Unlike the Florida Panthers’ goaltenders, very few Cats defensemen have captured league-wide attention.
Until Brian Campbell won the Lady Byng Trophy as the NHL’s most gentlemanly player in 2011-12, no Panthers defenseman had received an award. Only four blueliners have been selected to represent Florida at the All-Star Game.
The league’s best defensemen are often synonymous with scoring points. All too often, a defender’s ability to play in his own zone is overlooked. When the two roles are mixed, how do you measure a defenseman’s contribution? Offensively? Defensively? Consistency? Leadership?
We considered a mix of those qualities when determining the best Panthers defensemen out of the 99 who have suited up for Florida over the past 20 years.
Based on their performance as Panthers, we count down Florida’s top 5 defensemen of all-time:
5. BRIAN CAMPBELL
We’re hesitant to include players currently with the Panthers since future success is unpredictable. Campbell has shown that over his last 82 games with Florida his production has tailed off.
But through two-and-a-half seasons, Campbell has been nothing short of a constant on the Panthers’ blue line. His body of work already exceeds the efforts of players who have come and gone.
Start with the fact he has yet to miss a game since being traded to Florida. The defenseman has played in 178 consecutive contests, all the while averaging no less than 26 minutes per game during that stretch.
During his first season with Florida, Campbell shattered personal bests in assists (49) and points (53). He led the league in total and average ice time in 2011-12.
As previously mentioned, he became the first Panther to capture an award, and represented Florida at the 2011 All-Star Game. He’s served as a team’s alternate captain since joining the Cats.
4. ED JOVANOVSKI
Jovanovski makes the cut based on his first stint with the Panthers.
Florida’s first selection, first overall, in the 1994 Entry Draft, Jovanovski had an impactful 1995-96 rookie season to say the least.
The current Panthers captain still holds the team records for goals (10), points (21) and penalty minutes (137) by a rookie defenseman. But numbers aside, Jovanovski became known for his punishing hits. Ask former Philadelphia Flyers captain Eric Lindros, who found himself being smacked around by the then-19-year-old during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
In his first four seasons in Florida, Jovanovski hit the 20-point plateau three times.
As several current and former Panthers executives told us last season, the defenseman was the key to making the Pavel Bure trade happen. Florida ended up with player who would become two-time, 50-goal scorer (a total of three goals shy of being a two-time 60-goal scorer) and Hall of Famer in return.
Bill Torrey may have put it best by saying Florida had to give something valuable to get something valuable, and Jovanovski it was.
The defenseman signed with Florida as a free agent in the summer of 2011 and was named captain at the start of the 2012-13 season.
3. JAY BOUWMEESTER
Bouwmeester may be the best offensive talent to have stood on Florida’s blueline.
Drafted third overall by the Panthers in 2002, Bouwmeester proved to be a workhorse, appearing in a full slate of 82 games in five of his six seasons, four of them consecutive, with the Panthers.
Following the 2005 NHL lockout, Bouwmeester blossomed into the offensive star many expected him to become. He posted three 40-point and two 15-goal campaigns.
Bouwmeester is one of just four Panthers defensemen to represent the franchise at the All-Star Game, and he received the nod in 2007 and 2009.
One knock against the defenseman was his lack of desire to get physical. Although he logged countless minutes against team’s top opposing lines, his reluctance to play the body often showed on the scoresheet. He registered a career plus-minus of minus-27 over six seasons.
Bouwmeester, unfortunately, got stuck playing for some pretty bad Panthers squads, which left him hesitant to remain in Florida. When offered a long-term deal as a restricted free agent, he declined. After playing out a one-year deal in 2008-09, a season in which Florida missed the playoffs by the slimmest of margins, his negotiating rights were traded to the Calgary Flames on draft day in 2009.
He finished his career second only to Robert Svehla in a number of offensive categories among the franchise’s defenseman, including goals (53), assists (150) and points (203).
2. ROBERT SVEHLA
Coming off two seasons in which former coach Roger Neilson preached stiff defense, the emergence of Svehla under then-coach Doug MacLean was a welcome sight.
Florida acquired Svhela with defenseman Magnus Svensson from the Calgary Flames in September 1994 for a pair of mid-round draft choices. He appeared in just five games during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, but it was the following campaign in which Florida realized it had plucked a gem.
Svehla finished his first full season in Florida with eight goals and 49 assists. The latter, tied by Campbell in 2011-12, still stands as a Panthers single-season record. Svehla’s contributions from the blueline played a big role in the Panthers success as they clinched their first postseason berth and made a run for the Stanley Cup.
He also benefitted from playing behind Pavel Bure, for a little less than three seasons. Svehla was selected to represent Florida at the 1997 All-Star Game.
Although Svehla never quite matched the numbers from his first seasons, he reahed the 30-point plateau as a Panther three more times. He never finished a season with fewer than 22 points.
And like Campbell and Bouwmeester, Svehla proved to be a durable workhorse. He played the full slate of games in four of his eight seasons. Excluding 1994-95, when he was called up at season’s end, Svehla missed just six games during his stint in Florida.
He was traded to Toronto in exchange for Dmitry Yushkevich in July 2012.
Svehla remains Florida’s all-time leader among defensemen in games played (573), goals (61), assists (229) and points (290).
1. PAUL LAUS
Laus ranks ninth all-time in scoring among Florida’s defensemen, so how did he end up first on this list? Thanks to a great deal of balance.
The defenseman will forever be known for being one of the NHL’s more feared fighters, but in hindsight, it turns out he was one of Florida’s most reliable defensemen. Never mind the fact he spent a franchise-high 1,702 penalty minutes. If dropping the gloves keeps the puck out of the net, well, every bit helps.
Laus’ role as an enforcer might lead some to think his numbers otherwise were particularly bad, when in fact, they are anything but.
The defensemen spend nine seasons in the NHL, all with Florida. Laus never led the team or its defensemen in scoring. He never scored more than four goals or 12 points in a season. In each of the five seasons he played close to the entire slate of games, Laus always produced around 11 points a season — not much, but consistent.
Laus finished with 72 career points, which is impressive considering he rarely, if ever, played with the team’s power-play unit or behind its top lines.
During Florida’s Stanley Cup run in 1995-96, Laus picked up two goals and six assists in 21 games, while also finishing with a plus-3 rating.
He was awarded the ‘C’ in 2001-02, serving as team co-captain with Pavel Bure.
What is really amazing is Laus finished with a career plus-minus of plus-31. That’s a number which stands not only as tops among Panthers defensemen, but by a margin of 13. (Jaroslav Spacek is second-all time in career plus-minus with a plus-18 mark.) The mark ranks second all-time behind Martin Gelinas.
Laus’ career spanned some of Florida’s best defensive years as well as some of it’s more impressive offensive ones. He played on some of its more successful teams and some of the franchise’s worst. Florida produced only one scorer with at least 30 goals in six of Laus’ nine seasons. He benefitted from playing on teams that relied on scoring distributed throughout the lineup.
Simply put, Laus found ways to contribute with the puck, without it and off the ice. So few Panthers have been able to produce that combination consistently. Laus did it over nine seasons.