Hurricanes & Panthers Highlight The Value of Defensive Forwards

Goals were up this season and there has been a clear shift in recent years emphasizing speed and skill at all positions. Heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the teams that had potent offenses looked poised to make deep playoff runs and compete for the Cup.

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In the second round, the Carolina Hurricanes blanked the New Jersey Devils’ offense to help win the series in five games while the Florida Panthers eliminated the Toronto Maple Leafs’ offense to win their series in five games. In a league dominated by offense, the Hurricanes and Panthers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final and did so with their defense.

2023 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Round 3 Florida Panthers Carolina Hurricanes
Florida Panthers Carolina Hurricanes (The Hockey Writers)

The Eastern Conference Final between the Hurricanes and Panthers highlights a lot of things in the league. Small markets will be on the biggest stage, an expansion franchise and a team that relocated are facing one another, and players that are often overlooked will be in the spotlight. One thing that will be hard to ignore is the value of the defensive forward. From centers that control the middle of the ice to wingers that dominate on the boards, both the Hurricanes and the Panthers have skaters that can control a game defensively and blank even the best offenses in the league.

Tkachuk’s All-Around Value

When Matthew Tkachuk was acquired in the 2022 offseason, the move was considered a high-risk acquisition. The Panthers traded away Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar, an elite scorer and arguably their best defenseman, to acquire one player, albeit an elite one. However, the acquisition of Tkachuk was made with a playoff run in mind. The Panthers needed an elite player to put them over the top and general manager (GM) Bill Zito saw the move as a necessary one.

Matthew Tkachuk Florida Panthers
Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)

Tkachuk has been remarkable in all facets of the game. He scored 40 goals and a team-high 69 assists while contributing 2.5 defensive point shares which led the forward unit this year. In the playoffs, he’s been on another level, scoring five goals and 11 assists to help the Panthers upset the Boston Bruins in the first round and the Maple Leafs in the second round.

Along with finding the back of the net and creating scoring chances, Tkachuk has been a great defensive forward. He plays against the opposing team’s top line and creates turnovers in all three zones as well as wins possession along the boards. Additionally, he can win physical battles and impose his will on smaller skaters with his checking ability, and as a power forward, he slows the games down, a direct contrast in a game that is dominated by speed.

Matthew Tkachuk Florida Panthers
Matthew Tkachuk, Florida Panthers (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The power forward is a dying breed in the NHL. Front offices are valuing speed and skill at the forward position and looking for puck handlers that can create instant scoring chances. Players aren’t being developed as power forwards but instead to emulate Connor McDavid, Jack Hughes, David Pastrnak, and the other elite scorers in the game. As a result, when a rare star joins the NHL as a bigger-bodied, powerful presence, they are all the more valuable. Tkachuk is that type of player and he’s given the Panthers a distinct advantage in the playoffs.

Jordan Staal Eliminates Opposing Top Lines

When the Hurricanes faced the New York Islanders in the first round, they limited the top line of Anders Lee, Mathew Barzal, and Bo Horvat to only four goals and one assist in the six-game series. Jordan Staal centered the line that went up against them and it paid off as he stepped up against Barzal, who is one of the faster skaters in the league and made him and the entire line look hapless. Likewise, the Devils had one of the best offenses in the league led by Hughes and his dynamic playmaking ability. Staal lined up against the Hughes line and limited it to only six goals and eight assists in the five-game series.

Staal’s ability to control the center of the ice and particularly step up in the neutral zone allows him to limit the fast skaters on the opposing teams. His disciplined yet aggressive style allows him to create turnovers but also prevents easy scoring chances, as he knows when to forecheck and when to skate back into position. Staal also adds a hard-hitting presence to a team that otherwise doesn’t have one. This season, he led the Hurricanes with 155 hits and his physicality often makes skilled forwards on the opposing teams uncomfortable when he is on the ice.

Jordan Staal Carolina Hurricanes
Jordan Staal, Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Staal is 34 years old but has aged gracefully and found a role on a Cup-contending team. While his offensive skills have declined, his contributions defensively have made him a valuable part of the Hurricanes roster. The team has a great defensive unit and skill in the top six to make the offense elite but having a bottom-six center who can lead a defensive-minded line has been invaluable. Staal has taken on that role to make the Hurricanes the team to beat in the Eastern Conference.

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In a league that values skill, Staal is another reminder that a defensive center goes a long way. Nazem Kadri played a big role defensively on the Colorado Avalanche when they won the Stanley Cup in 2022. Phillip Danualt was a remarkable defensive center on the Montreal Canadiens in 2020-21, helping them make a deep playoff run and reach the Stanley Cup Final. Patrice Bergeron, who is a perennial Selke Trophy winner, has given the Bruins unprecedented value with his defensive abilities. Staal isn’t centering a top-six line but in a league where skill is at an all-time high, the Hurricanes are reaping the rewards of having a center that can go up against skilled skaters and eliminate them.

Barkov’s Underappreciated Defensive Value

Aleksander Barkov is known for being a force in the offensive zone. He’s scored 20 goals or more in each of his last eight seasons and has 243 goals and 388 assists in his career. However, what makes a difference in Barkov’s play is his defensive skillset, especially since he plays a top-six role, making him one of the best two-way players in the league.

In 2020-21, Barkov finally received the recognition he deserved as he won the Selke Trophy. What has stood out defensively has been his speed and instincts. He can close in on skaters with the puck and eliminate scoring on the rush as well as force turnovers with a strong backcheck. Additionally, his speed allows the Panthers to turn defense into instant offense as he can steal the puck and skate up the ice, catching the opponent off guard and out of position.

Aleksander Barkov Florida Panthers
Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

The Panthers have a team built to win both offensively and defensively, especially on their top lines. After they were swept in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning last year, they entered this season with a playoff run in mind. One of the changes was to add a greater emphasis on defense at the forward position and Barkov has been instrumental in that transition.

Aho & Necas Showing Versatility

The Hurricanes’ playoff run has shown that Sebastian Aho and Martin Necas are not only stars but can defeat an opponent in multiple ways. Both skaters are excellent passers and can create scoring opportunities but also have the instincts and shooting ability to find the back of the net themselves. Against the Islanders and the Devils, they adapted to help carry the Hurricanes to the Eastern Conference Final. Aho in particular has emerged as a star in this playoff run, making the broader NHL fanbase take notice, as he has led the offense against two great defenses, scoring five goals and five assists to lead the top line.

Sebastian Aho Carolina Hurricanes
Sebastian Aho, Carolina Hurricanes (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Aho and Necas have made their mark offensively but their versatility has also been impactful on the defensive end. They’ve both gotten into shooting lanes and have been willing to block shots, setting an example that the rest of the forward unit has followed. The two skaters have also used their great defensive play to set up the offense, specifically, the odd-man rush scoring chances in which Aho and Necas thrive as they have space to operate with.

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Along with the defensive skills comes an underappreciated value of both Aho and Necas in their ability to gain and maintain possession of the puck. The rest of the league is focusing on creating a surplus of scoring chances and aggressively attacking opponents but the Hurricanes are a possession-based team. With Aho and Necas controlling the puck, they are playing the best defense possible by default and it’s made the Hurricanes look like the best defensive team in the NHL.

Hurricanes & Panthers Match Up Well Against Eachother

The Eastern Conference Final is a matchup between two teams that have versatility and can win in a multitude of ways. There could be multiple high-scoring games where the offenses take over but similarly, this series could become a defensive battle. Likewise, the Hurricanes and Panthers have the players that can make this a physical, hard-hitting, chippy series but also one based on speed and skill.

What will make the difference in this series is which team can find a favorable matchup and take advantage. The Hurricanes have a defensive unit that can open up the offense, led by Brent Burns who has two goals and six assists including goals in the 6-1 Game 4 win over the Devils and the 3-2 Game 5 victory. The Panthers have goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky playing at a high level at the right time and he looks poised to carry the team to the Cup.

In the end, the Eastern Conference Final looks like it will be a fun, entertaining, and competitive series. The Hurricanes and Panthers have all the pieces in place to win the Stanley Cup and both teams are only eight wins away from achieving that goal.