With the Florida Panthers committing so much roster space to defensemen this offseason, it will be an uphill battle for Matt Kiersted to earn a spot with the team.
That does not mean he is left out in the cold.
The 25-year-old out of the University of North Dakota turned heads in his second professional season, playing a strong defensive game in the 20 games he played with the big club.
Kiersted passes the analytics test with flying colors, ranking in the Top 40 in the league in expected goals percentage (59.54) , high-danger chances percentage (64.04) and Corsi for percentage (57.37) per Natural Stat Trick.
In layman’s terms, he proved favorable at possessing the puck (Corsi) and limiting chances the other way (expected goals percentage).
Kiersted also has a quick stick which proved useful in denying the opposing team entry into his own zone.
While the sample size was small — he only played a shade under 10 minutes a night over his 20-game span —and his one goal and four points do not look like much, Kiersted played a critical role in keeping the Panthers afloat while Aaron Ekblad and Radko Gudas dealt with separate injuries.
When their returns sent him back down to AHL Charlotte, Kiersted continued to play a strong, defensive game while putting up six goals and 21 points in 41 games.
Lucas Carlsson’s 20-goal, 54-point season with the Checkers may dwarf those offensive numbers in comparison, but Kiersted’s steady play on the defensive end was what kept earning him looks with the big club throughout the season.
But there is where the problem lies for Kiersted heading into the 2023-24 season: competition.
With Ekblad and Brandon Montour both recovering from injuries heading into training camp, the Panthers signed four free-agent defensemen while re-signing Carlsson when he headed into free agency.
And Kiersted likely projects to be eighth on the depth chart going into camp even with Ekblad and Montour out.
The six-man battle for the Panthers’ four open spots — soon-to-be two upon their return — looks to be a grueling one with all parties involved needing to go through waivers to get down to the AHL.
But it is one Florida is not ready to count Kiersted — or anyone for that matter — out of yet.
No matter which of the new additions loses the battle — whether it is Oliver Ekman-Larsson on his one-year, $2.25 million deal, one of the two lefties he added (Dmitry Kulikov and Mike Reilly) on $1 million deals, or the young and cheap Kiersted and Carlsson — Panthers general manager Bill Zito is not afraid of putting one of them through waivers.
“Waivers is always a consideration, but sometimes there is a situation where the best guys are going to play and then you sort it out and deal with it,” Zito said.
“Every team does it and we have been the beneficiary of it a couple of times where someone else had a curse of riches and they put someone on waivers and they came in and played with us. That’s always a risk that you run but we are excited about the guys that we have and the opportunities that we have.”
Florida did, in fact, benefit from waivers last season, claiming Josh Mahura on the day before their first regular season practice only to get 82 games of quality defensive play from him.
It was a move which initially took opportunity away from Kiersted after he initially beat out Carlsson for a roster spot after a good showing in training camp.
Now he has a chance to earn that spot back with another strong camp.
While the battle to earn that opportunity will be strenuous with a slew of seasoned NHL talents ahead of him, Kiersted has proven that he could put up a good fight.
He will need to.
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
- Now: Free agency period is open
- Sept. 15-18: Rookie Showcase (vs. Carolina, Tampa Bay and Nashville), Estero
- Mid-September: Training Camp, South Florida
- Sept. 25: Preseason starts; Doubleheader v. Nashville @ Sunrise
- Oct. 7: Preseason ends; v. Tampa Bay Lightning @ Sunrise
- Oct. 12: Start of 2023-24 Regular Season at Minnesota Wild
- Oct. 19: 2023-24 Home Opener vs. Toronto Maple Leafs