With one game remaining in the 2013-2014 regular season, the Florida Panthers find themselves in all too familiar territory. Last season, the Panthers finished dead last in both Goals Against per Game (GA/G) and the Penalty Kill (PK%), and this year has been no different. Currently ranked 27th in GA/G, allowing 3.20 goals per game, and 30th in PK%, Dale Tallon and the Hockey Operations staff may have their work cut out for them this summer, whether it be via Free Agency or trades.
Fast-forward to the very near future, and the Panthers may have something they’ve longed for since Tallon was hired as the General Manager of the Panthers; flexibility to spend and depth on defense.
Though the Panthers have struggled offensively in recent years, drafting centers Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad will finally give the Cats the stability up the middle for the first time since the Jokinen era. While drafting these mammoth centermen was the correct choice for any GM in Tallon’s position to make, the current blue line still leaves something to be desired.
Luckily for Panthers’ fans, Tallon has done a superb job of drafting Grade A defensemen during his tenure as the Panthers General Manager. While Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Dylan Olsen remain the face of the Panthers young defensive core, there are a handful of reliable defensemen in the Cats prospect pool just waiting for their chance at the big show.
Ian McCoshen, a 5-tool defenseman, just wrapped up his freshman year at Boston College, playing heavy minutes for the BC Eagles. Selected 31st overall in the 2013 NHL entry draft, McCoshen possesses the size and skill, both offensively and defensively, that any NHL team could use on their blue line. With a heavy left-handed shot and a large body, McCoshen was used on both the Eagles power play and penalty kill units, whose team was among the best at the NCAA level this season. Modeling his game after Nicklas Lidstrom, McCoshen has excellent skating abilities and moves the puck well, but focuses heavily on his defensive game, recording a noteworthy +22 rating this season.
Possibly the most well-rounded defenseman in the Panthers system, McCoshen, 18, is likely to return to Boston College for his sophomore year with the Eagles next season. But make no mistake, with experience in both the World Juniors and Frozen Four, McCoshen has already been tested on the big stage, prepping him for what could be a successful NHL career.
With his sophomore season coming to an end, Mike Matheson, 20, may be only months away from leaving college and joining the pro ranks, having greatly improved his defensive game from last season. Usually type-cast as a puck moving defenseman, Matheson, a teammate of McCoshen, has been used in all facets of the game, from leading the rush on the power play, to shutting down the opposition on Hockey East’s best penalty kill.
Often compared to a young Brian Campbell, Matheson has incredible speed, and uses his skill set and powerful shot to add pressure up the ice. Tallying 21 points in 38 games this season, Matheson may have not surpassed his season best of 25 points, but greatly improved his all-around game, becoming a responsible player in both the offensive and defensive zones.
Currently playing in his 3rd season in the OHL with the Oshawa Generals, Joshua Brown, captain of the Generals, is a monster in his own end, instilling fear in the opposition team with his massive 6’5, 215 lb. frame. Through 56 regular season games, Brown has compiled a whopping 83 PIMs, with 1/3 of them listed as major penalties. While he may not be an offensive juggernaut, tallying only 10 points on the season, Brown uses his size, tenacity, and physicality to shut down the opposition’s top lines, making his physical presence known.
Brown, 20, will be an important addition to the Panthers blue-line as a 5-6 defenseman, who will provide the franchise with leadership, physicality, and a steady defensive game for years to come.
Potentially the biggest draft day steal for the Panthers, Mackenzie Weegar, a 7th round pick in the 2013 NHL entry draft, has all of the tool’s the Panthers could use in a puck moving blue liner. Completing his 2nd season with the Halifax Mooseheads, Weegar finished the regular season with an astounding 59 points in 61 games, putting him 2nd amongst all QMJHL defensemen, and recording the 2nd best plus/minus rating (+56) among all skaters. In addition to his strong offensive game, Weegar has proven to be a physical presence and an agitator for Halifax, compiling 97 PIM’s during the regular season.
Continuing the battle for their 2nd Memorial Cup in 2 years, Weegar and the Mooseheads are off to an impressive 8-1 start in the playoffs, advancing to the semi-finals. Weegar currently leads all QMJHL defenseman in playoff points, and is 6th among all skaters with 4 goals and 10 assists.
Weegar, 20, will be a great addition to the Panthers blue line, with potential to round out as a top-tier NHL defenseman. With a solid hockey IQ, Weegar makes smart decisions with or without the puck – a player the Panthers are in desperate need of.
Though their impact on the Panthers won’t be felt immediately, these four promising defenseman are the first building blocks of the team’s future defensive pipeline.
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