Constructing the Florida Blueline
Last season was a great one for the Florida Panthers. They ended up beating out the Lightning for the top spot in the Atlantic Division with 103 points and Dale Tallon had successfully put together a team that combined some elite young talent (Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad) with a strong veteran presence (most notably Jaromir Jagr).
However, after a first-round playoff exit, there were signs of trouble ahead for the Panthers. The team finished 19th in score-adjusted Corsi For % during the regular season with a PDO that ranked second in the league, indicating that the regular season success was at least partially due to a stroke of luck. The team was due for a regression the next season if moves weren’t made. Fortunately for fans in South Florida, moves were made.
It started off the ice, as GM Dale Tallon was moved up to President of Hockey Operations, a role which incorporates fewer day-to-day responsibilities, with former Assistant GM Tom Rowe replacing him. The move was believed to indicate an embrace of analytics within the Panthers’ organization and the subsequent roster changes reflected that. While there were a ton of signings and changes made offensively, I’m going to take a look today at how the Florida defense was constructed.
The first of three defensemen on this list who were drafted by the Florida Panthers, Petrovic was a second round pick by the team in 2010. He played a handful of games with the club from 2012–2014 and finally cracked the lineup full time last season, playing 66 games and recording 17 points. The 6'4", 215-pound bruiser has said he likes to model his play after Chris Pronger. Last season he was one of the stronger shot suppressors on the Florida blueline along with Ekblad and Brian Campbell while providing average offensive play. Petrovic is only 24 and still has time to develop, but at the very least seems to be a solid third pairing defenseman.
Two years after drafting Petrovic, the Panthers took a chance on an offensive defenseman with their first round pick. Matheson spent three years at Boston College, making Hockey East’s All-Rookie Team and then All-First Team the following year. Matheson was in the AHL for most of last season, getting called up for three games with the Panthers. He is only 22 years old and has incredible skating and puckhandling ability. The Panthers have him playing full time with the big club this year in the hope that he can improve his defensive positioning and turn into a long-term contributor.
The marquee name of this defensive corps, Aaron Ekblad was the Panthers’ prize for winning the draft lottery and moving up to the first overall selection in 2014. He has not disappointed in his first two years in the league, winning the Calder Trophy as a rookie and earning All-Star honors in both seasons. Ekblad is an elite shot suppressor who can also contribute well offensively. He scored 75 points in his first two seasons and, at only 20 years old, there is definitely room for more offensive growth as he continues to master the NHL game. Rowe rewarded Ekblad with an eight year, $60 million extension this offseason and Ekblad will likely be a longtime leader of this team.
Those three players, while still young and improving, make up the returning defensemen on the Panthers. The four players added this offseason (or in McIlrath’s case, last week) reinforce Florida’s commitment to evidence-based evaluation of players and talent acquisition.
The flashiest of the bunch, Yandle came to Florida when his rights were traded for a conditional 4th round pick and a 6th round pick. Three days later he signed a seven year, $44 million contract to play for the Panthers. Yandle is one of the top offensive contributors from the blueline in the entire NHL, being a consistent driver of offense for his team over the past several years as well as an elite power play threat. In fact, Yandle has scored more power play points in the entire league over the past four seasons than any other defenseman. In 2015–2016 Yandle did a lot of the heavy lifting for a New York Rangers’ defense that was decimated by injuries and declining play from veterans, proving his ability to also handle defensive responsibility. He makes smooth passes out of his own end to move the puck up ice and keeps his team from being hemmed in the defensive zone. His addition to the Panthers is as a dynamic offensive player who is a first-pairing talent.
Once Yandle was signed, the team found an opportunity to move former first round pick Dmitry Kulikov, sending him to the Sabres for Mark Pysyk, Buffalo’s own former first rounder. Pysyk had trouble cracking Buffalo’s lineup during his time there, playing a career-high 55 games last season. But with 125 NHL games under his belt, Pysyk’s numbers were impressive. A comparison between the two traded players reflects very favorably on him:
Pysyk performs better than Kulikov by almost every metric you could use: whether it’s Corsi For %, Expected Goals For % or Scoring Chances For %, Pysyk always moves the needle for his team better than Kulikov does. As another young player (if you’re keeping track, Yandle is the only defender so far above the age of 24), Pysyk is still coming into his own as an NHL player and can already contribute Top 4 minutes.
Demers was, in my opinion, the best defenseman available in free agency this offseason and it really wasn’t close. Does a 28 year old right-handed defenseman who ranks as a first pairing defender by pretty much every standard imaginable sound like someone you would want on your team? Despite the fact that nearly every team in the league is looking for a first pairing righty, Florida was able to lock him up for five years at an incredibly reasonable average of $4.5 million per season. He was among the top 50 in the NHL last year in driving offense, suppressing opposing teams’ shots and scoring points as a defenseman. In the mold of Anton Stralman or Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Demers quietly does everything you want a defenseman to do without garnering all of the praise (until much later on).
The latest piece to this ever-evolving puzzle, Dylan McIlrath was brought in to bring some balance and toughness to the Panthers while still affirming the analytically-driven mindset of the management team. McIlrath was often underutilized in his time with the Rangers, despite being New York’s clear leader in shot-based metrics last season. According to Craig Davis at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Keith Yandle is excited about McIlrath’s addition to the team and enjoyed playing with him last season. And why wouldn’t he be? The two of them combined to create the most successful pairing the Rangers had last season, driving 53.36% of shots while they were on the ice (score and zone-adjusted). McIlrath provides true depth among the Panthers’ defensive corps that few teams can boast and is able to provide a physical edge without being a detriment to the Panthers’ success.
The full impact of this reconstructed blueline has yet to be fully realized, but one thing is certain: the expectation that the Panthers’ front office would heavily incorporate analytics into its decision making has proven to be accurate. With the exception of Matheson (who didn’t meet the minimum requirements for NHL experience) and Petrovic, every defenseman on the roster ranks in the top 45 across the entire league in teammate-relative Corsi For % over the past three seasons.
It hasn’t been a cakewalk for the Panthers yet this season. Early on the team has experienced some struggles, particularly Ekblad and Yandle. However, the body of work from each player suggests that their fortunes will soon turn. And when they do, everyone will be wondering how the Panthers’ defense got so good.