The time tested saying is that "Defense wins championships" and it has proven to be true in multiple sports, as personified most recently by the Seattle Seahawks in the NFL and the Los Angeles Kings, Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks in our beloved NHL. So the depth the Florida Panthers possess at defense is something many teams would salivate at. If there is a downside to be found, it is the logjam the Panthers organization faces at the position with young players ready (or not) to step into roles with the big club. So here is a look at that jam, with a breakdown of how the Cats look in the near and mid-term future at this critical position.
The first consideration is exactly how deep we look at this point. Some of the Panthers' fourteen or more prospects at defense are still playing in the CHL and are early in their development, while others face an uphill journey as college players. Aside from the three top Panthers prospects in NCAA play (Matheson, McCoshen, and Wittchow) and the Panthers top CHL defensive prospect in Mackenzie Weegar, I will not include other NCAA, European, or CHL prospects who are not likely part of the "logjam" the Panthers have in the near and midterms.
The next consideration is how to break down this analysis, as defensmen typically come in two varieties: the defensive types, and the puck moving offensive contributors (think Brian Campbell). The Panthers as coached by both Horachek and Dineen seemed to like to keep defensemen playing on their "strong side," or the side of the ice for their dominant hand (left side D for left handed players, and right side D for right handed players). While this does the defensemen no favors on puck retrieval for the breakout (defensemen typically like to come around the net with the puck to initiate breakouts, and this typically means, for the left handed defensemen retrieving a puck on their side of the net and running around to the right side, exposing their forehand to the interior against forecheckers), this is better for holding the offensive zone as the stick blade on the forehand is against the boards when teams try to wrap pucks around and out of the zone. This is not always the case, one could look at Kulikov, who is left handed but playing the right side with Robak recently, but generally this is the set-up. So the break down will go by hand.
Panthers Right handed defensive depth:
At the top of the Panthers right handed defensemen is Tom Gilbert. 6'2" and 206 lbs, 31 years old, and set to become a UFA at the end of this season, Gilbert makes $900,00 this season. Gilbert is tied for the team lead with 25 assists and has had quite a resurgence from his 2012-13 season with the Wild. Whether he re-signs with the Panthers is an enormous question mark. On the one hand, he is a UFA defensemen in a shallow UFA market for D-men which may result in a larger payday than he has otherwise earned. On the other hand, do the Panthers want to compete on that pay scale when they are also trying to open up roster spots at defense for one of the younger players? In what is nothing more than a wild guess, I suspect the Panthers try to re-sign Gilbert. It will be easier to see why shortly.
Next up on the depth chart for right handed D-men is Erik Gudbranson, at 6'5" and 216 lbs, he is as big as we thought seeing him on and off the ice. He is also merely 22 years old. We saw great improvement in Guds this season. He got his plus/minus to a fairly respectable -8 while seeing more time against better opposition. D-men take more time to develop, which is one reason NCAA D-men (who are often older than their CHL counterparts) typically come into the league a bit closer to realizing potential. It seems to many Panthers observers that we have started to see Guds turn the corner. What exactly he is is still bait up in the air. At Kingston (in the CHL) Guds put up great offensive numbers. That has not been the case yet with the Panthers. But he has looked more like a nasty, physical, shut down defensive D-man as this season went on. Which he will be remains to be seen. Guds entry level contract expires at the end of this season and he will be an RFA before the 2014-15 season. Bring on contract negotiations and trying to determine what he is worth right now. Yuck.
The next right handed D-man? You would have to slide down to 22 year old Alex Petrovic, he of 6'4" 206 lbs. Petro has played 103 AHL games (and 9 playoff games) and has 31 points. Petro is known for his physicality and slapshot. Hockeysfuture.com predicts that Petro would be a sure bet for an NHL mid-4 pairing defender, with the possibility of more. Just from the small look we got of him this season he looks close to ready for NHL consistency, and he has had an excellent season in San Antonio. Whether he is ready for next season remains to be seen. Petro makes $795,000 now, and his entry level contract runs at the end of next season.
After that, to find another right handed defensemen a Panther fan would have to look at John Lee and Mackenzie Weegar. Lee is 25 years old and 6'2 195 lbs, has played 94 AHL games with 16 points and does not show on the Panthers depth chart. Weegar is 20 years old, playing in the CHL as a 5'11 183 lbs "intelligent" D-man. This appears to change the equation on Gilbert due to the lack of right handed D-men in the system.
On the left handed side, there is a far deeper pool of talent, starting with the Panthers top playmaking defenseman and playing time leader, Brian Campbell. Campbell is 34 years old, 5'10 192 lbs, and makes $7.1 million per year through 2015-16, at which time he will become a UFA. So we have Campbell (who has a no trade clause) for two more seasons. Soupy has limits, but he has played 68 games and is -1 with a second best 32 points this season. While he may not be quite the player he once was, he is still very capable as a first line D-man and power play quarterback.
Ed Jovanovski is also left handed 37 years old, 6'3 220 lbs, making $4.125 million per season for one more season. At the end of the 2014-15 season he will be a UFA. He is on a 35+ contract. How will this impact any buy out scenario? That is the big question mark. Do the Panthers keep him for his final year? He is -4 in 25 games, with 5 points. He is slow at this point and more importantly, he is not quick (yes, there is a big difference between speed and quickness). He does not move laterally well or through small areas quickly on changes of direction. So, do the Panthers pull what the Red Wings did with Chris Chelios in his final season for them? At the age of 46 in 2008-09 Cheli played only 28 games. How would Jovo react to press box regularity? This is a big question mark, especially with the forthcoming depth at left handed defense the Panthers have.
Dimitry Kulikov is the next lefty. 23 years old, 6'1 204lbs, making $2.5 million per season through the end of this season, when he becomes an RFA. Obviously this brings up the big question of what is Kuli worth in a new deal? He is -16 in 67 games this season. We all know the Panthers were bad in their own zone this season, but one thing does need to be pointed out: Kuli was paired with Mike Weaver for a large part of this season, who was a right handed shot and -9 with the Cats this season, and Weaver being a defensive stalwart, this does raise some questions. On LBC some folks have noted Kuli has looked better of late. but his plus minus has been consistently bad throughout this period, with him -3 March 19 vs. Tampa, -2 March 9 vs. Boston, -3 vs. Boston again on March 4, and -2 vs. the Blue Jackets February 1. So maybe he just struggles with Boston. In his last two games he has been paired with Colby Robak, playing the right side and he has been a net +1. Small sample size, but this is a complicated Panther to determine worth of, and if his last contract negotiation was any sign of things to come, a difficult player to come to terms with.
Dylan Olsen is 23 years old, 6'2 223 lbs and making $738,333 on his entry level deal through the end of this season when he also will become an RFA. In 30 games for the Panthers this season Dylan is -2 with 11 points. He has never shown a great deal of offensive prowess in professional hockey at the AHL and the hockeysfuture prognosis is that Dylan is a defense first player who uses his size and speed well and has a big shot but rather poor offensive instincts and decision making. Regardless, he has shown himself somewhat effective on the Panthers while paired with Gudbranson. These two may be worth exploration as a shutdown tandem in the future. On the other hand, Dylan is likely more of a stopgap measure on this team due to what awaits with left handed D-men behind him in the system.
Colby Robak is also 23 years old, is 6'3 210 lbs and is making $675,000 through the end of the 2014-15 season, when he will become an RFA. He is on a one-way deal with the Panthers next season. He has played a whopping 266 AHL games, along with 8 AHL playoff games, and was an AHL all-star in 2011-12. He has 107 points but is also career -16 in the AHL. In two games for the Cats this season, he is +1. In 54 games with the Rampage this season, Robak has 21 points, but more importantly this often minus player is at +4. Hockeysfuture.com gives Robak a rave review, as an exceptional skater who moves the puck well, plays smart and has a hard shot. He projects as a power play contributor and top-4 D-man. He looks ready to crack the Panthers lineup and his contract suggests he will be here full time next season.
Jonathan Racine is 21 years old, 6'2 202 lbs and is on an entry level contract through the end of the 2015-16 season. He has played 52 games for the Rampage and is an excellent +6 with 5 assists and no goals. Racine is a shut down defender and defense is what he does. He appears to have all the tools for that role and is good at it. He will get his shot with the Cats at some point, to play a bigger sized Mike Weaver role, after getting more AHL experience.
After Robak and Racine are three more prospect left handed D-men in the pipeline in Michael Matheson, Ian McCoshen and Ed Wittchow. Matheson is the best known of the three, a sophomore at Boston College, 20 years old, 5'11 183 lbs. who is described as a "top-flite offensive defensemen" by hockeysfuture.com. He is improving in his own end, which is to say that Matheson is very similar to Brian Campbell's skill set. When he will leave Boston is unknown. Campbell has another two seasons ahead as a Panther. Do the Cats want him training this young lefty? If so expect them to gently invite Matheson to leave school and sign. Do they want him getting AHL time? Also unknown. Big question mark here as to timing, but here is the long term Campbell replacement. McCoshen is a freshman at Boston College, only 19 years old, 6'3 207 lbs. McCoshen is expected to play at least one more season at BC. He is big, has a very hard shot, is still developing his offense and physicality, but he has a great deal of potential. Wittchow plays at the University of Wisconsin, where he is a 22 year old sophomore, who is 6'3 and 189 lbs. He is described as solid and physical, is taking some time to develop but has NHL potential. Time will tell here as to whether he has the goods or not.
John McFadden is a 23 year old lefty, 6'1 207 lbs on an entry level deal through the end of the 2014-15 season. He is an offensive defenseman who is working on his defensive game in the ECHL and is still a work in progress. In 13 games for the Rampage he has no points and is -2. He has reportedly struggled for the Cyclones at the ECHL level and will need to turn things around if he wants to put himself back on the Panthers map. Michael Caruso is a 25 year old lefty, 6'2 197 lbs with an amazing 348 AHL games, with 48 points and a career -14. He will be a UFA at the end of this season, and it appears the Panthers have little or no plans to bring him into the NHL fold.
So offensively (on the D end) Campbell, Gilbert, Kulikov (with 15 points this season), and possibly Robak are likely top options. Petro has shown some excellent offense for the Rampage as well, and is right handed. Matheson is the future of the offensive end. Of note is that of that present list, only one (Gilbert) is right handed, and he is 31 years old. There are plenty of players to choose from, but contract negotiations this summer could leave this a very different looking group in the near term. What they do with Kuli, Olsen and Gilbert will be interesting and telling, as it will give a better idea of whether Petro will be coming full time next season and how long they are going to let Matheson continue in the NCAA. That will also likely impact plans for Jovo as well. Of the present bunch, one is a UFA, and three are RFA's, this will prove to be an interesting off season for this bunch for that reason. The present logjam could open up too wide if Gilbert, Kulikov and Olsen do not re-sign. Gudbranson's deal will get done so he is going to be back.
I often wondered why Robak was not being called up and figured it was due to waiver concerns. The fact the Cats have few right handed D-men after the Weaver trade tells the bigger story of this bunch. Still a decent problem to have, a deep batch of prospect D-men.