As Panthers’ defenseman competition continues, one veteran gets regular time with newcomers

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Jordan McPherson
·3 min read
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At some point, eventually, defenseman Anton Stralman will have a regular partner this season. Maybe.

Florida Panthers coach Joel Quenneville is still sorting things out.

The Panthers feasibly have 10 defensemen who can warrant playing time and only one spot up for grabs among their three defensive pairings.

Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar are the top pairing. Radko Gudas and Keith Yandle have been the third pairing.

Stralman, the 34-year-old in his second season of a three-year deal with the Panthers, has been a constant as part of Florida’s second pairing at right defense. Who he is paired with on any given day has been anything but steady.

He worked with Gustav Forsling in the Panthers’ first game of the season against the Chicago Blackhawks on Jan. 17, a 5-2 win. He was with Riley Stillman, his regular partner for the bulk of the 2019-2020 season, in Tuesday’s 5-4 overtime win. During practice, he’s taken reps with Markus Nutivaara, Gudas and Yandle as well as the occasional shift with Weegar as part of a penalty kill unit. Noah Juulsen is also anticipated to eventually get playing time.

The carousel will likely continue. Pairings will come and go and come back around.

And Stralman is fine with that.

“We definitely have a lot of competition for spots,” Stralman said. “I think that’s healthy for the group, especially for where we want to get to as a hockey team. We want to be a better team. We want to be out there in the playoffs making runs and all those things. You’ve got to have competition for spots and I think it helps our group. We’ll see what’s gonna happen throughout the season.”

As of right now, Stralman figures heavily in their plans. His 21:04 of ice time per game last season was the second most on the team behind Ekblad (22:59) and nearly a full minute more than the next closest teammate (Weegar, at 20:07). His 19 points last season (four goals, 15 assists) were the third-most among returning defensemen, behind only Yandle (45) and Ekblad (41).

Stralman is also getting early looks on the power play, working with the Panthers’ second unit that includes Alex Wennberg, Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe and Frank Vatrano.

“It’s been a while,” Stralman said, “but it’s fun. ... For me as a player, it helps me in the five-on-five game a little bit, too. You get to feel the puck a little bit more. You get to make plays and just kind of build your confidence a little bit.”

Stralman is also playing the role of confidence builder with his ever-rotating defense partners.

Outside of his one day practicing with Yandle and one day with Gudas, Stralman’s three regular defenseman partners are on the younger side and just getting into their NHL careers. Nutivaara is the most experienced of the bunch, 26 years old with 244 NHL games of experience. Forsling is 23 and has played in 123 games. Stillman, who has since been relegated to the AHL Syracuse Crunch, is 22 and has played in just 36 NHL games. Quenneville has rotated the trio — and will likely incorporate 23-year-old Juulsen into that mix as well — to see who makes the best fit and who is most ready to make the jump to consistent playing time.

“We want to play a possession game. When we get it, we want to keep it,” Stralman said. “It’s not necessarily going in and hitting everybody and being tough. It’s being quick. I think we have a team that’s built for playing a speed game and controlling our game with the speed. That’s how I want to get it. I think we did a good job. It’s still early in the season. There’s many, many things to improve on. But from the first 120 minutes, I’m fairly happy with most parts of the way we played. They’re good building blocks.”

OddsMoney LinePoint SpreadTotal Points
Florida
-129-1.5O 5.5
Columbus
+110+1.5U 5.5