Expert Intelligence: NHL oracle on the Florida Panthers' unique threat to Edmonton Oilers

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A handful of NHL commentators rise above the rest when it comes to providing insight into the game, with former players like Kevin Bieksa, Jason Strudwick, Brian Lawton, Mike Johnston and Ray Ferraro at the top of the pyramid, and Luke Gazdic, Henrik Lundqvist and Anson Carter coming on strong.

Edmonton Oilers fans are lucky that Ferraro, who has been the best analyst for more than a decade, has been keeping a close eye on the Eastern Conference in the 2024 playoffs and has plenty of insight into the strengths of the powerful Florida Panthers.

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Ferraro shared some of what he’s come to think about the Panthers on his Ray & Dregs podcast, with TSN reporter Darren Dreger.

Here are some of the highlights, first Ferraro talking about the core identity of this Panthers team: “If you’re having a stick-handling contest, the top end of the Oilers roster will dust these guys. But they’re very talented player: (Aleksander) Barkov, (Carter) Verhaeghe, (Sam) Reinhart, (Matthew) Tkachuk, they’re all handsy players. But there is a grind, a mentality to their team that I think will push the Oilers… They (Florida) want to be aggressive. They have this mantra that they talk about: ‘Stay up! Stay in!’ ”

On the danger of Florida’s aggressive play leading to penalties against the Oilers: “They want to press at the opposite blue line, they want to keep the gaps tight, but if you take a few penalties then what? Do you get a little tentative? … The Panthers showed exceptional discipline against the Rangers. They were only short-handed 16 times in that series and they gave up one power play goal. If they are short-handed 16 times, if you just look at that stats, that’s five goals that the Oilers score, because their power play is 37 per cent.”

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On Florida’s defence: “They are exceptional defending team. They just don’t give you much room. They do a lot of defending in the other end. And that’s what really kind of unique about them. They forecheck, and their aggressiveness, is in the other end. So they don’t spend time, a lot of it, in their zone.”

On strength of Florida’s top d-man pairing of Gustav Forsling and Aaron Ekblad: “Florida played Tampa, which is Nikita Kucherov, Boston, which is David Pastrnak, and the Rangers with Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Artemi Panarin. Against Forsling and Ekblad, how many 5-on-5 goals did those five players get? Zero. Zero! Like how does that even happen? So one thing (Florida coach) Paul Maurice talks about, and I think it goes along with this painting of Florida Panthers, as much as they can, this is Maurice’s words, ‘We don’t change the way we defend.’ Whether it’s Pastrnak or Kucherov or Kreider, they’re all different players but they don’t generally change their structure of how they defend.”

On Florida’s physical play: “I do think it will be a factor because that is how Florida plays. They’re not going to change. They’re not going to all of a sudden become the ’83 Oilers. You can’t be what you’re not. They’re built to play a certain way. They’re built to go straight ahead, to chip pucks behind the defence, to go ahead and get the body on the defence. And part of that is, if they can back the Oilers off with that physical play, then they’re going to get plays across the front of the net — and that’s a problem. So for the Oilers, their defence and defending, and how they help Skinner, is how to try to keep the puck isolated on one side of the ice. If it starts going side-to-side, like right around the front of the net, that’s going to be a problem.”

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On stopping McDavid: “I think the one thing against McDavid that everybody tries to do and it’s really hard to do, as much as you can get somebody right up in his first stride to make him have to adjust, that maybe you slow him down just enough that the next wave can get there. Because as soon as he turns the corner, everybody is in full retreat.”

If Florida has its way, it will play Aleksander Barkov’s line against McDavid and Sam Bennett’s line against Leon Draisaitl, Ferraro said.

On Florida attacking Stu Skinner. “For the second series, he goes into the series as the second best goalie in the series. And in the last series it doesn’t matter… Look at how many teams over the last four, five, six years have won with goaltending that you wouldn’t have thought could win. Aiden Hill was the third goalie for Vegas. And then they won the Stanley Cup with him. When (Edmonton) was stumbling around at the start of the year, part of the reason was that he and Jack Campbell couldn’t stop a beachball. They were awful. And they sent Campbell down and basically said, ‘This is your net. There is no more help coming.’ And he responded. Had a really good year. A really lousy start to the playoffs. And has been terrific when he’s had to be of late. They don’t win Game 6 without him. I do think part of the scouting report on him will be side-to-side plays are an issue for him. He can lose the net a little bit, and anything from behind the net to the front is a challenge. Because he’ll lose the puck. That’ll be up to Florida to try to attack from there. Because if he’s square on (to the shot) the guy is a monster. And he covers a lot of the net.”

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My take

1. The more I hear about Florida, the more I think they’re a team with the perfect attributes to defeat the Edmonton Oilers. That doesn’t mean I’m not picking the Oilers to win. I am. I have them winning in six. I still hold to notion that the only team that can beat the talented Oilers team is the Oilers themselves. If Edmonton defends like it can, if it checks like it can, and if Skinner plays like he can in net, Edmonton’s talent is second to none, even better than the Colorado Avalanche, and better than Florida.

But, still, Florida presents a perfectly poisonous opponent due to its unique talents. Edmonton has always had trouble with physical forechecking teams. That’s how to beat Edmonton. Get on them and their weaker puck movers in the Edmonton zone, then move the puck fast to the net, hoping Edmonton’s forwards will be cheating for offence. It’s a tried, test and successful formula to beat the Oilers. Or, at least, it has been.

2. I’d already been worrying about Skinner’s struggles with passes coming out from behind the net, and shots coming from odd angles. Now Ferraro raises the asme issue. Skinner does indeed struggle with this aspect of attacking. In an otherwise flawless Game 6 performance, he helped caused a goal against by flopping and failing on a puck passed out from behind the net, and he lost track of another pass from behind the net that Matt Duchene only just failed to deposit in the Edmonton goal, as Skinner rushed across the crease to make up for his grave mistake in reading the play.

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Florida is a master at winning pucks behind the net and taking them out fast to get deadly shots. This will test the Oilers defence mightily. Will the Oilers get caught with two d-men behind the net, something that has plagued Edmolnton teams in recent years. Will they get caught puck-watching that Florida player emerging from the corner or from behind the net and forget to cover off the real threat, the danger man, the unseen attacker streaking from the high slot area into scoring position? They have made this mistake repeatedly, and it’s some of the Oil’s best players who repeatedly make this error.

That said, Edmonton has been far better in the playoffs covering off the danger man and also better at keeping its own defenders in the slot, as opposed to over-loading in along the boards, but this remains an iffy area for the Oilers. They can do it, they can get it right, but will they?

3. I expect the Oilers will make some line-up changes, namely going with a heavy hockey second line again of Leon Draisaitl, Evander Kane and Dylan Holloway. Draisaitl and Kane can have lapses on defence, but they’re also demonstrated this playoff season that they can be defensive slot monsters, covering off the danger man and winning slot battles with positioning and heavy defensive sticks. It’s likely worth the risk to go with this line, due to the necessity of Edmonton beating fire with fire, of forechecking the Florida defence into mistakes, as opposed to letting Florida do that to Edmonton’s defence.

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4. The fourth line would be rugged Sam Carrick with defensive stalwarts, Mattias Janmark and Connor Brown, and the top line unchanged. As for the third line, how about Ryan McLeod, Adam Henrique and Warren Foegele or Derek Ryan? Corey Perry was a non-factor in Game 6 against Dallas. He may be needed at some point, but Foegele and Ryan are better bets to play strong and fast two-way hockey in Game 1, not to mention Ryan being a key penalty killer.

5. As for defence, to beat that ferocious forecheck, which the Oilers have been susceptible to for years, why not go with the puck-moving units that did well against Dallas in Games 5 and 6?

Darnell Nurse struggles to move the puck when he’s paired with less adept passers like Cody Ceci and Vincent Desharnais. He’ll need to be paired up with fast-footed, puck-moving Brett Kulak. On the third pairing, I don’t think the Oilers would have beat Dallas if Philip Broberg had not done well replacing Desharnais. Desharnais has struggled to move the puck, and I doubt that will get any better with Florida’s wolf pack forwards after him. But if Broberg can keep his composure, he’s got the agility and passing ability to defuse trouble before it gets to him. I’d like to see him and Ceci get the start in Game 1 on the third pairing.

Make sense? How do you see it?

At the Cult of Hockey

McCURDY: Road to the Stanley Cup paved with golden special teams

STAPLES: Evander Kane is playing and that’s crucial for the Oilers against Florida

STAPLES: ‘Leave the guy alone’: Outrage from hockey world after ‘cringey’ fan encounter with Connor McDavid

STAPLES: “Containing Connor McDavid is possible”: P.K. Subban still has his doubt about the Edmonton Oilers

STAPLES: Can Tkachuk’s Florida Panthers disintegrate the Edmonton Oilers like Oilers did to Tkachuk’s Calgary Flames?

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