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The Florida Panthers with their 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday night continue their stellar play, fueled by a powerful group of forwards up front. The Panthers lead the Eastern Conference and the NHL in goals for in all situations.
The Huberdeau-Bennett-Duclair line is on fire, sending signs of potency up front the Panthers hadn’t seen in their franchise existence.
This line 🔥https://t.co/GisPYx5pH7
— Shayna (@hayyyshayyy) January 26, 2022
Gushing praise upon the forward group, it’s important to note how Florida’s blueline as played exceptionally well in support of the offensive vision – while not cutting back defensively.
The role of defensemen is somewhat misconstrued in the modern game. No longer are there big plodding hulks manning net fronts and attempting to thwart zone entries with brute strength and intimidation. Today’s defenders exude elegant skills that includes mobility – which became more important after the lockout of 2004-05 where speed and mobility ruled out over less portable, yet sizable blueliners. Defensemen had to be able to skate, to join rushes and then be back in a defensive position upon play breakdowns. This describes Florida’s rearguards in 2021-22.
Being part of the last line of defense before the goaltender, let’s examine their 2021-22 defensive metrics through expected goals and scoring chance generation against.
Data provided by Natural Stat Trick.
Aside from Weegar – who we will go a bit more in depth shortly, having more goals against per 60 minutes by a miniscule fraction, every other blueliner hasn’t had a goals against rate best their expected goals against rate this season. Weegar has been on the ice for the least amount of high danger chances against per 60 (HDCA/60) while getting 91.1% save percentage goaltending – the lowest of the group.
Using data tracked by Corey Sznajder, he charted out the Panthers Entry defense in his All three Zones tracking projects. Corey, a hobbyist, accepts Patreon donations to enable him to keep tracking the entire league and has become a vital resource for those looking for microstats and increasing contextual evidence in game analysis.
In the Tableau viz image from Corey’s page, most defensemen in the band between 3.5 and 4.0 entries with a scoring chance against per 60 minutes, with the outliers being Lucas Carlsson and veteran Radko Gudas. Ideally, you want to see defensemen in the upper left quadrant, but even a distribution like this is very favorable.
Aaron Ekblad missed significant time in 2020-21 only limited to 35 games and has battled some injury over the past couple of seasons, despite putting up career high 31 points at 5v5 in the COVID shortened 2019-20 season. With 19 points already heading into games entering Tuesday night, he’s on track to set career highs all round. He added two assists at 5v5 to his totals from the 5-3 win. He was ranked fourth overall in scoring among defensemen at 5v5, with MacKenzie Weegar in 7th and Gustav Forsling hanging around 11th overall.
It’s exceptional production at even strength here that makes this blueline so important to the overall success of the Florida Panthers – and they could use some immediate success with the playoff futility of the franchise overall.
One of the most intriguing and productive players in today’s game is MacKenzie Weegar. Sznajder recently lay tribute to the former 7th round selection of the Florida Panthers (206th overall) in 2013, using data tracked from his efforts.
— Corey Sznajder (@ShutdownLine) January 13, 2022
The evolution of Weegar wasn’t an immediate impact, rather a slow burn into the star player he has developed into, while getting some adjustments through linemates and systems play.
Sznajder had this to say about the Panthers defenseman:
With data tracked through the All Three Zones project, we can see that Florida had Weegar play a certain way in his first couple years with the team. He was there to be aggressive at the line, lead breakouts and then get off the ice. It’s interesting because he didn’t fit the bill of a shutdown defenseman when he was drafted and sort of adapted to the new NHL and his playing situation as time went along. Part of that might stem from how often his playing situation in the minors changed and his experience playing with top players in junior.
Playing on his offhand side – the left side as a right-handed rearguard, alongside Aaron Ekblad – another not too shabby blueliner – is an area that would lead players to struggle, but Weegar has flourished.
He ticks all the boxes – despite any minor flaws in technical capability. No longer an underrated talent, he’s a smooth skating puckhandler with creativity and vision, can man the points and play the first two or three feet inside the offensive zone with aplomb. The chart above shows how much he’s contributed to the Panthers scoring chance assists per 60 minutes, in comparison to chances per 60.
Chance assists are the pass made right before a scoring chance is recorded and Florida is getting excellent production from their blueliners. Weegar and Brandon Montour are among chance/60 leaders on the team when on the ice and they are second and third in scoring at 5v5. Complementing the duo are former Blackhawks (and Vancouver draft pick - 126th overall in 2014) defenseman Gustav Forsling and Lucas Carlsson – with the former ranking third in 5v5 scoring among Panthers blueliners and the latter with two goals and seven points – adding another assist at 5v5 last night.
Ekblad is the lone defensemen on the first power play, with Montour and Weegar alternating on a second unit. Both players are active in the power play setup with Ekblad earning points on just under two-thirds of power play goals scored with him on the ice, and Montour getting points on three quarters of the on-ice goals scored. Ekblad is set to shatter his 41-points career best in all situations, with 39 points already in 42 games this season – representing points at a career best 45% of on-ice goals scored.
Weegar’s contributions at 5v4 aren’t plentiful, with a lone primary assist in 22 minutes played, constituting a point on the only goal scored with him on the ice at 5v4.
Goals and chance generation for, are clear indicators of offensive contributions, supporting a hot group up front, but the Panthers blueline is also very well represented for transition play. After all, getting into the offensive zone requires a change of possession originating somewhere in the defensive or neutral zone and successful zone entries to establish presence and get shots on goal. A strong defensive presence is the fundamental base to ignite offensive contributions.
Even Kevin Connauton is getting into the transition play mix and contributing getting pucks over the offensive blueline after a play breakdown or turnover the other way.
Strong scoring up front, a strong blueline in which to build effective transition play and improved overall goaltending makes the Panthers a strong favorite in the Eastern Conference. There are some concerns over the split of home and road games – and something to consider in the second half of the season.
Don’t sleep on their blueline.
The Panthers blueliners are much more effective than given credit for, overshadowed by goals, goals goals.