3. Is the defense finally at the caliber of a playoff team?
When thinking about the current Florida Panthers, you think explosive offense. The defense is out of the question. Quite frankly, this has been the Achilles’ heel of the team ever since their 2016-17 season, which was a disappointing follow-up to their greatest season in franchise history. Last season, the team didn’t even know what defense was. It was bar-none one of the worst in the league. They ranked 28th in goals against and 20th on the penalty kill. Keith Yandle doesn’t play well in his own zone.
It was also more of an issue when playing on the top pairing with Aaron Ekblad. Having him with Ekblad, the teams’ best player on that side of the puck was a recipe for disaster. And that proved to be the story when they were together. Their own individual play style didn’t really match, and they seemed confused on the ice at times.
When Mackenzie Weegar moved up with Ekblad to the top pairing, they both helped each other get better and played well as a unit. The Panthers also had Mike Matheson, who has plenty of flaws. Turning the puck over in your own zone, not knowing defensive assignments, not having the ability to play physically, and taking stupid penalties are not qualities that a player wants to have. The team also had some youngsters who hadn’t had much experience at the NHL level, such as Riley Stillman.
New General Manager Bill Zito tried his best to improve the weakest part of the team by signing veteran Radko Gudas in free agency as well as trading for Markus Nutivaara from Columbus. Those are guys that are going to beef the defense up. Especially Gudas, which brings the physicality that they need. Add them in with the emerging Weegar as well as a decent veteran in Anton Stralman, and they should be better. But we won’t know until the season gets going soon.