Erik Gudbranson (left) and Willie Mitchell (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
The southern squad has made a host of changes since last season and now boast an intriguing combination of promise and established talent. Will all the good vibes in Florida result in a post-season berth?
Willie Mitchell laughs when he's out in public with Aaron Ekblad and strangers ask if they're brothers. Technically, the soon-to-be 38-year-old veteran could be the rookie's father – but actually he's just his teammate and landlord.
And if the Florida Panthers are going to make the playoffs, both rearguards will play a big role in the team's success.
With top goaltenders Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya both injured, the Cats appeared to be gutter fodder down the stretch, but this has not been so; replacement netminder Dan Ellis has looked pretty good in going 3-1-1 in the past five games and Florida is very much in the Eastern wild card race.
The Cats are not a high-scoring team by any metric, with leading scorer Nick Bjugstad ranking just 91st overall in NHL offense, but they're in the hunt thanks in part to a makeover on the back end: Mitchell came in via free agency and Ekblad was drafted first overall in the summer. Now they live together at Mitchell's house and help drive the team on the ice, where Ekblad has impressed.
“He’s playing 22 minutes a night, he’s playing against top lines and we’re in the mix," Mitchell said. "We wouldn’t be where we are without him. I’m sure I’m biased, but ask peers around the league and I’m pretty sure they’d say he’s rookie of the year; it’s the hardest position to break into in the NHL.”
GM Dale Tallon has assembled a very nice blend of youth and experience on his 'D' corps, with Mitchell joining Brian Campbell on the veteran end of the spectrum and Ekblad skewing closer to young'uns such as Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov.
The team has cut down on shots-against this year, while the penalty kill is markedly better.
“I love the dynamic we have on our back end," Gudbranson said. "We play a hard game and we play simple. Defensively in our own end we’ve been strong and I give a lot of credit to Willie. He has really simplified the defensive zone for us, preaching that we stay calm, composed and communicate. He’s been a huge addition.”
Gudbranson harkened back to the past couple of seasons in Florida, where he says the defensive end was havoc. It's now clear to him why Los Angeles has been so successful and Mitchell (who came from the Kings) has brought that winning attitude to the Panthers: The defensemen have more of a connection with each other on the ice and a better connection with the forwards.
“We work hard and we take things personally," Gudbranson said. "We’re very passionate about keeping pucks out of our zone and out of our net.”
Gudbranson also credited Luongo's play with boosting the level of hockey in Florida, but lately the Panthers have been surviving without their star netminder. If the Cats do make the post-season, they'll have a wealth on experience in the dressing room with Mitchell, Campbell, David Bolland, Shawn Thornton and Jaromir Jagr all winning Stanley Cups, with others such as Luongo making deep runs.
But that youth corps is just as tantalizing. Along with the fresh-faced defenders, the Panthers are led by under-23 forwards Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. It's a cool situation for the old hands.
“That’s part of the reason I went down there," Mitchell said. "It was a great fit for me as far as what I bring to the table – settling down things on the defensive side – but also I wanted these young players to motivate and inspire me. The best thing in team sports for me is to be part of something that is growing.”
And while this squad is still maturing, there's a lot to like. Will it be enough to clinch a seed in the playoffs? That's the acid test for the next month of action.