Panthers’ new defensive core falters during 2016-17 season despite high hopes

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

It was a difficult year on all fronts for the Panthers, and the defense was no exception. Here’s a brief recap of the 2016-17 season for each of the Panthers’ six regular defensemen, four of which were new faces.

Keith Yandle

Keith Yandle did just about everything that was asked of him in his first season with the Panthers.

The 30-year old’s rights was acquired from the Rangers last June and he was quickly signed to a a 7-year, $44.45 million contract.

The Panthers were looking to upgrade two areas by adding Yandle: the power play and offensive production from the defense.

During the first half of the season, the Panthers’s power play ranked 8th-worst in the league at 14.9 percent but improved to 19.4 percent in the second half.

Although the power play still struggled at times, Yandle managed the best assists per 60 rate on the team (3.66) and was tied for the team-lead in power play points at 18.

Individually, Yandle reached and exceeded the 40-point mark for the seventh time in his 10-year NHL career, tallying 5 goals and a team-leading 36 assists.

It was his fourth consecutive season with at least 35 assists, and he managed to continue his ‘Iron Man’ streak, running his consecutive games played count to 633.

Yandle also performed surprisingly well on the Panthers’ penalty kill while logging a shade under 140 shorthanded minutes. In all situations, he led the team in average ice time per game at 22:02 and average shifts per game at 25.7.

However, at times he seemed to be relied upon too much by the Panthers’ coaching staff. Yandle wasn’t acquired for his defensive abilities, and that showed. He often suffered from mental lapses in the defensive zone which resulted in missed assignments and late reactions.

By the end of the season, he owned the team’s worst Corsi Against per 60 Relative to Teammates, meaning he was generally worse at suppressing shot attempts when compared to the rest of the team.

Not only that, but his heat maps show the Panthers were – unsurprisingly – better at preventing shot attempts from all locations in their own zone when Yandle wasn’t on the ice compared to when he was.

Given the right partner and proper workload, Yandle has the ability to be a marginally better defender than he has been, but it’s up to the Panthers to optimize both to get the most out of him.

The Panthers have already sheltered Yandle with mostly offensive zone starts and generally more bottom-6 forward competition than not, so continuing that trend may be their only option.

Mark Pysyk

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

In his first year with the Panthers, Mark Pysyk was arguably one of the team’s best defensemen.

The Panthers acquired Pysyk from Buffalo at the 2015 Draft in exchange for Dmitry Kulikov, and he went on suit up for all 82 games for the first time in his career.

The 25-year old set career-highs in goals (4), assists (13), and points (17) despite averaging 18:33 of ice time per game, the second-lowest total among the Panthers’ regular defensemen.

He also logged the most shorthanded ice time on the team this season, meaning he played a huge role in guiding the Panthers to the league’s second-best penalty kill percentage.

A modern day defensive defenseman, Pysyk played a quiet, steady, and reliable game in a year that saw the Panthers struggle often in their own zone.

He wasn’t overly physical but showed a strong ability to win board battles, retrieve loose pucks, and move the play up the ice.

The Panthers’ coaching staff placed a lot of trust in Pysyk, pairing him with rookies Mackenzie Weegar and Ian McCoshen for their NHL debuts, as well as Mike Matheson, who spent his first extended period of time in the league.

His most frequent defensive partner was Alex Petrovic, who’s also a right-handed shot, meaning Pysyk was playing mostly on his off-hand.

By the end of the year, Pysyk had racked up at least 160 minutes with 4 different defensemen and still managed the second-best Corsi For percentage among the Panthers’ blueliners.

He also finished with an impressive Corsi Against per 60 rate of 48.73, which was good for 10th-best in the NHL among defensemen that played at least 500 minutes.

For those who prefer more traditional stats, Pysyk finished the year with a plus-minus rating of 0, the only mark among the Panthers’ defensemen to not be in the negative.

The Panthers were noticeably worse in their own zone when Pysyk wasn’t on the ice compared to when he was in terms of shot attempts from high-danger area. Considering he spent most of the year on the bottom pairing with lower bottom-6 teammates, he faced a lot of top-6 competition and fared surprisingly well.

The fact that Pysyk ended the season with positive shot attempt metrics despite switching back and forth between the left and right side – as well as from partner to partner – made his solid play all the more impressive.

Having only played in 207 NHL games, Pysyk has yet to reach his full potential, and the Panthers have been fairly open about what his upside is: a top-4 defenseman.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see him take on a larger role in the upcoming season, and being that he’s restricted free-agent, there’s no question the Panthers will work to keep him in the fold for the coming years.

Jason Demers

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

In many ways – both good and not so good – Jason Demers was not his usual self this season, which was the first of a 5-year deal with the Panthers.

Offensively, Demers posted one of the best seasons of his career, potting a career-high 9 goals, all of which came in the first 51 games of the year. He also tallied 19 assists for 28 points, the second-best total of his career.

Demers owned the second-highest even-strength points per 60 rate among the Panthers’ defensemen – as well as the best goals per 60 rate – while shooting at a career-high 9.2 percent.

Similar to Pysyk, Demers is willing and able to jump up and create offensively, but generally tries to focus on protecting the house first. It was a style of play that he seemed to get away from as he was inconsistent on the defensive side of the puck.

Demers primarily logged second-pair minutes for the Panthers, and for the most part, he was fairly average relative to the rest of the team despite his individual offensive success.

His defensive zone heat map shows no significant change in shot volume when comparing his time on and off the ice, although the Panthers do appear to have produced more shot attempts in the offensive zone without him.

Having said that, it doesn’t seem like the Panthers got everything they were expecting out of Demers this season.

He definitely fits the player mold that the Panthers desire, but he’ll need to be more consistent when the puck isn’t on his stick in order to be a more effective, all-around player.

For now, Demers seems to be stuck in limbo. His contract is a bit much for his role and spot in the lineup, and it’s unclear where exactly he fits into the team’s plans with younger, cheaper defensemen that are – at the very least – no worse defensively waiting in the wings.

The 28-year old Quebec-native accepted an invite to play for Canada at the World Championship with the intention of working on his game, so it’ll be interesting to see if he can return to form and start anew in the coming season.

Mike Matheson

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

Mike Matheson earned his first taste of the NHL last season before an impressive showing at the World Championship, but this season was his first full campaign in the league.

The 23-year old averaged the third-most ice time per game among all rookies at 21:03, and that was good for the third-highest total on the Panthers this season.

Matheson spent most of that time on the second pairing where he faced top-6 competition on a regular basis. He was also second on the team in shorthanded ice time where he contributed a ton to the Panthers’ strong penalty kill.

Offensively, he finished with 7 goals – which placed him second among rookie defensemen – and 10 assists for a total of 17 points, a decent output considering he hardly saw any time on the power play.

Matheson impressed with his skating ability and – combined with his stick work – was often able to shut down opposing forwards speeding down the wing.

In the defensive zone, where he was actually deployed most often, the Panthers largely allowed a below-average volume of shots attempts directly in front of the net when he was on the ice compared to the team’s performance without him.

That’s an area that the Panthers had issues adequately defending this season, so it’s promising to see positive results there.

There was a real progression in Matheson’s performance over the course of the season and the Panthers responded to that by rewarding him with more ice time.

His age showed at times, but more often than not he showed flashes of top-4 potential.

With a full year under his belt and yet another appearance at the World Championship, the Panthers should see a more refined Mike Matheson at training camp.

Odds are he’ll be asked to continue to shoulder the workload that he was tasked with at the tail end of last season, and hopefully this time around, it’ll include some power play time.

Aaron Ekblad

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

Aaron Ekblad’s third NHL season wasn’t as smooth-sailing as he or anyone would’ve liked.

After signing the biggest contract in franchise history – an 8-year, $60 million extension – Ekblad suffered what was said to be a neck injury at the World Cup of Hockey in September.

Nonetheless, the 21-year old was ready for the season, although his start was shaky as he was forced to play without Brian Campbell – who left to Chicago as a free-agent – for the first time in his career.

Ekblad registered just 2 goals through the first month of the season, and he didn’t record an assist until November 29th while at the same time struggling to find a groove defensively.

He was slow and tentative skating back to retrieve pucks from deep in his own zone, was often beat wide by opposing forwards, and made questionable decisions when attempting to move the puck out of the zone.

Ekblad’s sudden regression back into an 18-year old rookie coupled with the preseason injury was unexpected and had many concerned about his future, which was already heavily invested in.

Fortunately, things changed in the new year.

Ekblad was a noticeably improved player on both sides of the puck as he began making the same smart plays in all three zones that were a part of the success he had over the previous two seasons.

At the end of the year, Ekblad revealed that he spoke at length with Dale Tallon about his play and sought help from the Panthers’ psychologist just prior to the midway point of the season.

He noticed an immediate improvement but suffered yet another concussion – his third in the last 3 years – following a high hit by Gabriel Dumont of the Lightning on March 11th.

He missed just 4 games before returning to the lineup 10 days later, despite the Panthers being all but out of the playoff race, and it was clear he wasn’t ready.

Ekblad went on to sit out the remaining 10 games after then-head coach Tom Rowe admitted that he should not have come back so soon.

His 10 goals and 11 assists were career-lows and his minus-23 rating was the worst on the team.

Ekblad also averaged 21:27 of ice time per night, the lowest total of his career and second consecutive season that he’s seen a drop.

Looking at the big picture, Ekblad’s advanced metrics show that he was somewhat sheltered with offensive zone starts – comparable to his rookie season and at a higher percentage than last year – while playing against slightly more bottom-6 competition than top-6.

In terms of shots attempts, Ekblad’s heat map while on the ice was slightly worse in and around the slot than the team average without him, but Panthers weren’t very good at defending those areas this season, so he fit right in.

Ekblad managed to finish with the best even-strength Corsi For percentage among the Panthers’ defensemen thanks to his second half but was only average when it comes to goals against and shots against per 60.

That’s not exactly the greatest given the competition he typically faced, but perhaps a new head coach will be able to sort things out and get him to where he needs to be.

It’s also important to note that Ekblad spent over 200 minutes with Jakub Kindl – who was the Panthers’ worst defenseman in almost every category this season – as his primary defensive partner at even-strength, which presumably affected his numbers and on-ice peformance a bit.

The hope for next season is that Ekblad can get off on the right foot and remain healthy, because the Panthers are obviously better off when he’s in the lineup and playing well.

Adding quickness to his skating will allow him to be more effective in all three zones, and in general, showing progression after a rough year like this one will be important.

There’s still tons of time and room for Ekblad to improve, and he’s much better than the player this season made him out to be. With the proper coaching and usage, he’ll be able to take his game to the next level.

Alex Petrovic

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

This was an important year for Alex Petrovic to continue trending upward in his development, and for the most part, he did just that.

He was on pace to set career highs in all of the major scoring categories, but his forward progress  on both sides of the puck was temporarily derailed when he suffered a broken ankle on November 15th against the Canadiens.

It wasn’t easy for the Panthers to fill his role during the 2 months he missed, but when he finally returned in late January, the defensive pairings went back to their ideal setups.

Petrovic finished the year with a goal and 13 assists in just 49 games to go along with a minus-1 rating while being tasked heavily with defensive responsibilities.

Surprisingly, he held a significant lead over the rest of the Panthers’ defense in points per 60 (1.06) and assists per 60 (0.98), the latter of which was almost double the next best teammate (Keith Yandle, 0.59).

The 25-year old led the Panthers’ defensemen in defensive zone starts and was only second to forward Derek MacKenzie in that regard.

He was deployed primarily against bottom-9 competition yet was still able to turn in the second-best Corsi Against per 60 rate and third-best Corsi For percentage among the team’s defenders at even-strength.

His heat maps suggest that he was generally no worse at preventing shot attempts in the defensive zone than the team’s performance with him off the ice, and that’s fairly impressive given his deployment.

On the whole, Petrovic brought a level of toughness and grit that the Panthers lacked on the backend this season but was still capable of moving the puck effectively.

The Panthers will presumably be looking to extend Petrovic soon since his most recent contract – a two-year deal – ended with the season, and they’re certainly hoping he’s still with the team following June’s expansion draft.

Petrovic has progressed nicely as a bottom-pair defender, particularly over the past couple of years, so there’s no doubt he’d continue to fill an important role for the Panthers in the future.

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