With their season finally getting underway on Saturday, the Florida Panthers and Gerard Gallant will start to mix and match his players in order to get the most out of the team. Here’s a look at the team’s potential defensive pairings, and how they’ll perform throughout the season.
Top Pairing: Brian Campbell – Aaron Ekblad
The team’s top pairing from 2014-15 will be the top pairing in 2015-16 as well, as the duo dominated their opposition and posted a shot attempts percentage of 56.0 percent, and a goals for percentage of 56.6 percent.
Campbell’s cool, calm, and collected presence on the blue line provided the perfect environment for Ekblad to develop into an NHL regular. The 19-year-old didn’t disappoint, winning the Calder Trophy for his successful performance during the season. A sophomore slump doesn’t seem likely for the 6-foot-4 defenseman, and the sky really does appear to be the limit for the uber-talented rearguard from Windsor, Ontario.
The Panthers will need this duo to be just as good as they were last season if the team is going to make the playoffs, but Campbell hasn’t shown any signs of aging when it comes to his possession play, and Ekblad should have another year of development under his belt. When these two are on the ice, the Panthers will be getting a better share of the goals, and that’s all you can really ask from your players.
Second Pairing: Dmitry Kulikov – Erik Gudbranson
Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov are two first-round draft picks taken two years apart, who could finally start to provide some of the strong play that was expected of them when they were first drafted. Kulikov has had an interesting development curve in Florida, and could finally be ready to have a breakout season. The 24-year-old had the best two-way performance of his career last season, and if paired with a solid defensive partner such as Gudbranson, could really start to post some offensive numbers.
On the flip side, Gudbranson could see his offensive totals elevated while playing with Kulikov, as the biggest area of concern in the 23-year-old’s game is his offensive production. Just because a player is dominant in the defensive zone doesn’t mean that they’re being effective; moving the puck out of the zone is incredibly important too.
If Gudbranson and Kulikov can balance each other out, they can form a solid second pairing down in South Florida.
Third Pairing: Alex Petrovic – Willie Mitchell
The third pairing for the Panthers is likely going to feature two defensive defensemen in Willie Mitchell and Alex Petrovic. Both are big, strong players who can play a strong defensive game, while providing a little offensive flair.
Neither are expected to be major contributors to Florida’s offense next season, as the youngster Petrovic doesn’t quite have top four potential, while Mitchell is 38 years old and certainly on the downswing of his career.
This is exactly why a third pairing role makes the most sense for the duo, as they can focus on shutting down the opposition’s top forwards, and playing to their strengths. This will help free up some offensive usage for Ekblad and Campbell, as the top pairing showed last season that they are more than capable of flourishing (and producing) in high offensive usage.