Dynamic Duo: Quenneville may be on to something with Ekblad-Weegar pairing
Longtime friends Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar thrilled to be paired up
SUNRISE, Fla. – There has been an awful lot of learning going on at the Ice Den in Coral Springs.
It's been just over five weeks since the Florida Panthers opened training camp on a Friday in mid-September.
In the time since, the players have been busy learning a new defensive system, implemented by head coach Joel Quenneville.
Six games into the season, Q will be the first to admit that it's a work-in-progress.
"I think (in) all zones, we're probably more effective in knowing how we want to check," Quenneville said Wednesday when asked how the process is going. "Offensively, I still think we can be better with the puck."
While the team continues absorbing the defensive juju around the rink, Quenneville and his staff are going through the learning process, as well, getting to know the intricate details and tendencies of every player on Florida's roster.
Growing pains are to be expected, which is why the Panthers' 2-2-2 start is no cause for alarm.
As the team continues improving in Quenneville's system, the Hall of Fame-bound coach is figuring out how best to utilize his players.
Which is why, after the Panthers dropped two out of three to open the season, Q started mixing things up.
Of the 20 non-goalies on Florida's roster, only the grouping of Noel Acciari, Dryden Hunt and Colton Sceviour have remained together.
That has meant a variety of lines and defensive pairings that would rival the dinner buffet at Golden Corral.
Things have appeared to settle in over the past couple of games, though.
While the forward lines have, for the most part, reverted back to their initial form from the first week of the season, Quenneville and assistant coach Mike Kitchen, who runs Florida's defense, are still searching for the optimal pairings for the d-men.
An emerging duo that skated together during the Panthers' recent three-game road trip is Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar.
It marks the continuing of an upswing for Weegar that began last season, when then-Panthers coach Bob Boughner began giving the 25-year-old more responsibility and increased ice time.
That trend has continued under Quenneville, as skating with Ekblad means Weegar is going to play more minutes than ever before, with most of them coming against the league's top players.
While that idea of facing Steven Stamkos one night and Austin Matthews the next would scare the bejesus out of most people, Weegar is relishing the opportunity.
"I've just been embracing it, enjoying it. It's been a lot of fun," Weegar said. "That's the spot you want to be in as a defenseman. Playing against the top lines and shutting them down has been fun."
But it's a bit more than just fun to these two ascending defensemen.
Weegar explained the two have been buds since Ekblad arrived during the summer of 2014.
A friendship that began during Florida's development camp has come full circle, as for the first time, the two are sharing the ice as a defensive pairing.
"It's been good so far," Ekblad said. "We're just trying to take care of business. Obviously, we want to play defense first, but with his ability with the puck, and his shot, we're both trying to get pucks to the net and create some offense."
A close friendship off the ice has led to a healthy relationship on the ice.
Chatting about the pairing after Friday's morning skate, Weegar noted that it's easy for the rearguards to hold each other accountable, saying it's no big deal to bring up a mistake that the other one made. He also pointed out how smooth a transition it's been to play together.
"I think we're just playing off each other well, reading each other well and having fun together," Weegar said. "We've known each other for a long time now, and we both never thought we'd end up playing together, but here we are, and we're just enjoying it."
During their three games paired together, Ekblad and Weegar have combined for 5 points (1-4-5), 14 shots on goal and a plus-6 rating.
Weegar's average time on ice during that span (21:03) is over two minutes more per game than the 18:58 he averaged last season, the highest TOI of his career.
They make quite an unlikely duo; the first overall pick in 2014 (Ekblad) and the sixth-from-last pick in 2013 (Weegar).
If you ask Ekblad, draft position means nothing. He has plenty to gain from skating alongside Weegar.
"He's so patient with the puck, it's fun to watch," Ekblad said. "I try to incorporate that into my game wherever I can. I try to create some nice stability for our unit and let him do what he does best, which is make head fakes, skate with the puck and move the puck. He does a lot of things really, really well."
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