By Dave Joseph for floridapanthers.com
|Defensemen Karlis Skrastins (left, 4 goals) and Bryan McCabe (right, 10 goals) have helped the Panthers have the highest scoring from the blueline in the league. (Getty Images)
SUNRISE – It was sometime last year, after the Panthers had played their final game of the 2007-08 season and before the NHL Entry Draft, that GM Jacques Martin drew up a plan for the off-season.
At the top of his list? Improve the defense.
Man, did he improve the defense.
When the Panthers play Saturday evening against Southeast Division-rival Washington at the Verizon Center, they’ll do so leading the league in goals by their defense.
After their blue line chipped in with a total of 34 goals all of last season, the Panthers defense leads the league with 36 goals in just 51 games. The latest two came in Thursday’s 3-2 victory over the Islanders off the sticks of Jay Bouwmeester and Karlis Skrastins.
Behind the Panthers in goals from the blue line? The league’s top-ranked team, the Bruins, have 34 goals from their defense while Nashville has 29. At the Panthers current pace, they’ll break the franchise record of 43 goals in a single-season by defensemen set in 1995-96.
The Panther blue line was renovated over the off-season when Martin acquired Bryan McCabe from the Maple Leafs and traded for Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton at the Draft in exchange for Olli Jokinen. When Bryan Allen suffered a season-ended knee injury, Martin dialed up Jassen Cullimore to rejoin the team.
“We knew with the loss of Jokinen, and having been one of the lowest scoring teams in the league last year with Jokinen in the lineup, we were going to have to create goals from somewhere,” said Panther coach Peter DeBoer. “Obviously, the place to look was our defense with the guys we brought in. From day one of training camp we wanted to get them involved in the offense. We wanted to get them up ice and have some freedom to get involved, and it’s turned out better than we ever expected.”
The numbers are impressive.
Jay Bouwmeester, now in his sixth NHL season, has 12 goals, seven coming on the power play. McCabe, a Norris Trophy candidate while in Toronto, has 10 goals, five on the power play. Ballard, Boynton and Skrastins each have four goals and Cullimore and Noah Welch have added one each.
Martin said what he tried to accomplish was the right pairings.
“We wanted to be able to have an offensive defenseman play with a more stay-at-home, physical presence,” he said. “Whether it’s Bo with Skrastins, Ballard and Boynton, or McCabe and, initially Allen, and now Cullimore, each pair has a guy with good feet, good quickness, somebody who can move the puck and support the attack with some offensive ability. But we still want Skrastins and Cully and Boynton to be part of the attack, too.”
Part of the reason it’s worked so well is because the blue line is full of experience. McCabe has played 958 regular-season games. Cullimore 745, Skrastins 648, Boynton 483, Bouwmeester 383 and Ballard 289.
“There’s a lot of man-games of experience back there with those six guys,” DeBoer said. “They’ve played a lot of hockey. Composure is a word I like to use with them. They don’t seem to get rattled. They know when to go and when not to go. They’re not doing it to the detriment of their defensive game. From a coaching perspective, that’s the toughest thing to teach, and those guys already know that.”
Not only has the defense scored goals, but the defensive side of their game has been solid, allowing the Panthers to spend less time in their own zone and more in the offensive zone.
“One of the first things you notice when you play good teams, whether it’s Detroit or San Jose, is teams can’t get a forecheck going against them,” said forward Gregory Campbell. “The defense is back there so quickly and it’s one pass and they zip it out of the zone. You really appreciate that when you play good teams, and this year when teams come into (BankAtlantic Center) or play us they have respect for our defense. They also jump up and it causes a lot of problems for forwards tracking back and guys you have to pick up late.”
McCabe said it took some time for the Panthers to get acquainted with the new coaches, new system and with each other. But things have been smooth ever since.
Bouwmeester, whose goal Thursday was the 50th of his Panther career, said everyone has been part of the team’s success.
“Everyone has to contribute,” Bouwmeester said. “For a guy like Skrastins to score a goal - he does so much defensively and doesn’t get a whole lot of credit for what he does – that’s great. Things are just going good.”