Florida Panthers

Fixing the Florida Panthers’ defensive issues starts with goalie, but more is needed

There were seven times last season when the Florida Panthers lost a game in which they scored four or more goals.

Had they won all seven games, they would’ve had 100 points, qualifying for the playoffs.

Defenseman Anton Stralman, who last year helped the Tampa Bay Lightning tie an NHL record with 62 regular-season wins, is now part of the Panthers, signing as a free agent. Stralman figures that goalie Sergei Bobrovsky — also signed as part of Florida’s much-hyped free agent class of 2019 — will go a long way toward fixing the Panthers’ defensive issues.

“Defense is a team thing,” Stralman said. “It’s how you play as a unit and as a structure. It’s also determination, mentality, and attention to detail.

“I don’t know the reason for the amount of goals being so high [for the Panthers last season], but adding a piece like ‘Bob,’ who can make the impossible save, will add to that count dropping.”

Stralman, though, cautioned against an over-reliance on Bobrovsky. He also said new Panthers coach Joel Quenneville will factor in heavily on defensive strategy.

“It doesn’t mean you can stop playing defense just because you have a great goalie,” Stralman said.

“Coming up with a system — which [Quenneville] will do — and nailing it down takes time, effort, and buy-in from everyone.

“We want to be a team that’s great in all three zones. But it has to start from the goalie on out. It can’t start from [offense first].”

The trick, Stralman said, will be focusing on defense while not losing the offensive flow that allowed the Panthers to rank fifth in the Eastern Conference in goals last season.

“[The Panthers have] been a great offensive team for a lot of years,” Stralman said. “Maybe addressing the defense more and putting more emphasis on that is not going to change that. This team is going to [score] much like the team in Tampa.”

The Panthers would welcome any comparison to Tampa Bay. After all, the Lightning led the NHL in goals last season with 325. The Panthers scored 267 goals.

Florida has six players who scored more than 20 goals last season: Mike Hoffman (36), Aleksander Barkov (35), Jonathan Huberdeau (30), Evgenii Dadonov (28), Frank Vatrano (24), and Brett Connolly (22). The Panthers also have 2017 All-Star Vincent Trocheck, who suffered through injuries last season and was held to 10 goals. He is looking to bounce back and was the first Panthers player to contact Connolly after he signed, welcoming him to the organization.

“Connolly is a very efficient player,” Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. “He’s averaged 18 goals the past two years in about 12 minutes of ice time per game. He kills penalties and plays a down-low, heavy game.”

Florida’s fourth line is shaping up, with newly signed Noel Acciari and fellow agitators Jayce Hawryluk and Colton Sceviour.

The third line will likely include Vatrano or Connolly with former first-round pick Henrik Borgstrom, who had 10 goals and 18 assists in his rookie year, and possibly Denis Malgin.

But the Panthers have three top prospects — shooter Owen Tippett, playmaker Aleksi Heponiemi, and all-around talent Grigori Denisenko — who could crash the forward party at some point soon.

“We didn’t really block any of our young [forwards] with long-term deals,” Tallon said, “and that was a key part of our thought process.”

Florida’s top four defensemen have been listed as Aaron Ekblad, Mike Matheson, Keith Yandle, and Stralman.

Trades or signings could still shake things up. But, for now, Mark Pysyk and MacKenzie Weegar round out the defensive crew, and rookie Sam Montembeault figures to be Bobrovsky’s backup in goal.

“I feel confident that we’re headed in the right direction,” Tallon said.