‘Opportunity’ fuels Florida Panthers defenseman Brandon Montour’s breakout season at 28

MATIAS J. OCNER/mocner@miamiherald.com

The sight has become a familiar one for the Florida Panthers — almost out of nowhere — this season: Brandon Montour launches a rocket from the point, the puck winds up in the back of the net, and the star defenseman windmills his right arm and lifts up his left leg to celebrate. He did it again Monday when he thought he scored another goal in the Panthers’ 7-1 rout of the Tampa Bay Lightning — Eetu Luostarinen actually tipped it past Andrei Vasilevskiy — and his teammates were still ribbing him about it a day later after practice in Sunrise.

“I wouldn’t have touched it,” forward Nick Cousins joked Tuesday.

“I felt bad for him,” left wing Carter Verhaeghe said, explaining why he rushed to Montour to join in on his celebration.

Montour laughed about it, too, and it’s easy to right now. The 28-year-old Canadian still got a primary assist on Luostarinen’s goal, running his point streak to 10 games — the longest ever for a Florida defenseman and tied for the eighth longest in franchise history. He’ll try to extend it to 11 — only four Panthers have ever had one longer — on Thursday when Florida hosts the San Jose Sharks at 7 p.m. at FLA Live Arena.

Most importantly to Montour, the points are coming with winning. The Panthers (25-22-6) can notch their first three-game winning streak of the season by beating the Sharks (16-25-11) and they’ve now secured points in 11 of their last 15 games, with nine wins.

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Montour has been instrumental to Florida’s midseason turnaround, rising from the third pairing last season to a legitimate top defenseman this year — a skater with a real case to have been invited to the 2023 NHL All-Star Game — by finding an unlikely partner in 36-year-old defenseman Marc Staal.

The difference, he said, is simple.

“Opportunity,” he said Tuesday. “There’s games last year where I think I played 12 minutes a night or low minutes, where I don’t know what it was, but it is what it is.”

Last season, he played on pairings with eight different defensemen — Radko Gudas, Gustav Forsling, Matt Kiersted, Lucas Carlsson, Ben Chiarot, Robert Hagg, Kevin Connauton, Olli Juolevi and Markus Nutivaara — and never had the same partner for more than eight straight games. On most nights, his pairing was playing the fewest minutes and he only played top-pairing minutes seven times — all in the last 10 games of the regular season after the Panthers had effectively locked up everything and star defenseman Aaron Ekblad was out with an injury.

The differences this year have been striking. Montour has played top-pairing minutes 20 times already this season, and been paired up with Staal for 18 straight games and 35 of the last 37. His average time on ice has skyrocketed from 17:54 per game last season to 24:14 this year to lead all Florida skaters.

After notching another point Monday, Montour was up to 44 — 10 goals and 34 assists — and ranked eighth among all NHL defensemen in scoring. Five of the seven defensemen ranked ahead of him in scoring played in the NHL All-Star Game on Saturday.

“Last year, I don’t think I even had a partner,” Montour said. “[Staal] obviously knows that I like to join. ... We work well together. Obviously, he’s steady at home, moves the puck simple, moves the puck to me when he sees me flying up the ice.”

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On paper, the fit is unexpected, yet Paul Maurice has argued all season the tandem has been effective — and he trusts it enough to use it as his top pairing with relative frequency, despite Florida getting outshot when those two are on the ice together for 5-on-5 action so far this year.

The reason, Maurice argued, is because of how different they are. Montour’s speed immediately stood out to the coach when he took over last year and it makes him a natural at leading the rush and jumping into the offense.

Staal, on the other hand, is an older, mostly stationary defender. His experience, though, makes him predictable for teammates to play with, Maurice said.

“He’s exceptionally easy to read, so Monty knows when he can go,” Maurice said. “For Marc, he knows when Monty’s going.”

Montour’s own development, of course, gets credit, too.

Montour spent the early days of his career mostly with bad teams on the Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks — teams looking for scoring anywhere they could get it and Montour was happy to chip in. Even when he first got to Florida, the Panthers were a run-and-gun group and actively encouraged their defensemen to hop into the offense essentially as frequently as possible.

In Year 7 and with a spot solidified in the top four after Florida traded away star defenseman MacKenzie Weegar in the offseason, Montour has learned how to strike a balance.

“He has modified his game,” Maurice said. “His minutes come up now and we find there’s way more patience in his game. He doesn’t need to be up and in on every play. ... For a guy like him, it’s the times not to go. He’s going to play 25 minutes a night, pick his spots.”