February 23, 2017 | 10:08am ET
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
“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.
ABOUT EKBLAD AND DEVELOPING D-MEN
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
“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
“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
“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
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.
BRENT BURNS FOR THE HART AND NORRIS?
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
“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
PRE-FREE AGENCY/SALARY CAP
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
“It’s a whole different human being that plays the game now,” says
Potvin. “They’re living in mansions. We were living around the
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
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.