Florida has always been a team that seems to fly under the radar. Given that they're not really a threat for the playoffs, it's sometimes overlooked that they have two top-20 scorers in the league in Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, two of the brightest young stars in the franchise's history.
So, if you’re not fully aware of what 2013 seventh-rounder MacKenzie Weegar has been up to this year, it's understandable.
Weegar is still a relative unknown in the NHL, playing primarily in a depth role in what is just his second season with the Panthers. But of late, the 25-year-old is starting to finally find his groove in an elevated role. Weegar, who spent most of the season paired with the recently departed Bogdan Kiselevich, has overcome a lower-body injury, a concussion, a shoulder injury and a couple of games as a healthy scratch to emerge as an effective second-pairing defenseman and is finally getting a chance to play a more impactful role with the franchise alongside veteran Keith Yandle.
Early in the year, Weegar averaged just over 14 minutes per game and didn’t see a lot of important ice time. But with Yandle over the past five games, Weegar has seen his average ice time elevated to 21 minutes per game, and he has been rewarded with six points in that span. Considering he had just five points in his previous 46 games, it's quite the step up.
As part of Weegar's offensive surge, he has registered three multi-point nights over the past five games. Given his 13-point year to date, it looks like he’s been rather inconsistent offensively, but he has been focusing a little less on hitting players (94 hits in 51 games compared to 108 a year ago) and a little more on shooting the puck (63 shots compared to 58 in the same frame). Having Yandle – a 32-year-old veteran with three NHL All-Star Games under his belt – as a defense partner over Kiselevich, a 29-year-old first-year NHLer with rather limited offensive upside, or even Mark Pysyk, a Buffalo Sabres' first-round pick in 2010 who never quite met expectations, has seemingly helped Weegar further develop in what is a contract year.
Yandle, of course, is having another strong offensive season, so it's possible Weegar’s emergence as an offensive defenseman could have happened to anyone in his position. But Weegar has looked calm when handling the puck and has been able to focus more on his game rather than doing everything possible to keep himself in the lineup. That bit of stability has allowed Weegar to play the best hockey of his career, and with two goals against the Minnesota Wild over the weekend, Panthers coach Bob Boughner may be willing to continue giving Weegar opportunities to prove himself. It's not like Yandle is just carrying Weegar, either. He's holding his own and getting better with every opportunity he gets.
The sample size is obviously too small to truly tell if it’s anything more than a hot streak, but Weegar has flashed good offensive instincts throughout his career. In his final season with the QMJHL's Halifax Mooseheads in 2013-14, Weegar had 59 points in 61 games, and he was an AHL all-star with 14 goals and 36 points in 60 games in 2016-17 with the Springfield Thunderbirds, the Panthers' affiliate. It’s a nice spark for a player that spent much of the early part of the season on the sidelines.
In the grand scheme of things, the rise of an otherwise overlooked defender may not mean much, but if Weegar can continue to fill a role and provide offensive upside on what is likely to be an affordable contract should he re-sign with Florida, the Panthers may have found a minor diamond in the rough who can help bolster the team's back end.