Hockey players often don’t go into specifics in the aftermath of a blowout loss. The emotions are too raw, and the chances of saying something that’s spread all over local radio by the morning are too high, for players to want to publicly dissect their struggles too much. It’s easier to stick to platitudes and get back to work.
That’s a common postgame strategy with reporters, but Aaron Ekblad apparently had enough. Coming off the Panthers’ 8-5 loss to the Lightning Monday night, the 21-year-old defenseman called out the team’s defense, including himself, for failing to hold up its end of the bargain, according to the Sun-Sentinel’s Matthew DeFranks.
“There’s a lot of problems,” Ekblad said. “We’re making the wrong mistakes, mistakes that we talk about day-in and day-out that we should improve on. We shouldn’t be making the same mistakes over and over again.”
Giving up eight goals to Tampa Bay was just the latest stumble in a rough start to the season for Florida. The team is sixth in the Atlantic Division with a 4-6-1 record, and it’s currently 30th in the NHL in goals allowed per game and 29th in penalty kill rate. When it comes to goal prevention, the Panthers have been woeful.
Ekblad said Monday the Panthers needed to play tougher.
“Got to have your defenders, all of us, with a chip on our shoulder,” Ekblad said. “Every time Steven Stamkos touches the puck, I want to be better than him. Every time Kucherov touches the puck, you got to make their lives miserable. They might not like it. It might not be the friendly thing to do. I’m sure all those guys hate me right about now. I hope that’s the case after a game like this.
“We got to play a hell of a lot harder, make it impossible for those guys to get a sniff — on any team. Any team’s best lines, we got to make sure they don’t get a sniff. We got to be reliable enough that all six of us can play against those top lines. We haven’t been.”
Part of Florida’s problem has been goaltending. Starting netminder Roberto Luongo has been sidelined recently due to a hand injury and will likely be out at least another week. In his place, James Reimer and recently acquired Antti Niemi have allowed 27 goals on 263 shots for a .897 save percentage. It’s never a good sign when you’re forced to claim a struggling journeyman like Niemi off waivers.
No team is going to shut down opponents with sub-90 percent goaltending, but the Panthers’ defense hasn’t done itself many favors, either. They’re 24th in 5-on-5 shots on goal allowed per 60 minutes. The penalty kill has been a total disaster by allowing 86 shots on goal per 60 minutes. Here’s a quick comparison to the rest of the league in that category, with statistics provided by Natural Stat Trick:
There’s more to penalty killing than just shot volume, but that’s an average of nearly three shots on goal allowed per two-minute PK. Combined with their issues in net, it’s been a recipe for disaster.
That puts the pressure on Ekblad, a former No. 1-overall pick with a massive contract, to spur the turnaround. He was disappointing in his third NHL season when many thought he was on the cusp of stardom, and now the Panthers are struggling after further elevating him as their top defenseman. It seems like he’s feeling the heat a bit based on his comments to the media.
However, Ekblad has been very good to begin this season, and that’s a big source of hope. When he’s on the ice, the Panthers’ even strength Corsi is 7.1 percent higher than when he’s off, according to Hockey-Reference. They’re outscoring opponents, 15-8, at 5-on-5. He’s also scoring at a 52-point pace over 82 games after finishing with just 21 in 68 games last season.
The problem has been that Ekblad and partner Keith Yandle can’t play all the time. The second pairing of Michael Matheson and Mark Pysyk has struggled badly. Florida leans heavily on that top four, so their fortunes have swung heavily depending on which pairing is on the ice.
Depth seems like the biggest problem, and it’ll be up to coach Bob Boughner to figure out how to maximize the talent he’s been given. The team could split up Ekblad and Yandle to try to balance the defense a bit, but then it’d risk losing its go-to top pairing. That may be worth trying if Matheson and Pysyk continuing struggling at even strength.
If the Panthers can solve all this, watch out. Their offense behind Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Evgenii Dadonov has been very good so far. Combine that with a strong first pairing and improved goaltending upon Luongo’s return, and Florida could start winning some games.
But that won’t happen when two thirds of the defense is struggling, and Ekblad can’t help there like he can on the penalty kill, which is a problem in itself. To some degree, it won’t be up to Ekblad whether the Panthers turn it around. Players like Matheson, who just signed an eight-year contract extension, will need to play a lot better, too.