Building a Winner in Florida: Defense

TORONTO - OCTOBER 26: Jason Garrison #52 of the Florida Panthers shoots during warmup before game action at the Air Canada Centre October 26 2010 in Toronto Ontario Canada. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

General Manager Dale Tallon has proclaimed repeatedly that he doesn't want to build a playoff team in Florida, he wants to build a Stanley Cup Champion. But what kind of roster makes this dream possible? In this series, I'll break down what types of players are needed to win a cup and what the Florida Panthers already have. For a recap of the forwards, click here.

Championship teams are built from the blueline out, whether it takes a franchise defenseman or a group of hardworking blue collar guys who get the job done. Since the lockout, winning the Stanley Cup has taken much more than flashy offensive threats; it's taken shutdown defensemen and power play quarterbacks, players who eat minutes and break up plays. For Panthers fans who dream of winning the Cup, rest assured that the blue collar defensive corps is here and the franchise player is coming. Breakdown and a profound conclusion after the jump.

After a lackluster 2009-10 season defensively, it was clear that Dale Tallon wished to revamp his team's defense. Tallon didn't go about this quietly, after shipping out Keith Ballard Tallon drafted 4 defensemen including Erik Gudbranson 3rd overall and Alex Petrovic at 36th overall. Tallon would fill roster spots formerly held by Dennis Seidenberg, Jordan Leopold and Ballard with Dennis Wideman and Mike Weaver, as well as a promotion for Jason Garrison and giving Keaton Ellerby a chance to compete for a spot. Dale also made a brilliant move in hiring former Panther Gord Murphy as an assistant coach (defense). These changes accomplished a good deal towards making the Panthers a legitimate contender, at least defensively. 

The table below shows the regular season statistics of teams who would go on to win the Stanley Cup that year compared with the 2010-11 Florida Panthers. The two stats that best indicate the effectiveness of a team's defense are goals against/ game (GA/G) and penalty kill percentage (PK%). Also included are 20+ point scoring defensemen that year.

Team Season GA/G GA/G rank PK% PK% rank 20+ points
Carolina 05-06 3.15 20th 81.8% 19th 4
Anaheim 06-07 2.42 7th 85.1% 5th 3
Detroit 07-08 2.18 1st 84.0% 8th 3
Pittsburgh 08-09 2.84 17th 82.7% 8th 2
Chicago 09-10 2.48 6th 85.3% 4th 4
Florida 10-11 2.71 14th 84.6% 6th 3

 

The Panthers, despite finishing 28th in the league put up numbers comparable to those of teams who went on to win the Stanley Cup. The Panthers finished with better numbers this season than both the Carolina Hurricanes and Pittsburgh Penguins did when they won the Cup, yet the Panthers are preparing for the draft in June instead of lacing up their skates for the Finals. Looking solely at the table, would you have guessed that the Panthers are a rebuilding team? The only difference between most of these teams and the Panthers was one defensive superstar, but other than that, the statistics and rosters were very similar.  Again, remember that these numbers were pulled down a bit after a post-deadline nosedive, but even so the Panthers defense was something special this year. For a team that struggled to score, 18 one goal losses (1st in the league) speaks to how well the Panthers defense kept the team in the game, even if the final result was a loss.

Look at the Panthers defensemen throughout most of last season: Wideman, Bryan McCabe, Garrison, Weaver, Dmitry Kulikov, Ellerby, Bryan Allen and Clay Wilson. Are these defensemen the Scott Niedermayers and Chris Prongers, the Nicklas Lidstroms and Brian Rafalskis you've seen on recent Cup winning teams? The bright spot of last season's team was the defense, not because they were superstars being paid superstar salaries and held to superstar expectations, but because they were a bunch of players mostly unknown outside of Florida who formed chemistry and exceeded expectations. Imagine what adding a player like Erik Gudbranson or Adam Larrson (or both) to the roster could mean for the blueline, not to mention other prospects like Alex Petrovic and Colby Robak we might see down the road.

Although Tallon shipped out Allen and McCabe at the deadline, the Panthers still have four blueliners under contract for the 2011-12 season (Weaver, Garrison, Kulikov, Ellerby) while only Joe Callahan and Alexander Sulzer are UFAs, so most of the defense is still intact but has room for additions. Hopefully these four can build upon a good season and recreate their success while the younger defensemen continue to gain experience.

So now for the profound conclusion: it is my personal belief that the Panthers defensive unit for next season would be capable of a deep playoff run or even winning the Stanley Cup. The reason I say this is not based entirely on last season's stats (though they are a good indicator) but also on the emergence and potential of young defensemen Dmitry Kulikov and Keaton Ellerby. The pair had difficult stretches last season but have paid their dues and can really benefit from the teachings and leadership of Jason Garrison and Mike Weaver. Given the early part of the season to familiarize and build off of one another, these players could conquer the opposition. The stay-at-home style of Weaver paired with the jump-into-the-play Garrison formed an exciting and dominant line late last season, and unless there is a major defensive acquisition this summer, this looks to be the top line going into 2011-12. Add to that the young speed line of Kulikov and Ellerby and perhaps the long-awaited arrival of Erik Gudbranson paired with someone else, you've got a formidable defense. Give these six players some production from the forward lines and the Panthers might be on the other side of the one-goal per game statistic.

Stanley Cup Champions balance forward lines and defensive lines in the same way, they balance one or two superstars with a crew of hardworking but equally important players. As of now, the Panthers do not have the defensive superstar (whose name might be Erik) yet, but they have four very good players who form two solid lines that keep the team in games. The foundation is in place for a Cup winning defensive unit, all that is needed is a few minor changes here and there to ensure defensive success while the offense catches up.

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