The Florida Panthers were one of the most active teams at the NHL Trade Deadline, making significant additions to what is already one of the best rosters in the league. They acquired Claude Giroux from the Philadelphia Flyers to make an already imposing offense even more dangerous, and then added to their defense by trading for Ben Chiarot from the Montreal Canadiens and Robert Hagg from the Buffalo Sabres.
The Giroux addition speaks for itself. He is still a top-line player, and in only giving up Owen Tippett and a future (two years from now) first-round draft pick the cost was surprisingly cheap, even for a rental. Giroux only wanting to play for Florida certainly helped there.
It is the defense changes that are a little more curious.
If this Panthers team has had a weakness this season, its defensive zone coverage might have been at the top of that list. And that was even before Aaron Ekblad went down with an injury. His absence only increased the need for help on the blue line. The question is did they get the right help for the way they play?
The Panthers are an offensive minded, aggressive, fast-paced team that can come at opponents in waves and overwhelm them on the forecheck. They are one of the best offensive teams in the league has seen in decades, and while they do have some muscle and toughness in their lineup, they are constantly on the attack. They will outscore you, and when they are at their absolute best are capable of completely embarrassing opponents.
Chiarot and Hagg do not really fit that style of play, and it is worth wondering if adding players like that to their blue line might have have the potential to hold them back a little. (That does not even get into the question of why the two players, who are very similar, were acquired at wildly different costs; Chiarot for a first, a prospect, and another pick, while Hagg only cost a sixth-rounder).
Chiarot was one of the most talked about defenders leading up to the deadline (and went for one of the highest prices), primarily because he plays a physical game, is regarded as a “stay-at-home” defender that teams like in the playoffs, and because he played a lot of minutes for Montreal on its surprising Stanley Cup Final run a year ago.
From a numbers perspective, neither stands out as an impact player while both of their teams were badly out-chanced, out-shot, and even out-scored when they were on the ice this season. In fairness, both players played for bottom-tier teams that get badly out-chanced, out-shot, and out-scored no matter who is on the ice for them. The Panthers are not only wildly better than both Buffalo and Montreal, they have also had a knack with this current team for getting the most out of pretty much every new addition they bring into the mix. Brandon Montour, for example, has looked like a very different player since joining the Panthers at the deadline a year ago. If anybody can get the most out of these guys, it might be this Panthers team.
But even in the context of those particular teams, they both did worse with Chiarot and Hagg on the ice than they did with other players.
Sometimes the playoffs, and especially an individual playoff series, come down to matchups and one team being able to exploit another team’s weakness.
Last year’s playoff run for Montreal was driven primarily by a superhuman performance by Carey Price in net(not to mention the Canadian division and the one-year playoff format that got Montreal into the playoffs in the first place), as well as a great playoff run from Shea Weber. Chiarot spent a lot of time in the postseason playing alongside Weber during that run. Even so, the Canadiens were badly outscored during Chiarot’s minutes, and especially so when he was away from Weber. This was especially the case during the Stanley Cup Final series against Tampa Bay.
The Lightning outscored Montreal by a 7-2 margin when Chiarot was on the ice and held a commanding shot and chance lead in those minutes, regardless of who his defense partner was. When Chiarot was away from Weber, the Lightning outscored Montreal 6-0 and were even more dominant in the shot and chance category.
Chiarot will be playing with better players in Florida, on a better team, in a better system, and almost certainly with a better coach. Not all of those numbers were 100 percent on any one player. It is a totally different environment and a new year, and all of that needs to be taken into account. But the fact remains that was an individual matchup Tampa Bay badly exploited, as did Vegas in the semifinals to a lesser extent. In total, over the last two rounds against the two elite teams Montreal faced in the playoffs, the Canadiens were outscored 15-6 with Chiarot on the ice and 8-0 when he was on the ice without Weber. That is not ideal. For Florida to get through to the Stanley Cup Final it is going to have to get through teams like Tampa Bay, Toronto, Carolina, Pittsburgh, and/or Washington that have offenses that can exploit individual matchups like that. When almost everything is equal (as is the case with a lot of these Eastern Conference contenders) one little matchup like that can be the difference in a series.
We saw the new-look Panthers for the first time on Thursday night against Montreal (Chiarot’s former team) and the results were very promising. Florida had another four-goal game, Giroux contributed a pair assists, and both Chiarot and Hagg posted fantastic underlying numbers. Definitely a great start, and hopefully for the Panthers a sign of things to come.
The competition, though, is going to get a lot tougher over the next couple of months.
They are still going to be a fierce team to contend with in the East and they were right to go all in with this roster at the trade deadline. When you have a chance to compete for a Stanley Cup, you go for it. But it is still worth asking if Chiarot and Hagg are the right fit for the way this team plays and where it wants to go.