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Panthers emphasizing details, efficiency on defense

Coach Boughner preaching same system, structure that worked while assistant with Sharks

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

For two seasons as an assistant with the San Jose Sharks, Florida Panthers coach Bob Boughner got used to seeing the same efficiency from the same group of defensemen on almost a daily basis.

He's banking on the same thing happening with the Panthers.

"There's a lot of upside here," Boughner said.

Boughner, who ran the Sharks defense the past two seasons, became accustomed to watching Brent Burns take chances and score, Marc-Edouard Vlasic dominate at both ends with his elite hockey sense, and Paul Martin, Justin Braun and Brenden Dillon be solid and reliable in all areas.

The Sharks defensemen, with Boughner leading them and goalie Martin Jones backing them up, helped San Jose rank fourth in goals against per game (2.48) in the past two seasons combined. Burns won the Norris Trophy last season. 

"It was because of so many little details," Boughner said. "We worked a lot on angles, on sticks, on gap, communication. When we came back for pucks, the 'D' knew there were rules in certain areas of the ice where that puck was going. The forwards knew where it was going and it allowed them to play fast. 

"I've brought that same kind of system and structure [to Florida]." 

Video: FLA@PIT: Ekblad blisters shot in for 100th NHL point

Aaron Ekblad said he thinks the Panthers can have the same success with Boughner as the Sharks had with him. There might even be a Norris Trophy in his, or someone's future.

"I truly do believe it," Ekblad said.

They just need some time to put it all together.

The Panthers (2-2-0) are tied with the Minnesota Wild for 27th in the League in goals against per game (3.75). It doesn't help that goalies Roberto Luongo and James Reimer have combined for an .888 save percentage.

They are, however, .500 because they're tied for fifth in goals for per game (4.00) with their defensemen contributing four goals and five assists. Ekblad has four points (two goals, two assists).

The Panthers play the Philadelphia Flyers at Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSP, FS-F, NHL.TV).

"We're extremely young, which is good," Ekblad said. "We have the opportunity with [associate coach] Jack Capuano and Bob Boughner to be very good. They're so clear, concise and confident with what they say and the direction they want us to take, how aggressive we want to play."

Boughner said perspective is important when discussing the potential of the Panthers defensemen, who figure to be together for a long time.

"What I think is when you look at a guy like Aaron Ekblad, he's 21 years old, and then you look at where Brent Burns was at 21, playing right wing for Minnesota and scoring 10 goals," Boughner said. "It's a maturation process." 

Ekblad is in his fourth season and the first of an eight-year contract. He's Florida's best chance to have a Norris Trophy winner like Burns. 

Mike Matheson is 23. He signed an eight-year contract on Oct. 9.

"Matheson, that guy skates as good as Erik Karlsson, there's no doubt about it," Ekblad said. "He might even be faster in straight away speed."

"I see Matheson and Ekblad as guys you can build your team around," Boughner said.

Keith Yandle is the veteran of the group at 31 years old. He's in the second of a seven-year contract.

Mark Pysyk is 25 and signed for two more seasons after this one. Alex Petrovic is also 25 and can be a restricted free agent after this season.

Ian McCoshen is 22 and on an entry-level contract. MacKenzie Weeger is 23 and making $675,000 this season, according to

Boughner thinks there's another level for each of them to get to.

"I'm all about being a sponge, so especially someone [Boughner] who has been in that position, who has taught one of the best players in the world at this moment how to do things, giving him the little tricks to succeed as a great player, a Norris Trophy winner, is inspiring for me and I'm sure it's inspiring for other players too," Ekblad said. "It'll be fun to pick his brain, keep being that sponge, listening and learning, doing whatever I can to be the best player I can be."

Video: FLA@TBL: Pysyk scores off rebound to tie game

Again, it's going to take patience because Boughner is trying to get the Panthers to do a 180. 

Last season, especially after Tom Rowe took over as coach for Gerard Gallant on Nov. 27, 2016, the Panthers played more of a sit-back style. They finished 23rd in goals for per game (2.50) and 20th in goals against (2.82).

"I talked to [general manager] Dale [Tallon] about that in my interview process," Boughner said. "On their power play, they didn't have a shot mentality. They overpassed. I think even 5-on-5 too. On the back side, from their own red line in, I think they backed off and gave teams all kinds of time and space." 

Still, Florida got 37 goals from its defensemen; seven teams got more offense from their back end. The League average was 34.4 goals per team from defensemen.

With Boughner emphasizing aggressiveness from the defensemen this season, both in denying entries at the lines and pushing them to join the rush, the offensive production from the back end figures to go up.

"It's not just about being a last line of defense," Yandle said. "He wants us to be active in the offensive zone, joining the rush. With the group that we have, we have the chance to be really good at that."

A chance. Upside. Potential. They're all words about what can be, about the future. 

Video: STL@FLA: McCoshen nets first NHL goal from the point

Boughner believes its bright, that the Panthers defensemen will pick it all up and start doing the same things with the same efficiency daily. 

He'd still be running the Sharks defense if he didn't believe it.

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