Hockey people these days are spending a noticeably larger proportion of their time talking about the Panthers than they generally would’ve in the past. That’s what happens when you use a 10 game winning streak to not only take over sole possession of a division lead, but do so by leapfrogging a couple of the league’s brand name franchises.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, it’s generated some “well, actually..” pushback on the internet. Much of that stems from the fact that there is some incongruity on the surface between their underlying numbers and the real estate they hold in the standings.
After the crash course we’ve been put through with the ‘11-’12 Wild, the ‘13-’14 Maple Leafs, the Patrick Roy Avalanche, and most recently last year’s Calgary Flames as the notable case studies, it’s understandable that as a community we’re quick to sound the alarms and raise a giant red flag whenever a team is in the process of outperforming their peripherals.
Sometimes I think it’s easy to oversimplify matters when just sorting by possession or PDO and immediately jumping to conclusions or forming strong opinions solely based on what they spit back out because, well, it’s just one click away. The convenience of that can somewhat ironically breed laziness, and cause us to miss the forest for the trees.
It’s important to remember that the value of all of the underlying metrics we’re fortunate enough to have at our disposal these days is in their ability to draw our attention to certain trends. Rather than using it as a crutch, it can guide us in digging deeper by asking questions like “why aren’t things matching up?”, “what’s causing this?”, and “what does it mean moving forward?”.
In the specific case of the Panthers, the fact that they’re controlling just 48.3 percent of all five-on-five shots on the season doesn’t instill much optimism. That rate puts them in the neighbourhood of cellar dwellers such as the Blue Jackets, Canucks, and Flyers, a far cry from being one of the league’s best.
It’s not quite that simple, though. The team the Panthers are right now hardly resembles the one from earlier in the year that was drudging along at a pedestrian pace. A lot of that credit goes to the systemic changes incorporated by Gerard Gallant and his coaching staff on the fly.
“I’m learning (analytics) to be honest with you,” said Gallant. “We’ve got some analytics guys on our staff who are helping out and showing us some of the different stuff. It wasn’t part of my coaching in the past, but I think there’s some room for it to help our team. I’m willing to listen.”
That willingness to embrace input and change has paid off thus far on a couple of fronts. The most important change occurred on the blueline, when before the league’s worst pairing not involving either Jared Cowen or Dan Girardi was finally put out of its misery. It’s tough to say what was more remarkable: the 40.4 percent of shot attempts and scoring chances the Panthers were controlling with Willie Mitchell and Erik Gudbranson on the ice, or that it took 21 games and 325-plus minutes to come to terms with it not working.
The solution hasn’t necessarily been ideal because it’s meant splitting Aaron Ekblad and Brian Campbell up, but it’s been a vital one. While those two were eviscerating the competition together for the second straight season now, this was a case of triage where the rest of the team would’ve eventually run out of oxygen had a life raft not been thrown their way.
Front-loading and going power versus power can be devastating when done right, but unfortunately for Gallant, it simply wasn’t a realistic option given how badly the edges were being caved in. In the 15 games since Dmitry Kulikov made his return to the lineup from injury and relegated Mitchell to a more appropriate 3rd pairing role, the Panthers are 8th in possession (52.4 percent) and 2nd in scoring chances (56.1 percent).
A smaller but equally instrumental development has been the fact that Dave Bolland has been out of the lineup, whether it be due to injury or demotion. This has been a horse that’s been beaten enough by now, but it’s worth noting that Bolland wasn’t just bad based on the dollar figure he had attached to his name. He was extraordinarily ineffective period. The fact that the team hasn’t lost a game in the 3-plus weeks since he’s been out is obviously a happy coincidence more than anything else, but the fact that they’ve been freed of a black hole in the lineup has gone a long way towards helping keep their depth players’ heads above water.
Now, whether those lineup changes actually result in a demonstrably heightened level of play that sustains itself over a longer period of time remains to be seen. They’ve not only done much of their damage here against the league’s bottom feeders, but have also benefitted from their fair share of good fortune in close games. The 14-3-4 mark they boast in games decided by just the lone goal isn’t as much of an inherent skill they possess, as much as it is blind luck. Hoping that run of success continues as the year goes along and the sample grows is hockey’s equivalent of playing with fire.
It’s also not exactly like they’ve fixed all of their issues, either. They’re still overly reliant on their goaltending. Roberto Luongo is still an all-world goalie that’s aging like a fine wine, but expecting him and Al Montoya to maintain a league-best .926 save percentage (and .942 at five-on-five) for the rest of the season is a fool’s errand. It’s amazing what hot goaltending can do to make the team playing in front of it look better than is actually is.
The aforementioned depth is still a major concern. The trio of Huberdeau-Barkov-Jagr have made it nearly impossible for opponent’s to take the puck away from them, but how much of everything runs through them is a microcosm of the team’s top-heavy ways across the board. Given how much of their success this year is tied up in a trio of players that have long since celebrated their 35th birthday, the idea of the 82 game marathon eventually catching up to any one of them is a frightening realization. For everything that’s gone right, all it could potentially take for the bottom to completely fall out on them is an ill-placed injury to one of those guys.
10 games most certainly does not a season make, but the fact that there are concrete fundamental changes that were made which coincide with the uptick in play is encouraging. They’ve shown that they’re not content with status quo, opting for actively looking for solutions instead of being blissfully ignorant and turning a blind eye, hoping for different results despite doing the same thing over and over again.
If nothing else, it’s helped them take advantage of the opening created by a landscape filled with Atlantic Division teams that can’t seem to get out of their own way. The points they’ve banked during this run all count the same regardless of the means with which they’ve accrued them, and they could be the difference between squeezing into the playoffs and just narrowly missing out.
Particularly since nary a team in the Atlantic has been able to distinguish themselves from the pack. What that wide open nature does is throw an interesting wrinkle into Florida’s potential plans for the upcoming trade deadline. With an inordinately large percentage of current contributors looking for new contracts after the season, it’ll be fascinating to see whether they transition from potentially selling off parts to now addressing some of those issues lower down the lineup if they remain in the mix with their peers between now and late February.
Whenever a team goes on an extended run such as this one (on either end of the extreme, really) all hell breaks loose on the public perception front. It can be blinding, making it awfully tough to stay rational and maintain perspective. This is the just latest example of that.
To their credit, unlike those aforementioned mirage teams of the past there hasn’t been much chest-thumping and false bravado in the wake of this run by pretending like they’ve “beaten the system”. That distinct lack of condescension – and an eclectic roster comprised of some affable personalities – has turned this into a fun story to follow as it’s developed. It’s allowed this streak to be taken for what it is as one of those random occurrences that happens in sports from time to time.
The Panthers aren’t going to win every single game they play the rest of the season. They’re also not terrible. They’re somewhere smack dab in the middle there, as a team that can remain competitive and potentially string together enough wins between now and the end of the season to make a little bit of noise should some breaks go their way.
This a perfectly fine spot to be in for the Florida Panthers, a franchise that hasn’t exactly been flush with reason for optimism and excitement over the years. Having just the single playoff appearance to their name since the “Y2K” craze, this is a step in the right direction.