Welcome to a newish series of sorts on this site. Every 11 or so games this season, I will look at the State of the Florida Panthers.
The First 11 Games
The Panthers have got off to one of the best starts in franchise history with an 8-1-2 record through 11 games. The Panthers currently sit second in the Central Division behind the 9-2-1 Tampa Bay Lightning. The Panthers only sit a point behind their cross state rival and have a game in hand.
The Panthers had a relatively easy schedule to start the season, as their games against the Dallas Stars and Carolina Hurricanes were cancelled due to each team having an outbreak of the Coronavirus. The Panthers took on the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, Columbus Blue Jackets and Nashville Predators. All of those teams have stumbled out of the gate.
However, the Panthers had their shining moment on Thursday night. Facing a white hot Tampa Bay Lightning team, the Panthers pulled off a surprising upset, as they took it to the Lightning for a 5-2 victory. The game could easily have been a fluke as the Lightning were missing Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, but the Panthers were also down Anthony Duclair. This game was also during the same week in which the Panthers lost to the Detroit Red Wings 4-1, which ended a season starting eight game point streak.
The Panthers have also benefited from a large slate of home games to start the year. The Cats are 5-1-1 at the BB&T Center and 3-0-1 on the road.
The Panthers have had issues. They haven’t thoroughly dominated competition, as eight of the eleven games have been settled by a single goal. On the flip side of the coin, the Panthers are 6-0-2 in one goal games. They went 14-7-8 in that scenario last season. Many games have gone to overtime. The Panthers also had two very concerning games.
A late game collapse against the Nashville Predators and a Super Bowl Sunday showdown against the Red Wings set off many alarm bells.
Despite losing Mike Hoffman who scored 28 powerplay goals in his 2 seasons with the Panthers, the Panthers powerplay hasn’t really missed a beat. The first powerplay unit has been reinvented as the Panthers have replaced Hoffman and Evengii Dadonov with Patric Hornqvist and Aaron Ekblad. Ekblad and Hornqvist have been great on the powerplay for the Panthers as Ekblad’s blasting slap shot and Hornqvist’s hard work presence in front of the net have seen the Panthers put up the league’s 2nd best powerplay at 36.7%.
The Panthers penalty kill has been very inconsistent, as they have dominated at times and other times have thoroughly collapsed. The Panthers 75% kill rate is good enough for 24th in the NHL.
The Panthers started the year with a risky idea. Joel Quenneville decided to split up his two best scorers Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Barkov and Huberdeau have had phenomenal chemistry as they have been linemates since 2014-15 when Jaromir Jagr was acquired. However both players have a heavy pass first mentality, which saw many chances go to waste.
The Panthers decided to add two speedsters to Barkov’s wings in Carter Verehaege and Anthony Duclair. Verehaege has been a stud, as the former Bolt has quickly meshed with Barkov and has a team leading 7 goals along with 3 assists in his 11 games so far. Anthony Duclair despite being a prolific goal scorer has yet to find the back of the net as he has had chance after chance and done everything but put the puck past the red line. Duclair is currently on the COVID protocol and has 6 assists in ten games. Barkov is playing some of the best hockey of his career. Barkov struggled last year after a career-best 2018-19 season. Currently, the Finnish center has 4 goals and 8 assists with an incredible faceoff percentage of almost 57%. Barkov is also shooting more, as he leads the team with 40 shots on goal.
Jonathan Huberdeau has been solid, but not excellent. Despite a breakout 5 point game in which the Quebec native notched his first career hat trick, Huberdeau has been very quiet this season, but is starting to form chemistry with Alex Wennberg and Patric Hornqvist. Huberdeau still leads the team with 11 assists and 15 points, a large part of that coming from the Nashville game, but Huberdeau is also not shooting. Despite having a team leading shooting percentage at 31%, Huberdeau has only taken 13 shots this season. Huberdeau needs to shoot the puck more. Patric Hornqvist has been an absolute blessing as his infectious competitive attitude has quickly made its way through the locker room. I’m also a bit surprised Allegheny County doesn’t have a warrant out for Bill Zito, as the Hornqvist-Matheson trade has been an absolute steal for the Panthers so far. Hornqvist has 6 goals and 5 assists with a team leading 4 power-play goals. Alex Wennberg struggled but has been very good of late as Wennberg has started to find his game and is currently on a three game goal streak.
The Panthers third line has been okay. Frank Vatrano has vanished often, however he has established chemistry with Owen Tippett. Like Duclair, Tippett has yet to find the back of the net, as the rookie has 2 assists in 9 games. Tippett is starting to find his stride and it is only a matter of time before he breaks out. Eetu Luostarinen has been a pleasant surprise, as he has scored some clutch goals and been a very solid option defensively.
The fourth line has been Noel Acciari and a consistent blender of wingers. Aleksi Heponiemi, Mason Marchment, Juho Lammikko, Ryan Lomberg, Vinnie Hinostroza and Brett Connolly have each played on the wings. It seems like Juho Lammikko is the most likely to claim one of the permanent spots on the wings.
Aaron Ekblad has been an absolute unit so far this season. Ekblad is playing some of the best hockey of his career and is on pace to setting a career high in points in a shortened season. Ekblad has also been great defensively for the Panthers. Mackenzie Weegar has noticeably struggled this season, but Ekblad’s phenomenal play has largely bailed him out. The chemistry between the two is great and it would be a bad idea to split them up.
Radko Gudas has been phenomenal defensively and Anton Stralman is quietly putting up a solid defensive season. Keith Yandle has struggled to stay out of the box and has struggled defensively, but he has been solid offensively and handled the lineup controversy with grace and has not let it deter him. Playing with Gudas has been very helpful for Yandle, as Gudas is able to help make up for Yandle’s defensive shortcomings most of the time.
Markus Nutivaara has had limited time due to COVID and being scratched but has been very solid. Noah Juulsen looked good in limited action.
Gustav Forsling and Riley Stillman only played a couple of games, the former being injured and both have struggled.
Chris Driedger has continued the hot hand from last year and has been excellent in his 5 starts. Driedger is 3-1-1 with a .937 save percentage and a 1.97 GAA.
Sergei Bobrovsky has been okay. He has struggled in a couple of games, but he’s also shined in other games. His defense is playing much better and Bob is currently 5-0-1 with a .899 save percentage and a 2.90 GAA. Bobrovsky has made many big saves and if he can find consistency, the Panthers are set. Bob seems like he’s starting to get his swagger back and that is absolutely crucial for the Panthers. If Bob can put up a good run over the next eleven games, the Panthers are pretty much set.
Also in the minors Sam Montembeault is continuing after a great training camp. If someone gets injured, Monty could be a solid backup option.
Despite their flaws, the Panthers record speaks for itself. The Panthers are playing like they truly want to win for the first time in forever. The players are buying into Bill Zito’s message and it is paying dividends. A big key is that the Panthers seem to be staying in the moment. They aren’t looking too far into the future. Last year, Sasha Barkov was talking about how the team wanted to stay in the bubble for a long time and then got bounced. It’s different this year, in the postgame press conferences, the focus is never on the cup or on the playoffs, it’s on the next game. They aren’t just talking the talk, they are letting their performance do the talking. I don’t know how sustainable this is, but if the Panthers can keep the momentum going, they can be a serious threat. Things are looking up in Sunrise. I give the team an A.
The Next Eleven
The Panthers are about to enter a super tough stretch of games, where eight of eleven come against the Lightning, Hurricanes and Stars. If the Panthers can win four of those games and win two of three contests against Nashville and Detroit, they are on the right track. At 8-1-2, the Panthers need 65 points to make the playoffs based on my math. That would mean putting up a record of 22-20-3. Do not push the brakes. 5 of the next 11 games are on the road.