Jay Bouwmeester was never happy in Florida. And as time ticked on without the talismanic defender signing a new contract, fans became increasingly restless. Media had the smooth-skating Edmonton native linked with virtually all the teams in the Eastern Conference that were above the Panthers in the standings, at one point or another.
He would be traded, wouldn’t he?
It would surely be crazy for the Florida Panthers to keep the man if he so clearly wanted to leave. At the time of the March transfer deadline the noise reached fever pitch. Jay Bouwmeester was the biggest fish in the lake.
He was a catch, however, that would come with a hefty price tag attached.
Florida management made it clear that Jay was an instrumental part of its plans to make the playoffs. The Panthers had not done this since the year 2000 and fans were getting impatient for some much-awaited success, to put it mildly.
How exactly do you replace an ironman defender that regularly will not only eat up a good 28 minutes of ice time, but also play a crucial shut-down role against opposing teams' star forwards?
Not to mention being the defensive lynchpin on the special teams…
Some people will be quick to retort that Jay-Bo is overrated, and perhaps he is, but his importance to the Florida Panthers last season could not be stressed enough. He was the blue-line pivot around which everything else would swivel.
With this in mind, it came as no shock here in South Florida that Jay was not traded. He was simply irreplaceable in the Panthers efforts to reach the postseason. To do without him would demand an extreme makeover of the current defense that would likely spoil that all-important key goal of the organization: the ever illusive playoffs.
Elsewhere, the no-go-for-Bo met with raised eyebrows. Everyone knew the Panthers would lose Bouwmeester for virtually nothing in the summer and most would have expected the club to cash in on their golden g(m)oose. This was the prevailing NHL logic and makes a lot of sense in most cases, but not in this particular one.
The franchise cast its die and hoped for their playoff number to roll in.
It didn’t come.
Bouwmeester returned north of the border to play for Calgary in the end. The Panthers didn’t lose him empty handed, however, and received a third-round pick at the draft and the rights of pending free agent Jordan Leopold. This was nowhere near what the Cats could’ve got for Bo at the trade deadline, but it was something, nonetheless.
And suddenly, life without Bo was not only a reality, but the first step toward retooling the blue-line had in fact been taken…
Jordan Leopold, unlike Jay Bouwmeester, didn’t sign for the club that had traded for him prior to free agency. After the deal was concluded at the entry draft in Montreal, Leopold instead decided to wait and explore his July options.
Nevertheless, he still opted to come to Florida and signed a one-year deal worth $1.75 million. General manager Randy Sexton was quoted as being “pumped” and “ecstatic” to have signed Leopold. And it is easy to see why.
Having played some 335 NHL games at that time, he had tallied no less than 109 points, and been an instrumental part of the Calgary Flames team that made the 2004 Stanley Cup Final. The only apparent downside was the string of injury problems Jordan had experienced during the 2006/07 and 2007/08 seasons.
At the time of the announcement, Randy Sexton emphasized Leopold’s mobility. He made it clear that the team wanted a highly mobile defense for the upcoming season and Jordan fit that role perfectly.
Keith Ballard, being only one of three survivors from the 2008/09 defensive corps, didn’t have too much time to miss his close buddy, Nick Boynton (who left for Anaheim on a free transfer after a highly publicized bust-up with head coach Peter DeBoer at the back end of the campaign).
Leopold was an old college teammate of Keith’s and he was clearly delighted with the new signing, as well.
Ballard wooed the Panthers faithful last season with his no nonsense, hard-hitting style, not to mention his favored hip check, which many a player got to see up close; most notably, Pittsburgh’s Malkin, who never saw what, or who, hit him before he was airborne and became dizzy for a while.
That kind of play had previously been missing within the Florida ranks. The Cats were getting their noses dirty and the fans loved it.
Another fan favorite for his self-sacrificing style of play was Karlis Skrastins. Unfortunately, management wasn’t willing to dish out a two-year deal for the hardy veteran, and so off he went to Dallas.
The other two blueliners to leave during the summer were veterans Jassen Cullimore and Steve Eminger, who, like Boynton, found a new home in Anaheim with the Ducks.
Prior to having traded Bouwmeester, the Florida Panthers had drafted Dmitry Kulikov on day one of the entry draft in Montreal. The Russian defender fell down the pecking order due to question marks surrounding his contract with his Russian KHL club. The Cats happily swooped up the offensively talented Kulikov with their 14th overall pick.
Dmitry was seen as one of a handful of players drafted at Montreal that could make a team directly out of training camp. And he did exactly that with the Panthers.
A New-Look Defense
Florida then managed to get Dmitry Kulikov released from his Russian club and signed him to a three-year entry-level contract, just beating the pending deadline.
He has since played in both games so far and looks every bit as ready for the NHL as you can ask a youngster to be at the tender age of 18. Coach Peter DeBoer has been visibly impressed by the Russian and it looks possible that Dmitry may very well still be around in South Florida after his nine-game tryout expires (after which the Panthers can no longer assign him to his Canadian Junior team).
Like Leopold, Kulikov fits the bill of being a highly mobile and offensive defenseman, as does the Finn Ville Koistinen, who signed a two-year deal with the Cats in the summer.
In fact, Ville is such a speedy and offensively-strong defenseman that he has been playing as a forward on the fourth line. The tactic paid off spectacularly in the European curtain-raiser of the season, when Koistinen scored the match winner versus the Blackhawks in Helsinki; helping the Panthers snatch two opening day points.
He is likely to stay in that position until new signing Dominic Moore joins the team and is then expected to be used as a utility player to plug any holes in the lineup which may be the result of injuries down the line.
He will thus fill the role of Steve Montador from two seasons ago, who, despite being a defenseman, mainly operated as a winger that year.
One player that made his comeback in those opening game and will be ecstatic just to be playing hockey again is Bryan Allen. His 2008/09 season was spoiled by a knee injury after only having played two games for the team.
But now, he looks set to put all that behind him and bolster Florida’s blue-line with his size (6’4", 220 lbs.) and sheer physicality.
On a blue-line filled with defenders of relatively small stature (in the 5’11" to 6’1" range), Allen will play a central role for the Panthers. He will be called upon to be a shutdown defenseman and will see a lot of the Ovechkin’s, Kane’s, and Kovalchuk’s of the league.
Although not being a new signing, he could very well become one of the most important additions to this season’s Florida roster.
Another defender that was added in light of what he can bring to the table in the sense of physicality and puck-blocking was Dennis Seidenberg.
Despite being on the top four with the Carolina Hurricanes last season, and having a breakout season at that, Dennis did not get the contract from the Canes that he sought.
Instead, he took a one-year deal with the Panthers worth $2.25 million. Considering the experience (295 NHL games under his belt) and undoubted qualities that the 28-year-old brings to the Panthers camp, that must be seen as a good deal.
It was also a deal that got the fans excited.
Prior to Seidenberg’s arrival, many had cast doubts over the Panthers blue-line and its apparent lack of size and grit.
Mobility and offensive awareness is great to have in the defensive ranks, but if you are playing most of the time in your own zone, you need someone to muscle the puck off the opposition and lay their bodies down to protect the goal. Dennis does the latter particularly well.
Seidenberg, therefore, can be seen a ready-made replacement for Karlis Skrastins, only with the additional benefit of his obvious offensive capabilities, mirrored in the 30 points he collected last season.
Around the time of the Seidenberg addition, management finally settled on a captain. After having gone all last season without one, former Leaf Bryan McCabe, who is swiftly closing in on his one thousandth game in the NHL, was chosen.
His leadership qualities shone through during the previous campaign as he stepped up on numerous occasions and inspired his teammates to continue to work their socks off in search of that elusive playoff berth.
It was a deserved recognition of what Bryan means to this team, despite perhaps not being as quick as before or as prolific on the power-play.
His leadership role on the team cannot, however, be underestimated.
And so we have the seven current defensemen of the Florida Panthers. Currently learning their trade in the AHL with the Rochester Americans, we have Jason Garrison and former first-rounder Keaton Ellerby.
Expect one or both of these players to be called up at some point during the season if Kulikov is sent back to the juniors or there are injury worries amidst the defensive corps.
Looking at the group of seven defenders currently competing for ice time: Leopold, Ballard, Kulikov, Koistinen, Allen, Seidenberg, and McCabe, how well can they fill the void left by Bouwmeester, Skrastins, Boynton, Eminger, and Cullimore?
A Balancing Act
Well, first off, you don’t replace Jay-Bo. You simply have to work around the problem and have more guys than one step up and take extra minutes, special teams, and opposing stars. No one player can do what Bo did; at least nobody currently on the Panthers' books.
The big difference this season is that the Panthers current blue-liners look considerably more mobile and offensive-minded as a collective than last year’s installment. That, despite being at the top of the league when it comes to goals scored by defensemen that campaign.
Again, Jay Bouwmeester and his individual smooth-skating skills are irreplaceable, but the Panthers have retained two very offensive defensemen in Keith Ballard and Bryan McCabe, whilst also adding Kulikov and Koistinen to join the rush with their hard-shooting and speedy qualities.
Neither Seidenberg nor Leopold are strangers to racking up the points from the blue-line. Skrastins and Cullimore, on the other hand, were mainly strong defensive defensemen.
And there is perhaps the weakness of this year’s Panthers defense. Mobile and offensive-minded as they are, they do seem to lack that extra caliber of grit and physicality that is required to disarm the opposing forwards in the first place.
With the notable exception of Allen, who may yet be vulnerable to recurring injury problems related to his troubled knee, the Cats look a bit on the tame side in their own zone, despite the additions of Leopold and Seidenberg.
In my mind, the risk of this deficiency is that it will put extra pressure on the forwards to work hard defensively in their own zone in order to help out the defensive corps. Who does that leave us to score the all-important goals?
It is not as if the Panthers are blessed with the most skilled forwards the league has to offer and the danger going into this season is that they again will struggle for goals. The lack of physical defensemen could also lead to the Cats struggling on the penalty kill.
Let’s look at the two opening games in Helsinki to illustrate what I’m saying.
In the first game, which was won after a shootout victory versus the Blackhawks, Florida allowed no less than 55 shots on goal. Despite this, the Panthers dominated proceedings in the first period with superior mobility and speed.
In the second period, both teams had spells of domination, as the Hawks started to grind down the Cats.
In the third and in extra time, Chicago set up camp in Florida’s zone, and at times Tomas Vokoun in goal had to withstand a virtual bombardment of pucks.
In the end, David Booth broke out of the defensive zone, sliced his way through the offensive zone, and desperately slapped home the equalizer. With only two minutes left on the clock, his impressive solo effort brought extra time and penalties.
It is possible we will see a similar scenario played out in future Panthers games. Speed and mobility can be countered by physicality and grit. This was clearly displayed in the first game. The best teams of the league will be striving toward having a good balance between these opposites in their defensive corps.
I suggest that the Panthers are still lacking some of that balance for the upcoming campaign.
Filling in the Gaps
In the second game versus the Blackhawks, the Panthers fell victim to an effective Chicago power-play, scoring three out of their four goals in the five-man advantages they had. Or was it an ineffective Florida penalty kill?
One game obviously can’t answer that question, but I will imply that the Cats lack of defensive physicality can hurt them in these man–disadvantages.
On the other hand, having mobile and offensively-skilled, puck-moving defensemen can of course be a great addition to the power-play. But, as of yet, we haven’t seen enough of those to perceive any such observable results.
Much like last season, the Florida Panthers will need to be disciplined and stay out of the box in order to have success.
My personal belief is that they will need another genuinely physical and gritty stay-at-home defenseman of size to balance the blue-line a bit better. Maybe the Florida hierarchy is also aware of this and will consider adding someone of these characteristics if Dmitry Kulikov is sent back to juniors.
While I don’t necessarily want to see Kulikov leave the team, I can’t really see who else it would be if such a move was to be mooted. Yes, Ville Koistinen could be transformed into a makeshift winger permanently, but that would still leave us with six defensemen if Kulikov is retained beyond his initial tryout.
Of course, the season has barely begun. Talk of imbalance and restructuring of the blue-line may very well be premature. I’m sure the coach and GM are willing to see if the likes of Seidenberg, Ballard, and Leopold will suffice in taking some of the load off Bryan Allen’s broad shoulders.
I back that philosophy and the willingness to give Kulikov every chance of proving himself, but if things continue to look frail at the backend, I think something will need to be done around the ten-game mark, if not before.
I truly do hope the players available can step up and fill the gaps, but at the same time we need to be ready to act swiftly if things don’t pan out according to plan.
Filling the boots of Jay-Bo was never going to be easy, but the retooling of Florida’s blue-line has come a long way in filling out the blanks. There is definitely life without Jay-Bo, it will, however, look very different from what we’ve become accustomed to at the Bank Atlantic Center.
It will now, more than ever before, be a question of the combined collective defensive corps; not the individual talent. To work together as a team and fill all the gaps that surface.
In the end, it may be a good thing losing Bo, since Florida can’t currently attract a clutch of star names and thus needs to focus on the team effort and not individuals.
It is in shared responsibilities, striving for collectively coherent excellence, and similarly overcoming adversities along the way, which will be the key for any Panthers success this season.
It is too early to judge, yet I do have my misgivings about the balance of the defense as a whole. But it’s nothing that can’t be rectified with a trade or signing.
Overall, it must be said that general manager Randy Sexton has done well in putting this blue-line together. It won’t be a punching bag by any stretch of the imagination and clearly it possesses a stinging uppercut when breaking forward. Other teams will need to be aware and be ready to put in a strong shift to hold the Cats back.
Coupled with head coach Peter DeBoer’s never-say-die attitude, this could truly be an attractive season to watch for the Panthers and its careworn fans.
There is certain to be a fair share of thrills and spills, and I think a few opposing fans will be surprised of what these southern upstarts can do post-Bo.