In preparation for the Vegas Golden Knights entrance into the NHL for the 2017-18 season, the Florida Panthers submitted their list of protected players who would be shielded from the Golden Knights’ expansion draft. The Panthers opted to protect eight total skaters and one goaltender:
Aleksander Barkov (F)
Nick Bjugstad (F)
Jonathan Huberdeau (F)
Vincent Trocheck (F)
Aaron Ekblad (D)
Alex Petrovic (D)
Mark Pysyk (D)
Keith Yandle (D)
James Reimer (G)
With selections set to be announced Wednesday, that leaves the following players available for Vegas to choose:
Graham Black (F)
Tim Bozon (F)
Jaromir Jagr (F)
Jussi Jokinen (F)
Derek MacKenzie (F)
Jonathan Marchessault (F)
Colton Sceviour (F)
Michael Sgarbossa (F)
Reilly Smith (F)
Brody Sutter (F)
Paul Thompson (F)
Shawn Thornton (F)
Thomas Vanek (F)
Jason Demers (D)
Jakub Kindl (D)
Brent Regner (D)
Reece Scarlett (D)
MacKenzie Weegar (D)
Reto Berra (G)
Sam Brittain (G)
Roberto Luongo (G)
It is important to note that all NHL clubs had another option of protecting seven forwards, three defensemen, and one goaltender.
With this league-wide proposition facing the NHL’s clubs, another layer to these potentially franchise-changing decisions are the ways they could have an impact at the American Hockey League level. Bearing in mind that detail, there are three distinct takeaways from the Panthers’ choices.
As one of the NHL teams that chose to protect any eight skaters, the Panthers made it very clear that the defense position is held in high regard, as it rightfully should be. Of their four protected defensemen, only Keith Yandle is north of age 30, while alternate captain Aaron Ekblad is merely 21 years old, a detail easily forgotten as he enters his fourth NHL season this fall. The protection of both Mark Pysyk and Alex Petrovic further emphasizes Florida’s desire to develop their current blue line brigade as well.
Barring expansion draft movement and camp results, the third defense pair in Florida is one that could become an opening for those still in development. At the AHL level, the Springfield Thunderbirds boasted a defense corps that, more nights than not, topped out at age 26 or younger. Captain Brent Regner played in just 28 games due to injury, but was a noticeable anchor to the group, contributing 13 points in that time while being a +8 on the defensive side of the puck.
Due to injuries at the top, the Panthers used the final weeks of the 2016-17 season to grant NHL debuts to a pair of defenders who ate up minutes in Springfield. As a frequent pair on the T-Birds blue line, Ian McCoshen and MacKenzie Weegar flourished. In his rookie season as a pro, McCoshen led all AHL rookie defenders with a +23 rating while contributing 16 points.
With the defensive side of the house protected, Weegar developed into a vaunted offensive threat, scoring an AHL career-high 36 points and representing Springfield at the AHL All-Star Classic along the way.
Each of the T-Birds’ dependable defenders got their first cracks in NHL action in April for three games each. McCoshen even picked up his first NHL point, an assist, in his debut on April 6 against the St. Louis Blues. Weegar made his NHL debut just three nights earlier on April 3 against Montreal.
Despite injuries and a youthful defense, the Thunderbirds still finished as a top-10 defense in the American Hockey League, a feat made even more impressive considering the Atlantic Division boasted the three highest scoring teams in the East.
With a much-needed year of experience added onto a young blue line, the Panthers should be encouraged by the responsible nature of their AHL defense, which should in turn provide some stability to Florida in the event of injuries in the new season.
Almost as a rule of thumb, NHL teams have put a greater emphasis on growing young talent and watching it blossom into a Stanley Cup contender. The Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks each have won Cups with a high degree of youthfulness infused into their lineups, particularly up front.
The Panthers have maintained that view on their own forward lines. None of their protected forwards – Barkov, Bjugstad, Huberdeau, and Trocheck – are over 25 years of age. Each of them already have multiple NHL seasons under their belts.
Similarly, the Panthers’ youth movement has stretched down into the AHL. Not one regular Thunderbirds forward eclipsed age 28. Five players in Springfield played in AHL games before their 21st birthdays, and all five recorded double digit point totals against competition that frequently had multiple years of age experience to its advantage.
By season’s end in Springfield, 35 of the 45 players who had taken the ice were aged 26 or younger. Even in spite of that youth movement, it was the Thunderbirds who came streaking down the home stretch of the season, going 12-2 in their final 14 games at the MassMutual Center.
Few hockey pundits will argue against the adage that nothing replicates game experience, and with such a large group of young players adding to their career resumes a year ago, that plays into Florida’s and Springfield’s hands as both clubs look to find playoff success in 2017-18.
Thunderbirds head coach Geordie Kinnear said from the moment he took on bench boss duties that he would be looking for competitive people. Qualifying prefixes like “super” and “ultra” would be added to the simple phrase “competitive” to evaluate his club’s determination and grit.
However, it is not just at the AHL level where competition breeds success. It can be argued that after the top three forwards and top two defensemen, there are a multitude of positions where tough decisions are going to be made when distributing ice time in Florida. As McCoshen and Weegar proved late last season, success in the heat of inter-squad competition at the AHL level can receive recognition at the NHL level.
Couple that fact with the inevitability of injuries and player movement, and this always-changing landscape does not warrant any player a chance to rest on his laurels. In a system as young as that of the Panthers, where a high standard for work ethic is expected, perhaps no indicator of ability is more important than how players stack up in practice and in important game situations. Expect this to continue being a focal point for the NHL and AHL clubs alike through development and training camps.