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Improved Aaron Ekblad key to Panthers turnaround

Power play, defensive-zone coverage also areas of focus for coach Tom Rowe

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

Tom Rowe's job until Sunday was to give former coach Gerard Gallant the pieces he needed to get the Florida Panthers back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Unsatisfied with how things were going, it's now Rowe's job to coach the team he helped build.

Rowe has a big task ahead of him as Panthers coach for the rest of the season. He replaces Gallant, who was fired Sunday following an 11-10-1 start. 

Rowe will give the Panthers a chance to get back into the playoffs if he can do three specific things in the next 20 games:

1. Fix the power play

The Panthers signed defenseman Keith Yandle to a seven-year contract June 24 with the hope that he would help their power play. 

It hasn't worked. 

The Panthers are 21st on the power play (14.7 percent). They finished 23rd on the power play in each of the past two seasons under Gallant (16.9 percent last season, 16.3 percent in the 2014-15 season). They were 30th at 10.0 percent in 2013-14, when Kevin Dineen and Peter Horachek split the coaching duties.

"We've already had a meeting [Monday] about it," Rowe said. "We're going to look at personnel we have on it. I think the formation is fine, but we need to be moving the puck quicker. We need to be feeding it more. We need to have a stronger net-front presence on the power play. That will be an area we talk with the guys about [Tuesday]."

It hasn't helped matters that the Panthers penalty kill is 19th this season (81.3 percent). Florida has allowed 12 power-play goals and scored 11. It's even in the special teams department because it has scored two shorthanded goals and allowed one.

"Special teams is an area we have to improve," Rowe said.

2. Improve the 5-on-5 defense

Rowe mentioned defensive-zone coverage being a point of emphasis for him. It makes sense since the Panthers are allowing 1.86 goals-against per game at 5-on-5 despite owning 51.51 percent of the even-strength shot attempts. 

Eight teams are allowing more goals per game at 5-on-5 than Florida; two have a better percentage of even-strength shot attempts (Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes).

As much as this comes down to the need for better goaltending (Florida is 21st in even-strength save percentage at .921), Rowe's point of the need for better coverage in the defensive zone is important, which is why he said it's the first area he's going to try to change.

"We're really going to attack our defensive-zone system," Rowe said. "We want to go into more of an area zone-coverage type of system."

By that, Rowe means he wants to see the Panthers attack the puck without getting too spread out. He wants to see them attack it quickly, retrieve it and move it quickly. It will help in limiting chances and shots.

The Panthers have been outshot in nine of their past 12 games.

"We want to be a fast team," Rowe said. "When I say fast it doesn't just mean skating. We want to move the puck quickly. We want to defend quickly. If you have open ice you want the pucks going fast and we want you to take your ice, skate with it and get it to the net. It's really a full evaluation from a pace perspective. We've got to practice faster. We've got to practice harder. And then that's going to carry over into games."

3. Get Aaron Ekblad on track

Rowe didn't specifically address individual players when talking about the defense, but getting Aaron Ekblad out of what has been a season-long funk will do wonders for the Panthers' overall game.

Ekblad has had his moments, but he hasn't looked like the same player he was the past two seasons, when he appeared to benefit from playing with Brian Campbell and getting mentored by Willie Mitchell. Campbell and Mitchell are gone, and Ekblad has struggled to adjust.

He has six points, all goals. His minutes are up across the board, including to 23:05 per game from 21:40 last season, but his production is down. 

Ekblad is minus-7 and is on the ice for 49.63 percent of even-strength shots. The Panthers generate more shots when he's not on the ice relative to when he is on the ice.

Part of the issue is Ekblad has not established the same level of chemistry he had with Campbell last season. Rowe needs to find a regular partner for him, preferably a left-handed shooter like Michael Matheson or Yandle, and let it develop.





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