State of the Panthers: November 2, 2021

At the end of October 2021, the Florida Panthers stand at an impressive 8-0-1, which is best for points in the NHL. However, many questions still remain. The Panthers were forced to make a coaching change thanks to the fallout from the most prolific scandal in recent NHL history, in which the former Panthers coach He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named played a key role in. The former three-time cup winning coach was forced to resign in disgrace after leading his team to 7 straight wins to start the season. The new boss is a first-time head coach, former assistant Andrew Brunette. The 48-year old Brunette stepped in admirably on a back-to-back road trip in which his team dealt with the betrayal of their former leader away from the confines of their homes and in two extremely loud original six barns.

Brunette is no-He Who Shall Not Be Named, but he has commanded the respect of his players. Ever since the scandal, captain Aleksander Barkov has been a man on a mission, scoring 3 goals in his last two games. He also has had 25 minutes of ice time in each game, which isn’t sustainable. In Brunette’s defense, Barkov also had 25+ minutes in the lone overtime game before the coaching change, and the Panthers had several injuries up the middle that Barkov had to cover for. Barkov isn’t a vocal guy, but he leads by example, and his example is fantastic for his teammates. Barkov’s leadership has proven itself in one of the most difficult situations an NHL captain has been placed in as far as recent memory goes. His leadership has been far superior to that of Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks captain also embroiled in the middle of the scandal, who gave one of the worst answers to a question about the scandal, that makes Gary Bettman’s bumbling press conference look good. Keep in mind that at the time the scandal occurred, Barkov was studying for chemistry tests in high school, while Toews was chasing his first Stanley Cup. This speaks volumes to Barkov’s leadership. Credit also to Patric Hornqvist and Joe Thornton, whom while haven’t been able to do much on the ice, have been extremely steady hands in helping the team through this tumultuous time.

The Panthers rattled off a 3-2 overtime win against a resurgent Red Wings who attempted to play fast and loose with a self-described ‘distraught’ Florida team, before forcing Boston to a shootout, without four of their top five projected centers.

The month of October saw the Panthers emerge as a great team, rather than a good team. A good team doesn’t triumph over adversity right away, but a great team does. Now it can all come down like a house of cards, but the team has established a brotherhood that seems resilient in the face of adversity. The team has a few days to rest and reset from the scandal.

Brunette has an excellent team and as time goes on, he should adapt to a head coaching role. Ulf Samuelson has head coaching experience in the minor level and other professional leagues, and will be a huge help. There was a suggestion of bringing in a previous-NHL head coach to serve as an assistant for Brunette, like Rick Tocchet or Bruce Boudreau, to help Brunette adapt to being a head coach. Brunette needs some time to adapt to his new role and to wrap his head around what exactly has been going on. His practices have been solid, with resounding stick taps to end them. I believe he has the tools to become a successful NHL Head Coach. The only other NHL Head Coach who had no prior head coaching experience at any level is Rod Brind’amour, and that has worked out well so far for the Carolina Hurricanes. I’m not suggesting that Brunette is going to be the next Rod the Bod though.

The team’s offense did take a noticeable dip in the Detroit and Boston games, but that was to be expected, as scoring 4+ goals a game isn’t sustainable. If Sergei Bobrovsky can keep up his resurgence, the offensive dry-spell should not be an issue at all. Great teams need to win games 6-5 and 2-1.

At 8-0-1, the Panthers can afford a lackluster November and keep pace in the playoff race. I don’t recommend a lackluster month. A 7-5-1 in November will keep the team on the right track and bring them to a 15-5-2 record heading into December.

Florida’s opponents in November have posted a combined 46-23-12 record, which is nothing to sneeze at. Here are the big three games of the month:

November 4 vs. Washington (5-3-1): The Panthers kick off November with the first of three November games against the Washington Capitals. The former southeast rivals only meet three times a year, and as mentioned above, all three games this season will be played in the month of November. Alex Ovechkin is currently in the midst of a chase for the NHL goal crown. Despite being around 150 goals away, Ovi seems to want to reach the record sooner rather than later, putting up 9 goals in 9 games so far. Ovi has been a Panther killer throughout his career. He is deadly on the powerplay. The Capitals goaltending has been lackluster so far, but the Caps have been hitting all the right notes. They score when games turn into shooting free-for-alls and their goaltending steps up when the offense cools off. The key Panther in this game will be whoever is tasked with shutting down Ovechkin, which will likely be Sasha Barkov.

November 6 vs. Carolina (8-0-0): The Panthers face the annoying Carolina Hurricanes on November 6 and this is a team that we are going to want to make a statement against. The Canes dominated the Panthers last season and their social media team is by far the most annoying in the league. This is a game I want to see the Panthers win by a lot. The Canes need a humbling and I hope the Panthers give it to them. Frederik Andersen has been incredible to start the year, posting a .956 save percentage. These teams have high flying offenses with solid goaltending to start the year. The panther player to watch in this game will be whoever plays goal, which based on the goaltending schedule, will likely be Sergei Bobrovsky.

November 13 @ Tampa Bay (5-3-1): This will likely be Florida’s biggest test coaching-wise. How will the Panthers respond to Jon Cooper’s coaching tactics w/o their own genius coach behind the bench? Andrew Brunette will have several games to prepare for this, with five games before the Panthers engage in the rivalry showdown. The Panthers took Game One this year 4-1, with a big performance from Anton Lundell. Hopefully the Finnish rookie is healthy by the time that game rolls around. The Bolt to watch is Andrei Vasilevskiy, who is one of, if not the best player(s) in the NHL. The Panther player to watch in this game will be Aleksander Barkov. Barkov’s leadership is going to be crucial in this game.