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2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs

Defensive Depth of Florida Panthers Essential to a Playoff Run



Florida Panthers defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Gus Forsling, pictured here on Oct. 19 in Sunrise, have helped lead a deep defensive group into the playoffs. (AP Photo/Marta Lavandier)

SUNRISE — The Florida Panthers’ forward depth will be tested in this playoff series against the Lightning with Sam Bennett out for the time being.

Florida has already proven it has the defensive depth to compete at a high level.

Last summer, Radko Gudas left for greener pastures in southern California.

The Panthers knew both Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour would miss the start of the season due to surgery.

Only general manager Bill Zito stocked up by acquiring several bargain-priced but effective blueliners.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson was coming off injuries and a historically large buyout. His signing was all upside at $2.25-million.

OEL turned out to be one of the year’s biggest bargains, missing only two games.

Dmitry Kulikov knocked around for a few seasons, but he was solid in his return to the Panthers after playing here from 2009-16.

Kulikov proved especially valuable on the penalty kill given that Florida led the league in penalty minutes.

Coincidentally, the Panthers also led the league in penalties drawn.

New acquisition Niko Mikkola played all 82 games as a shutdown, physical defender.

Uvis Balinskis was plucked from the Czech league and quickly adjusted to North American hockey.

With the glut of defenders, free agent signee Mike Reilly could not crack the lineup and was lost to the Islanders on waivers.

Reilly became a regular on their blueline.

Montour and Ekblad played well upon their return, while Gus Forsling, originally a waiver wire pickup in 2021, remains an all-time great find.

Forsling was a league-leading plus-56 this season.

Fortunately, the Panthers entered the playoffs with a full and healthy squad, but should anyone falter or be lost to injury, there is always a next man up.

This luxury enabled coach Paul Maurice to allow his top players additional rest when nicked up.

Maurice has consistently stated he would only bring people back into the lineup if they were 100 percent ready.

The team has been able to withstand injury losses all year.

When Ekblad and Montour missed the first 16 games of the season, Balinskis and Kulikov played exceptionally well.

Balinskis departed for the minors for more playing time, but Kulikov, Ekman-Larsson, and Mikkola exceeded expectations.

They were so effective that last year’s 82-gamer Josh Mahura couldn’t get back in the lineup after missing a few weeks due to an injury sustained last November.

The team was 10-5-1 during the early season absences of Ekblad and Montour.

At a recent practice, Maurice reminded he had Kulikov in Winnipeg when he was still not 100 percent from a back injury from his days in Buffalo.

“He’s a piece of a group that’s gone from the bottom ten to the top ten in one year,” Maurice said. “He’s been a big part of that. His penalty-killing has been good. He’s heavy on the walls. He’s been a really good pairing with Ekman-Larsson in terms of style of play.”

Late in the season, Ekblad was injured again and missed 13 games.

Maurice was in no rush to bring him back.

Mahura and Balinskis filled in admirably.

During that span, the team went 7-4-2.

Should any of the first six defenders get injured in tough playoff hockey, both Mahura and Balinskis are ready to go.

Toby Bjornfot, a trade-deadline day waiver claim, has 120 games of NHL experience and adds to the depth.

Four defensemen — Mahura, Ekman-Larsson, Montour, and Kulikov — are on expiring contracts.

Next year’s defensive lineup could be much different.

That’s a conversation for another day.

Right now, the Panthers have other things on their minds.

And it all starts on the defensive side of the ice.

For the most in-depth coverage of the Florida Panthers:

  • When: Thursday, 7 p.m.
  • Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa 
  • Local TV/National TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida/TBS/HBOMax
  • Radio: WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
  • First Round (Panthers Lead 1-0) — Game 1: Panthers 3, Lightning 2; Game 2: Florida 3, Tampa Bay 2 OT; Game 3: Thursday at Tampa Bay, 7 (BSF, TBS); Game 4: Saturday at Tampa Bay, 5 (BSF, TBS, TruTV); Game 5*: Monday at Florida, TBA (BSF, TBA); Game 6*: Wednesday at Tampa Bay, TBA (BSF, TBA); Game 7*: Saturday May 4 at Florida, TBA (BSF, TBA). (*) — If necessary
  • 2023-24 Regular Season Series (Panthers Won 2-1) — At Tampa Bay: Panthers 3, Lightning 2 (Dec. 27)Panthers 9, Lightning 2 (Feb. 17). At Florida: Lightning 5, Panthers 3 (March 16).
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Florida leads 77-51-19, 10 ties
  • All-Time Postgame Series: Lightning Leads 2-0 (2021 first-round, 2022 ECS)

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