There is an old NHL proverb passed down from generation to generation that dictates the winning formula for a team to embrace and thereby succeed: “Build from the back out.”
It is this mantra that hints at stabilizing your core from the defensive side out when trying to build a winning team that can keep winning for years on end.
Dale Tallon inherited a limping roster when he was hired and has gone through the process to turn it into one of the most promising, young and dynamic groups in the National Hockey League. He stabilized his net when he realized Jacob Markstrom was not cut for full-time duty and is now in the midst of cementing his D corps that will hopefully lead to real success in the short and long-term.
Dale Tallon’s defensive rebuild conforms to many rebuilds we’ve seen in the league over the years with one notable exception. He has used key draft picks to select core players, traded for young undervalued players from other organizations and signed complimentary pieces via free agency. Despite taking the beaten path in those regards there, is one piece that he added that did not conform to the traditional rebuild schematic. The piece that I am referring to is Dale Tallon’s long con….but we’ll get to that.
When you look at the Panthers’ potential defense for the upcoming season you see the results of the aforementioned beaten path which Tallon walked with great effectiveness.
The Key Draft Picks
Dmitry Kulikov, drafted 14th overall in 2009, 99 points in 313 games played after making the team directly out of camp after his draft. The Panthers committed to Kulikov long-term and clearly see him as an integral part of their defensive system.
Kulikov ate minutes for the Panthers finishing 2nd on the team in terms of total minutes played and was deployed almost with complete neutrality between the offensive and defensive zone last season, meaning that the coaching staff believed in him in both offensive and defensive situations.
Within the last two years Kulikov has been on the upward swing possession-wise and has had a positive impact on his team’s performance while on the ice.
Next up: Erik Gudbranson, the Panthers’ esteemed 3rd overall selection from the 2010 entry draft. Erik was thrown into the fire as Kulikov was and has been through the struggles that one would expect a young defenseman to go through while playing in the NHL as an under-20 year old. While Gudbranson’s skill set is elite and the talent is obvious, he is only beginning to carve his niche on the ice as was evident at times last season. Regardless of the past, the future is bright for the likely captain of the Panthers and a serious jump (and I mean serious) in possession metrics suggests that he is coming into his own as planned. At 22 and with the best surrounding cast since his debut, Gudbranson is primed for another season of improvement.
Then there’s the 6’3 216 lbs colt in the room, Aaron Ekblad. The Panthers invested heavily in the defenseman in June and undoubtedly plan to make him a part of their core for as long as they can (aka his entire career). Ekblad’s elite talent is undeniable and his ability to transition that from the junior game to the NHL is obviously paramount for the Panthers’ success in any realm. It’s a risk to select a defenseman first overall due to their slow development and potential for failure but the Panthers clearly thought that he was worth the risk so he will have to make it worth their while.
The undervalued trade target
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure has never been truer when it comes to Dylan Olsen (and his fellow former Blackhawk Jimmy Hayes). Chicago deemed Olsen (and Hayes) expendable to regain the services of Kris Versteeg and I believe I would be hard pressed to find someone who thinks the Panthers got the worse end of the deal from a player perspective. Olsen went from a fringe NHLer in Chicago’s system to a mainstay blue-liner in Florida and managed to put up positive possession numbers for the first time in his career with a weaker line up supporting him. Olsen is poised to keep his spot on the blue line out of training camp and cement his spot in the NHL as a valuable top six defender.
The complimentary free agent
Any good GM knows that free agency is for filling out the roster, not building it. When Dale Tallon went on a spending spree in 2011 he picked up players to fill the roster while his prospects were gaining experience in the minor league and junior ranks. That spree pushed the Panthers into the playoffs but that clearly did not equate to long-term success. Tallon’s youth is finally maturing and he is now at a stage where he can use free agency to go after players he deems suitable for his squad.
Enter Willie Mitchell. Mitchell is the kind of player that GMs love. He’s a winner at all levels winning an ECAC title with Clarkson University, a IIHF World Championship gold medal and of course the two Stanley Cups with the LA Kings in 2012 and 2014. He is a 12 year NHL vet who has made a positive impact on every team he has played for. He is a leader who leads by example and is not afraid to put his body on the line as is evident by his team-leading 128 blocked shots last year. To impress you more, even with Mitchell’s high blocked shot totals he is still a fantastic possession player who creates more positive possession events than he gives up and considering he blocked 128 shots last season that is a lot of positive possession events.
Mitchell will bring a sense of stability to the Panthers defense this season. He will be a solid veteran presence to the young guns both on and off the ice and of course will be relied upon heavily by the coaching staff in key situations when needed.
The long con
Finally, we get to Brian Campbell.
When Brian Campbell was traded to the Florida Panthers on June 25th 2011 the narrative was that of “A cap dump by Chicago to rid themselves of a shell of a player that they thought they were getting to a team he won’t succeed with.”
Not exactly a rousing endorsement for the Panthers, but after finishing last in the Eastern Conference and missing the playoffs for the 10th straight year the pundits didn’t have to be generous to the team in Sunrise. From the Panthers’ perspective it was more than a cap relief favor to the GM’s previous employer, it was the start of the locomotive that was and is Dale Tallon’s rebuild of the Florida Panthers.
NHL GMs think that far ahead and that’s what Dale Tallon was doing when he traded for Campbell. He acquired a piece that would help the team in the short-term and one that would evolve into the cornerstone of his defensive corps in the long-term.
Tallon took it on the chin when he traded for Campbell but he is only reaping the benefits of acquiring a premiere all-around defenseman who can, has and will do it all for the Panthers.
Let’s talk leadership. Brian Campbell epitomizes the word.
I don’t just mean that he is a “leader,” of course he’s a leader. He’s a 35 year old decade plus player with 838 games under his belt. He’s a Stanley Cup Champion, has been a Captain, an alternate captain and is a poised and professional person who deals with fans and media with aplomb. His career speaks for itself in terms of intangibles but I want to talk about the aspects of his game that makes him the cornerstone of the team.
When I said leader I meant “leader” as in team leader in 5 on 5 ice time since he was traded to the Panthers. In fact he led by 288, 220 and 281 minutes within the past 3 seasons, which is insane. He has either led or finished 2nd in shots taken by a defenseman since his Panthers debut and has been among the team leaders (and led in 13-14) in blocked shots. He finished 2nd, 1st and 1st since the 11-12 season in takeaways by a Panthers defenseman. To top it all off, since 2011-2012 Campbell has led all Panthers’ D in points.
Beyond these stats, his possession numbers are exceptional.
He boasts a 52.1% Corsi For Percentage which means that when Campbell is on the ice 52.1% of the total shot attempts are going towards the opposing team’s net. To give you a comparison, that is 38th best among defenseman after the 13-14 season and best on the Panthers by 1.5%, which is astounding. Campbell literally drives possession forward for the Panthers better than any other D by a significant margin.
In terms of Fenwick (shots directed toward the net that aren’t blocked) Campbell clocked a 52.5%, 1% better than the closest Panthers D and good for 39th in the league.
These numbers are even more impressive when you take into account that Campbell played the 3rd most 5 on 5 minutes out of any defenseman in the NHL. To add to his impressive resume his 5 on 5 Zone Start Ratio is 50.8% meaning that he was nearly evenly distributed between the offensive and defensive zone which alludes to my “all-around player” label.
What impresses me most about Campbell’s metrics are his Relative Corsi and Fenwick numbers. He is a +3.0% 5 on 5 Corsi and Fenwick player which means that the team is much better (3% better) at possession when he is part of the 5 man on-ice unit. That is, again, a full percent higher than the next Panthers D which means he is better at making the team better than any other defenseman on the team.
With skating that cuts the ice like a knife does warm butter, a hard and accurate shot with a quick release, a premiere first pass and exceptional defensive skills, Brian Campbell is the whole package for the Panthers. He is the unequivocal cornerstone of a defensive group that has been carefully constructed and perfected over the years. Campbell was brought in with the knowledge that he would one day be this player for the team. He knows what it means to be a Panther, he wears an A and is a strong candidate to wear the C and has been through the absolute worst the franchise has seen. With the team ready to rise up from the bowels of the NHL, Brian Campbell is at the helm.
With less than two months until opening night, the current blue-line for the Panthers is shaping up to be one of the most talented defensive corps the franchise has seen in a long time.