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Splitting the D: A quick look back at last year’s Florida Panthers defense

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Cats back end was a major culprit in playoff miss

San Jose Sharks v Florida Panthers Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images

The 2018-19 NHL season went in like a lion, but quickly backed out like a lamb. Once again, the Florida Panthers and their fans found themselves on the proverbial outside-looking-in, come playoff time.

Despite excitement built up by their 25-8-2 finish the season prior, the off-season acquisition of Mike Hoffman, and preseason predictions from analysts expecting Florida to make the playoffs (potentially even challenging for a top three spot in the Atlantic) the team took a disheartening no-look-pass-between-the-legs-in-the-defensive-zone step back in the standings.

Considering last season’s team featured career offensive years lead by a group of three 30 goal scorers (and Dadonov close to making that four with his 28), one of the top ranked power plays in the league (shocking), and a franchise record 96 points by Barkov (also good enough for 10th in the NHL in scoring), the end result in the standings was disappointing, to say the least.

The problems? Finishing fourth worst in goals against. The inability to close out games (leading the league in blown leads). Puck management and positioning in the defensive third. Getting a big save when needed. Understandably, fingers were pointed at the defense, and goaltending.

It’s easy to make a case for either being the major culprit but I suspect the reality of the situation is the two fed into each other negatively, with D that didn’t feel they could trust their goalies and goalies who felt they couldn’t trust their D.

Goaltending itself was certainly part of the problem with Luongo aging and Reimer being inconsistent, and we could also question if defensive breakdowns were exacerbated by a lack of support from the forwards, but for now let’s split the D and ask if they really were as bad as we thought.

The Panthers allowed 280 goals against last season with only Philadelphia (281), Chicago (292), and Ottawa (302) allowing more. Had it not been for our offense, we would have been fighting for a top five pick in the draft lottery.

Florida had 13 players suit up on defense last season. Brady Keeper and Riley Stillman are interesting prospects who each suited up for only a single game. Alex Petrovic played 26 games before being shipped off to Edmonton. Kiselevich appeared to be a solid acquisition from the KHL but was questionably underutilized, appearing in only 32 games and eventually being sent to Winnipeg. Brown and McCoshen brought a breath of fresh air with their simple and physical defense when they were called up to play together. Brown saw 37 games on the big team, with McCoshen only lasting 19. Jacob McDonald suited up for 2 games, and Chris Wideman played 1 game having been traded three times in four months - from Ottawa to Edmonton in November, from Edmonton to Florida in December, and from Florida to Pittsburgh in February.

Five guys played the bulk of the season. MacKenzie Weegar dressed for 64 games, Pysyk and Matheson played 70 and 75 respectively, while Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad each played a full 82 game slate. Let’s look at these players in a little more detail.

Mark Pysyk

I admit to having been excited by the pickup of Mark Pysyk back in June of 2016. There was nothing flashy about him and that’s what I liked. He was touted as an advanced metrics acquisition and while I certainly do put some stock in them, I wouldn’t call them the be all end all of player analysis. That said, Mark had also never played more than 55 games in a season (2015-16) and that was the only season he posted a positive Corsi percentage (51%).

In Florida I personally felt like he was at his best when lined up next to Petrovic, as a shut down third pairing, but due to a combination of injuries and line juggling, they didn’t get to spend any extended time together.

Last season I would describe Pysyk as having been unremarkable. Some argue that’s a positive trait for a defenseman, but I think Pysyk was what Pysyk is - a third pair option that shows consistency in a lack of offense (1g 10a) and average-at-best defense.

If I were to compare Pysyk to an MLB starting pitcher, I would consider him a predictable middle to bottom of the rotation innings eater who’s not going to win you more games than he loses.

Pysyk’s numbers have been relatively consistent over the past three seasons. With the departure of Petrovic to Edmonton Mark lead the team in hits (133), was third in blocks, and similarly middle of the pack across the rest of the statistical board.

His advanced metrics (CF%) have come in on the wrong side of the fence, but that shouldn’t be surprising considering they are driven by shot attempts and he hasn’t helped his cause any taking only 64 shots over the season thought that’s never been his style of play.

On a positive note, he wasn’t terrible. He was third on the team in SHTOI (Florida’s PK was 10th overall in the league at 81.3%), took only 13 minor penalties, and despite being a flawed stat, was only a -1 on the season.

Mark was the subject of trade rumors last season but unfortunately Tallon was unable to find a taker. At worst, Josh Brown showed he could be an effective replacement, with more hits per game, a reasonable 1:1 takeaway to giveaway ratio, and a quarter of the cost, and with rumor that Pysyk is potentially going to be the 7th D, maybe Brown has become that replacement.

MacKenzie Weegar

Playing on a one year deal signed after his ELC ran out, Weegar spent most of the early part of the season skating next to Bogdan Kiselevich - that partnership accounting for 33% of his TOI for the season, followed by Yandle (22%), Petrovic (11%), Pysyk (10%), Matheson (8%), Brown (3%) and Ekblad (2%).

Once Kiselevich was shipped out at the trade deadline, Weegar saw ice time with Yandle, recording three multi-point games in the six after the deadline (2A, 2G, 2A) helping him double his point total, finishing the 2018-19 campaign with 4G and 11A.

Weegar averaged 16:58 in ice time over the course of the season, playing approximately 14 minutes per game while paired with Kiselevich, but 20-21 minutes a night during his time with Yandle. In a season where most of the team struggled with possession metrics Weegar, had the highest Corsi rating of the D group with 49.56% (Kiselevich had a similar rating).

Weegar had a rough season, literally. He lost four games to a concussion sustained from a hit to the head by Montreal’s Paul Byron (who received a three-game suspension for the hit), and when they next met, Weegar returned the favour with a heavy left hand, knocking Byron out Montreal’s lineup for two games with a concussion. Weegar had 4 fighting majors on the season, helping him log 64 PIMs in 64 games, up from 32 in 60 the season prior.

I like Weegar, and think he has the tools to continue to be a solid middle to bottom pair D-man, but it’ll be interesting to see how he develops, if he develops more, and if he’ll remain on the team long term.

Mike Matheson

Matheson may have taken home the fan award for biggest punching bag last season - a surprise supplanting of incumbent Keith Yandle. There’s no arguing the fact that he failed the eye test with his giveaways (particularly ones leading directly to goals) of which there were ‘a few’.

At 25 years of age and with only 240 games of experience under his NHL belt, Matheson is still relatively young and there’s no arguing his potential, but he needs to find his game, and age and inexperience is not always a viable excuse.

Mike’s a smooth skater who can rush the puck from one end to the other or get back to break up an odd-man rush, but his 8G and 19A on the season suggest he’s not a playmaker like Yandle, and his goal scoring is second to Ekblad. He has the potential to be a solid shutdown defender with some offensive upside if he can reign in his attempts to force plays. He needs to learn to slow the game down, keep his decision making simple, and be more selective with his playmaking attempts.

Florida had 4 players in the top 15 in giveaways last season. Matheson lead the league with 135, Ekblad was 4th with 122, Yandle 8th with 110, and Hoffman 14th with 98. It’s interesting to note how there seems to be less complaint about Hoffman’s giveaways (and -24 rating, equal to Matheson’s -24) with Hoffman putting up 36 goals on the season. Also in the top ten in giveaways on the season: Gaudreau (CGY), Burns (SJ), Barzal (NYI), Draisaitl (EDM) - all guys most teams would be happy to have on their rosters.

Where Matheson somewhat shines is his ability to get the puck from opposing players. Matheson was second on the team in takeaways with 64, behind Barkov who lead the team with 100, and just ahead of Trocheck who finished with 55 (though he only played 55 games).

If Matheson can bring down his giveaway count while maintaining his ability to strip the puck off opposing players, he’ll be a valuable piece of the D puzzle.

Keith Yandle

Yandle can be a hard player to watch, being 5th in the league in giveaways, and not at all a physical defender. He’s the active leader in consecutive games played with 797 (4th longest streak all-time) and some people attribute that - at least in part - to his lack of physicality.

The numbers back up the eye test with Yandle throwing only 47 hits in 82 games. Matheson was the next lowest with 63 while Ekblad, Weegar, and Pysyk registered 114, 127, and 133 hits respectively. Interestingly, on the flip side of that coin, Yandle only took 27 hits over the course of the full season. Pysyk was the next lowest with 85, while Matheson and Ekblad took 100+ and Weegar lead the way with 138 hits absorbed.

Of all skaters who played 70 games or more over the course of the season, Yandle’s 27 hits taken were the lowest total (Vanek recorded 20 hits taken in 64 games played which would equate to 26 over 82 games). Cam Atkinson (80GP) and Joe Thornton (73GP) were the next in line, each taking 29 hits.

As much as it would be nice to see his giveaway count come down, Yandle continued to bring a positive offensive impact to the team. With 62 points in 82 games (9G 53A) he finished 5th in the league in scoring by a defenseman. His 39 points on the PP was first amongst defensemen and third overall amongst all skaters, behind Stamkos (40) and Kutcherov (48).

Yandle is Yandle. If he can play no higher than second pairing and focus his time on the ice in the offensive zone, there’s no arguing his value in those situations.

Aaron Ekblad

With 13G and 24A this past season, Ekblad’s poor 2016-17 is looking more like an injury-related (concussion) outlier. He has his share of problems on the defensive end with giveaways, and he faces criticism from fans regarding his speed and skating, but let’s take a closer look at what he is doing on the backend for the Panthers.

For the second straight year the former Calder trophy winner skated in all 82 games, leading the team in time on ice and logging the most minutes on the PK, and still putting up double digit goal totals. While he doesn’t lead the team in hits thrown or taken, or blocked shots, he does do these things, ranking second or third on the team these categories.

An intriguing stat to look at with Ekblad is GAR/WAR. For those unfamiliar with this stat, it takes into account many factors that lead to a number, assessing a player’s goals/wins above replacement level. I suggest anyone interested in knowing how these numbers are put together seek out the information online. These values, like many, aren’t perfect but they appear to utilize solid data to come to their results. Common criticism seems to suggest it doesn’t completely account for the effects of the player’s teammates on the ice with them.

If you look at Ekblad’s GAR/WAR he far outperformed the rest of the team. Coming in at just over 17 goals above replacement, and 3 wins above replacement, the second highest GAR/WAR on the team was Yandle at 4 and 0.7 respectively (Weegar and Matheson a close 3rd and 4th). You might think it’s not difficult to outperform these players in terms of goal scoring but if you look league-wide, Ekblad ranks 3rd overall in GAR\WAR, just below Morgan Rielly (19.8/3.7) and John Carlson (19.3/3.6), and above players like Giordano, Hedman, Karlsson, and the rest of the league. Taking it one step further, Ekblad ranks 25th league-wide in GAR/WAR amongst all skaters, including forwards.

If Ekblad can take a page from Matheson’s to-do list and settle himself down in the D-zone a little more, lower those giveaways totals, I don’t see why he isn’t deserving of being called the team’s number one defenseman.

Conclusion

Despite the overall horrendous showing on defense last season there are positives to be taken with each player on defense, and it could be as simple as finding the right recipe to bring out more of the positives and shy away from the behaviours that led to so many mistakes.

Looking ahead to this season, there are many questions about what this D is capable of - what coach Q can get out of them. I wouldn’t even consider arguing this team having one of the better defenses in the league, but I think looking at the numbers from last year, that there’s a solid enough base here to work with, that when combined with a new coach, and an upgrade in net, this year’s Florida Panthers should boast at least a serviceable crew on the defensive end, rather than a pair of cement shoes, dragging the accomplishments of team on the offensive end to the bottom of the league.