SUNRISE — Coming into the season, the defensive structure of the Florida Panthers was a concern.
The team lost defenseman MacKenzie Weegar during the offseason in a blockbuster trade and did not have the salary cap space available to patch the hole.
That concern worsened when Aaron Ekblad sustained a groin strain which kept him out for just under a month.
While the Panthers got quality minutes out of waiver-pickup Josh Mahura and rolled out a quality top pair in Gus Forsling Brandon Montour, it was a mixture of Paul Maurice’s new neutral zone structure and a roster full of defensive-minded forwards which helped Florida stay afloat — and go 6-4-1 — without its defensive centerpiece.
“We didn’t come in to change everything, we came in to add some things,” Maurice said.
”We have a high IQ in that room. They knew they had to fix some things, so the buy-in was before we even explained it. They knew there were some things they had to get to.”
Florida is littered with two-way talent throughout its lineup, headlined by perennial Selke Trophy candidate Sasha Barkov and young up-and-comers Anton Lundell and Eetu Luostarinen down the middle.
The Panthers also roll out a deep complement of wingers like Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart who win their battles on defense.
The result is a team that dominates possession of the puck and easily generates chances off of turnovers.
“You want it to be as simple as it possibly can, but you don’t want a neutral zone defense that is incredibly passive,” Maurice said.
”It is very difficult to change your mindset of how you want to play. We want to play as fast as we can and we want to be aggressive. I think you have to have the same aggressive style of play that is a simple enough system that we can be consistent with but we can also play fast with.
”Once you see our forwards starting to buzz in the neutral zone and knocking pucks down and transitioning back, that is when we are getting it right.”
While Maurice is still finding the right line combinations to maximize the team’s presence in all three zones, he has a lot of options at his disposal.
The addition of Nick Cousins and Eric Staal has given Panthers coach Paul Maurice further options that he has tinkered with throughout the preseason.
Cousins has had a lot of experience playing a defensively-minded game at center and on the wing and while Staal is still a competitive center in his own end at 38 years old.
One idea Maurice had early on was to stack the top six and use Lundell on the top line with Barkov and Carter Verhaeghe.
”I don’t know what’s going to happen, but for right now, I am enjoying it,” Barkov said during training camp.
“Having a player with that sort of skill set on the wing and the way he thinks the game is great. I played a lot with him on the penalty kill last year we did well together. We understand each other very well. He sees me and I see him. We read off each other very well. But playing wing is new to him and I don’t think he has really ever done it. It takes some getting used to, but having a player like that on the same line is amazing.”
That line lasted through the first couple of preseason games and, while it is a look Maurice would like to roll out in dire situations, it is not a permanent line.
“He can play the wing, but he is exceptional in the middle,” Maurice said.
“We do not want to lose that by taking him out of position. In his second year in the National Hockey League, we don’t quite yet want to move him all over the place but I do prefer him in the middle.”
If anything, Lundell would be propped up there similarly to how Jonathan Huberdeau was last year — when the Panthers are down a goal or two and need that extra push to start a comeback run.
Luostarinen ended up making the move to the wing with Maurice looking to give him a bigger role in the offense.
”There are a handful of players who can play both the center and the wing,” Maurice said. ”I just think with where he is at right now, he is a top-nine forward. We need to put him in that spot.
“I like Sam Bennett at center because he has played wing in other places but center-ice is a position he excels at, clearly Barkov and Lundell are centermen who will stay there, There would be a chance we load two lines up and that would move Luostarinen back to the middle but if we don’t have to do it, we will have to fight it a little bit.”
Luostarinen had primarily been Florida’s lockdown fourth-line center last season. He started most of his shifts in the defensive zone and did a lot of the dirty work of keeping the puck out of his net and getting it out of the zone for the next shift.
His move to the wing has worked wonders for him to start the season.
He has four goals and eight points in his first 15 games of the year and has been a crucial part of Florida’s transition game being as good as it is.
There have been some growing pains for this Panthers system throughout the season — namely a penalty kill that once ranked 30th in the league — but they have recovered nicely as of late.
Ever since the Panthers started to deploy Staal on the penalty kill, opting to stretch penalty killing responsibilities throughout the forward lineup as opposed to the usual four-forward setup most teams roll out, they have been 14 for their last 16.
“We have 12 forwards who can kill penalties,” Barkov said.
”We can put anyone on the ice and they can do anything that is needed. It helps a lot to manage the ice time. It is a huge help for us and for the coaches as well.”
Florida’s defensively-minded forward core also allows its defensemen to jump up into the play knowing that an equally competent defender will be back if the play transitions the other way.
It was something that stuck with the Panthers since their offense-heavy 2021-22 season that Maurice has been making his own improvements on this year.
”I think he gives us a lot of freedom in the offensive zone,” Mahura said.
”He likes to make sure we are dialed in defensively in the neutral zone but this team has come a long way defensively. We have four good centermen who can play responsibly on both sides of the puck and it bleeds through the rest of the team.”
PANTHERS ON DECK
WASHINGTON CAPITALS AT FLORIDA PANTHERS
- When: Tuesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise
- TV/Streaming: Bally Sports Florida; ESPN+
- Radio: WQAM 560-AM; WBZT 1230-AM (Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); SiriusXM
- Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932
- Last season: Panthers won 2-1 (d. Capitals 4-2 in first round)
- All-time regular season series: Washington leads 67-43-12, 9 ties