How will the Panthers replace Weegar’s big minutes? By minting another star, they hope

David Santiago/dsantiago@miamiherald.com
·4 min read

MacKenzie Weegar, simply put, was never supposed to become a star. The defenseman was a seventh-round pick in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft and then spent three years in the minors, including a 21-game stint in the lowest-level ECHL, before the Florida Panthers finally gave him a shot.

Eventually, he blossomed into a legitimate star — he finished eighth in voting for the James Norris Memorial Trophy in 2021 and 14th last season — and rose his profile enough to become one of the centerpieces of the Panthers’ blockbuster trade for Matthew Tkachuk in July.

Although Jonathan Huberdeau was the bigger name to leave Florida in the deal, the Panthers can essentially make a one-for-one swap of Huberdeau for Tkachuk in their lineup. Those 23-plus minutes Weegar played every night won’t be as easy to replace.

“It’s up to everyone to step up a little bit,” Gustav Forsling said, “so it’s open.”

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In the first few days of training camp at the Florida Panthers IceDen, Florida has looked to Forsling. The 26-year-old defenseman has taken a similarly unlikely path to Broward County — he was a fifth-round pick by the Vancouver Canucks in the 2014 NHL Entry Draft and is already with his fourth NHL organization, joining the Panthers right before the start of the 2020-21 NHL season when they claimed him off waivers — and spent the first two preseason practices in Coral Springs on Thursday and Friday paired with star defenseman Aaron Ekblad.

It’s early, but Forsling was Florida’s third best defenseman last year and its best hope at finding another late-blooming star to play on its top defensive pairing.

“Forsy’s a fantastic player,” Ekblad said Wednesday, on the eve of camp. “I hope I get a chance to play with him.”

Like Weegar blossomed when given an expanded opportunity following Ekblad’s seson-ending injury in 2021, Forsling did, too. He wound up paired with Weegar for the end of the 2020-21 season and they formed one of the best tandems in the league during their brief time together. They reunited again last year, when Ekblad missed the end of the regular season with another injury, and did more of the same.

After recording just 27 points in his carer before joining the Panthers, Forsling posted 17 two years ago and exploded for 37 — 10 goals and 27 assists — last year, while Florida outshot opponents by 77 when he was on the ice for 5-on-5 action, placing him in the top 10 in shots for percentage among defensemen to log at least 1,000 minutes of time on ice.

As importantly, it’s easy to understand why he’s productive. His “speed is top tier in the league,” Ekblad said, and the sport is shifting to a place where a skill like this, even for a defenseman, is most important.

“He’s as good as any other skater out there. He knows his game, but the National Hockey League has moved more to those kind of games — if you can skate and you’re smart, and he is both,” new coach Paul Maurice said. “He’s a guy who’s figured out what he’s great at and employs it every time he goes on the ice.”

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Former coach Joel Quenneville — and former interim coach Andrew Brunette — both empowered him to play to his strengths in the high-flying, high-scoring system he implemented for the Panthers. For the last two years, Florida placed a primacy on getting out in transition and then flooding the offensive zone, with defensemen aggressively joining the attack, to maintain long possessions. It played to Forsling’s strengths and excused any weaknesses he had playing a tighter game in the defensive zone.

Maurice will change things—he has said as much since the day the Panthers hired him in June. He also, however, insists he’ll keep doing much of what Florida did best when Quenneville and Brunette were in charge, and Forsling has the traits to excel in a specific role and is still young enough to keep ironing out some of his flaws.

Ever since they hired Bill Zito as general manager back in 2020, the Panthers have built an identity around reclamation projects — forwards Sam Bennett, Anthony Duclair, Sam Reinhart and Carter Verhaeghe have all had career years since coming to South Florida, too — and Forsling is one of the most surprising ones.

“It’s a cool experience, to be honest,” he admitted, reflecting on the unlikely jump from unknown to top-pairing contender for one of the best teams in the league. “I’m humble. I’m working hard every day to be here.”