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February 23, 2017 | 10:08am ET
Potvin Talks
By Josh Brewster

ANAHEIM, CA -- With Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov in tow after lengthy absences, the resurgent Florida Panthers took their show on the road and rattled off impressive wins in Nashville, San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles and St. Louis, in that order.

Denis Potvin served as the Panthers’ TV color analyst for the first 16 years, returning in 2014 after a stint in Ottawa. The Fourth Period sat down with the Hall of Famer (1991), a four-time Stanley Cup champion and three-time Norris Trophy winner, to discuss the Panthers, what it takes to make an NHL defenseman and more.


The Panthers raised eyebrows with a major shakeup of their defensive ranks last summer.

First, the team dealt Erik Gudbranson to Vancouver for forward prospect and former 1st round pick Jared McCann. Subsequently, they sent picks to the Rangers in exchange for defenseman Keith Yandle, who carries a $6.35M cap hit and was regularly scorched by the New York media. Third, the club shed Dimitry Kulikov’s $4.33M cap hit in exchange for former 1st round pick Mark Pysyk ($1.125M) from Buffalo. Finally, the Panthers snagged Jason Demers ($4.5M) from Dallas.

The season began poorly with the absence of Huberdeau, the ignominious canning of coach Gerard Gallant and a long-term injury to Barkov, all of which culminated in a 16-15-8 record at New Year’s.

Potvin says the primary reason for the team’s resurgence -- the return of Barkov and Huberdeau -- is obvious. What’s not often recognized are the contributions of the players the club got in the deals described above.

“Look at the players the team added in the summer, those guys are the only reason they’re in a playoff spot,” Potvin told TFP. “Yandle, Demers and Pysyk have been the three best defensemen on the team. Around the league, there was a concern about whether they gave up too much in Dmitry Kulikov and a second round pick but the Panthers had Kulikov for seven-and-a-half years. They’d reached their max with Kulikov and there was a cap issue, same as in the case of Gudbranson. All of a sudden you’re giving up guys that would have been earning $9M a year for guys like (2013 first round pick Michael) Matheson and Pysyk who are still at the low end of the salary scale.”

Interim head coach Tom Rowe told the media last week that he’s tagged as a defense-minded coach while his club is labeled an offensive one. He insists that the Panthers work on their two-way game, and of late, he’s gotten results.

“It takes time, you don’t learn it overnight,” said Potvin of Rowe’s defensive emphasis. “There have been a lot of adjustments since Huberdeau and Barkov returned. Jaromir Jagr was playing with Jon Marchessault, everybody’s now playing with multiple linemates and different defense pairings.”

The club has recorded 29 goals by defensemen, including 9 by Demers and 8 from Ekblad.


Potvin reflected on last summer’s deal of Taylor Hall to New Jersey in return for defenseman Adam Larsson, one that has solidified the Oilers’ blueline for years to come. At the moment, the trade is a reminder of the cost of a quality defenseman, especially at the March trade deadline.

“I’ve been on record as saying that deal will be a great one for Edmonton,” Potvin said. “You can look at it like when Viktor Hedman was drafted. (The Islanders asked themselves), should we pick Hedman or (John) Tavares? The need for the Islanders at the time was to get people in the seats and get the love back. So the Islanders had to go for Tavares, who was going to have more of an immediate impact, scoring goals. Then Hedman was going to be an anchor Tampa’s defense for the long term, like Scott Niedermayer or Chris Pronger did in the past, and I think it’s worked out for both teams. You’ve got Larsson, who I think is going to be an all-time tremendous defenseman -- not an offensive one -- and an anchor for a long time.”

John Tortorella is often cited as the source of the adage, “Judge a defenseman after 300 games.”

“The 300 games thing?” laughs Potvin, “He got that from me.”

The Panthers have staked the future of their defense on Aaron Ekblad, who’s been thrust into the role of number one defenseman after two solid seasons that included a Calder Trophy, but is not yet one month removed from his 21st birthday. This season, his minus-18 statistic is being used by some observers as proof positive of Ekblad’s demise. Potvin rejects the notion.

“(Look at) Cam Fowler,” says Potvin, comparing Ekblad to one of that night’s opponents. “He’s had his trouble developing, but now he’s at 470 games. Now he’s become that kind of defenseman we saw in his first year, but he’s had a bit of a lull, and Ekblad is going through that right now. Ekblad had a tremendous first year, playing with veterans. All he had to do was worry about making a cross-ice pass. Now, he’s in charge of moving the puck to center ice, making that first pass, and that is the real talent. I think he’s going to become that defenseman. He will be that important for the Panthers.”

Potvin cites himself as an example of the time it takes to develop a defenseman.

“I was probably never better than when we won our first Stanley Cup,” Potvin says, citing the 1979-80 season as the time he became a complete player. “That was seven years into my career, and I had already won three Norris Trophies.

“When you look at Chris Pronger or Scott Niedermayer (for example), you look at their first three, four or five years, during which time they got better and better. There were years of promise, then there was a drop-off. We all went through that.”


“The big difference of course is I was drafted at 20 years old. I had an extra two years of junior hockey, so I had developed not only emotionally but physically when I got into the NHL. There was a big advantage there.”

“They should go back to a later draft,” Potvin insists. “The NHL is the only league, really, that allows a player to come up at such a young age, and I think it’s detrimental. We’ve seen many young players, some of them in the Florida Panthers organization, that have been hurt by being exposed to this level of hockey at such a young age. The Stephen Weiss’ of the world, and every player that was drafted by the Panthers ended up playing at 18 years old. Even Ed Jovanovski, for example, who came up as such an impact player at 18. You’re full of energy, but the reality starts to set in and other people begin to know your game, and the worst thing is they know how to block your progress. That’s where the great ones separate themselves from the rest, where you can’t block a guy’s progress year after year.”

Burnout is a factor, says Potvin, for defensemen who were pressed into action at too young an age.

“I think when you turn 20 and you’ve already played 200 games in the NHL at a so-so level, and you start to see yourself as a so-so player. So if you’re a top-four defenseman, and everybody’s happy about that, but you should really be a number one or two (defenseman).”

Through the years, Potvin has regularly cited the presence of his brother, defenseman Jean (who played for the Islanders from 1972-78 and 1979-81) for having smoothed out his transition to the big league.


The hockey press has picked up on the notion that dominant San Jose defenseman Brent Burns (27-37-64 in 60GP) should be seriously considered for not only the Norris trophy -- for which he’s perceived as a lock by many -- but for the Hart Trophy as well. The last defenseman to win the Hart was Chris Pronger in 2000.

“We played San Jose in Florida,” says Potvin of Burns. “There was a play at center ice and the puck was loose and it was Burns that got the puck -- at center ice -- and went in and scored a goal and there was nothing our defensemen could do to stop him. Size, speed, all of that, fine, but it was the decision to go after the puck ahead of his forwards that impressed me.”

Potvin also notes that Burns is another example of how long the road to greatness can be for defensemen. Burns has played 857 games in the NHL.

“He’s 31 years old,” notes Potvin of Burns. “When you look at one of the best modern-day defensemen, Nicklas Lidstrom, he didn’t win his first Norris until he was 31. For Burns to come to that level now is tremendous.”


Consider: Potvin played in the age of dynasties, before free agency and salary caps. The Stanley Cup was won by just four different clubs during his fifteen seasons from 1973 to 1988 (Canadiens, Flyers, Islanders and Oilers). His own Islanders, of course, won four in a row.

“It’s a whole different human being that plays the game now,” says Potvin. “They’re living in mansions. We were living around the corner.”

He remembers his neighbors as regular folk.

“You could be a policeman, a fireman, real estate agents. It wasn’t Lady Gaga living next door.” (laughs)


“It was a different era that way, but the game has changed so much,” Potvin offers. “I’ve had the great privilege of talking a lot with (Jaromir) Jagr. He pointed out what I feel is so different: The backside pressure is so different now, we didn’t have that back then. You could go one-on-one against a defensemen, slow down, pick up speed. Now, you’ve got a guy behind you all the time, and the game is more dangerous because of that. We’ve seen hits from forwards coming back, look at Marc Savard, that was a forward coming back. You didn’t have that very much in our day.”

“There was more room for creative hockey,” says Potvin. “The game is less creative today. There’s a lot of work to get out of the defensive zone, clog up the neutral zone and set it up in the offensive zone, chip it in, chip it out. I mean if we did that in our day it would have been a negative.”

Potvin is not optimistic about bringing more improvisation back to the game, and says it’s due to coaches who “have a firm grip on how they want to play the game.”

“(Coaches have) have developed a style of play to limit the amount of scoring. So if you’re talking about increasing scoring in the NHL, why are you not looking at the coaches? Can you limit them from doing certain things?”

Potvin believes that returning to three evenly-spaced zones would help. Currently, the offensive/defensive zones are 64 feet from red line to blue line, with the neutral zone at 50 feet.

“The center ice area? I’d bring it back to 60 feet. If you want to speed up the game, bring it back to where it was, have the three zones. 60, 60 and 60. Ten feet behind the net. So you eliminate the play in the corners and you create many more offensive rushes, and opportunities off the rush. You never see speed to the point where a guy can go one-on-one with a defenseman and beat him (anymore). You just don’t have time.”

Josh Brewster is a Columnist for The Fourth Period and the host of Anaheim Ducks' postgame radio show since 2006. Be sure to follow him on Twitter.




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