With the Panthers opening their regular season on Thursday, Canadian TV analyst and former Panthers coach Doug MacLean has concerns about Florida’s decision to overhaul much of their defense to add more offensive-minded defensemen.
“The one thing that was a big factor last year for their team is they were a tough team to play against, and part of that was the size of the blue line,” MacLean said by phone. “I don't disagree that they are quicker and will move the puck and that's an important thing. But defending is a pretty important thing as well - toughness, size, strength. The question is can they defend? That’s the $1 million question.
“In the Islanders series, their best defenseman was [Dmitri] Kulikov. He's gone. Mark Pysyk was a downgrade, total downgrade from Kulikov. I like [Jason] Demers [but] he’s a very average defenseman in the NHL.
“[Erik] Gudbranson is a big, strong guy and he's gone [to Vancouver]. [Departed defenseman] Brian Campbell, say what you want about him; he was a pretty important guy for them.
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“I don't mind the [Keith] Yandle move, and [elite defenseman Aaron] Ekblad does everything. It's a different [approach] and the proof will be in the pudding. There's no given for me [that this will work]. I know the [new defensemen] are puck movers, but you have to play a 200-foot game whether you like it or not.
“Do the changes work? For the Panthers' sake, I hope so because the division and conference will be a lot tougher this year.”
MacLean also has a question about the goaltending plan, with new backup James Reimer expected to play between 30 and 40 games behind Robert Luongo.
“Luongo was exceptional for them last year,” MacLean said. “If there is a drop off and Reimer goes in, can you afford that dropoff? Reimer was one of the worst deals of the summer - $3 million for a backup goalie, that’s unheard of, and you gave him five years.
“Can the Panthers afford the dropoff from Luongo's unbelievable play to what Reimer is going to give them? Al Montoya gave them 15 good games. I think Reimer is a really good backup goaltender but don’t anyone tell me he's going to match Luongo.”
On the positive side, MacLean said he has the Panthers making the playoffs but “it’s going to be a dogfight. It’s going to be a four-point swing for half the teams in the conference.”
One positive, he said, is “there is no taking away from the fact they have a very skilled young group offensively.”
• All nine ESPN NHL analysts predict Tampa will win the Panthers’ division.
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