to distribute the puck, taking attention off of him. His positioning has been very impressive so far, but he’s usually been the focal point at controlling the puck when he should be the one distributing and making space for his wingers.
The Finn should also be included on special teams when the Panthers are both up or down a man. To go along with his playmaking, Borgstrom has the defensive skill set to be a fair option for the 2nd center on the penalty kill over Vincent Trocheck.
Borgstrom has always shown promise, and now with a new coach that should drill his responsibilities into him, he should be able to fix those previous issues. Borgstrom’s role also fluctuated a lot last season, which should change this season.
If Borgstrom can break out and put up 40-50 points and be a consistent defender, which should be very possible for him, there’s going to be a massive difference in the way Florida can play this season.
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 Keith, Nicklas 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.
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.