This summer’s July 1 spending spree was very similar to the one that Dale Tallon and the Panthers embarked on during the offseason leading up to the 2011-12 season in which the Panthers won their first ever Southeast Division title and took the Stanley Cup runner-up New Jersey Devils to seven games and double overtime before finally conceding. The big difference between the 2011 offseason and 2014 is, in 2011 the Panthers were spending largely just to get to the cap floor while this year, after locking up all of their RFAs, the Panthers payroll sits at 63.5 million giving them just 5.5 million in cap space. That figure gives the usually thrifty Panthers the 18th highest payroll in the league.
All of this is just to say, the Panthers organization has done their part. You can argue as much as you want about the quality of signings they made (people have made their opinions about the Dave Bolland contract more than clear) but you cannot argue that the team is not at least trying to put a competitive product on the ice. However the Panthers 2014-15 season goes, people will point to the July’s free agent class as a big factor. Whether the team is good or bad, there will be some proponent of hockey commenters whose opinions will be vindicated and they will be sure to let everyone else know about it on twitter. While I will grant that a large part of the Panthers’ successes or failures depends on how their 2014 acquisitions fare, I strongly believe that the play of the remnants of ‘spending spree 2011′ will have just as much of an impact.
Leftover from the offseason signing barrage of 2011, and the ensuing division title, are Scottie Upshall, Sean Bergenheim, Tomas Kopecky, Tomas Fleischmann and Brian Campbell. Upshall, Bergenheim, Kopecky and Fleischmann are all on the final years of their deals while Campbell is signed through 2015-16. Each player has had their ups and downs during their time with the Panthers (all of which probably merit their own posts) but if we look at just last year’s performances it is safe to say the following: if the Panthers are going to be successful in 2014-15, they need to get more out of Tomas Kopecky and Tomas Fleischmann.
Prior to the 2013-14 season, Scottie Upshall would have easily taken the crown as the biggest bust of the group of players brought in during the 2011 offseason. Carrying a price tag of 3.5 million dollars per year, Upshall struggled through a spate of injuries and when he wasn’t hurt it seemed like he just could not find his way out of Kevin Dineen’s doghouse. Through his first two seasons in Sunrise, Upshall managed just six goals, becoming the victim of the ‘we’re paying him about one million per goal’ comments, usually reserved for the Carl Pavano’s of the world. Last season Upshall was finally healthy and that health coupled with Peter Horachek taking the coaching reigns (Upshall was familiar with Horachek from their time with the Predators) resulted in new life for the winger as he recorded a career high 37 points (15-22-37) while playing in 76 games.
Similar to Upshall, Sean Bergenheim had a strong bounce back season in 2013-14. Injuries forced the Finnish winger to miss all of the 2012-13 season and the beginning of 2013-14. When he finally did come return to the ice in October, Bergenheim became, arguably, the team’s most effective player. Bergenheim finished 5th on the team in scoring with 29 points (16-13-29) in 62 games and his possession numbers were strong as well. His 10.45 Corsi On (goals+saves+missed shots+blocked shots generated per 60 minutes when x players is on the ice) (advanced stats thanks to Behind The Net, RIP Extra Skater) was tops on the team amongst players who played in 60 or more games. That means, when he is on the ice, the Panthers as a whole are producing a lot more shots than when he is not on the ice. After witnessing his 12 shot performance against the Sabres in March, it is clear that when he is on his game, Bergenheim is a tough player to face.
Brian Campbell did not have a bounce back season in 2013-14 because he did not need to have one. Often criticized for failing to live up to his 7-plus million dollar contract, Campbell has been a beacon of consistency is a Panthers lineup that has otherwise been quite uneven. In his three seasons with the Panthers, Campbell has led the team in TOI/game each year, twice led the team in assists and has finished fourth, second and second in scoring respectively. Oh yea, and he also has not missed a single game.
Now we get to the guilty remnant. The Tomas Two. A pair of players from which resurgent seasons would go a loooongggg way towards improving this team’s 2014-15 playoff hopes. Lets start with Fleischmann. The first two years of Flash’s Panthers tenure went according to plan. In 2011-12 he led the in goals and points (27-34-61) while teaming up with Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg to form the entertaining Flashmob Line. The next season was more of the same. He led the team in scoring and assists (12-23-35) in 2012-13 justifying his status as the team’s highest paid forward.
Now we get to last season where Fleischmann’s production experienced a steep drop off. In 2013-14 Flash played in 80 games but managed just eight goals and 28 points (8-20-28). The eight goals were his lowest total since 06-07 when he scored four goals in 29 games. Here is Fleischmann’s scoring rate for the five seasons from 2009-2014:
09-10: .74 points/game
10-11: .69 points/game
11-12: .74 points/game
12-13: .73 points/game
13-14: .35 points/game
That is a stark drop-off, especially when you consider Fleischmann just turned 30 this May, which seems way too early for a drop-off like this. So what did cause the drop-off in production? It turns out, a lot of Fleischmann’s decline may have been due to bad luck. Take a look at Fleischmann’s shot statistics from the past five seasons.
09-10: 1.75 shots/game, 19.0 shooting %
10-11: 2.18 shots/game, 12.2 shooting %
11-12: 2.65 shots/game, 12.4 shooting %
12-13: 2.52 shots/game, 9.9 shooting %
13-14: 2.35 shots/game. 4.3 shooting %
As you can see, Fleischmann was shooting the puck right around his usual rate, but a lot less of those shots were finding the back of the net. It is generally understood that in hockey, over time, a stat like shooting percentage (S%) will regress to the mean. That means if a player has a particularly high S% one year, it is more a representation of good luck than it is a representation of that player taking ‘better quality shots’ (the concept of ‘quality shots’ has been proven to mean very little). At the same time, if a player has a low S% it probably means they were unlucky. What is a good shooting percentage? Last year, the average NHL regular season shooting percentage was 8.89. That number varies from year to year but not too much. In 515 regular season games, and 1,046 shots, Fleischmann has shot 11.0%.
So, the 4.3 S% from last season looks like an aberration and it is reasonable to expect a bounce-back season from Fleischmann as some of those shots find the back of the net in 2014-15. Backing this up is Fleischmann’s PDO (a stat that adds shooting and save percentage, and is a good indicator of good or bad luck) which was 968 last season. That number ranks Flash eighth out of ten Panthers forwards who played 60 or more games last season and furthers the idea that Flash’s poor production during the 2013-14 season had a more to do with a gruesome run of bad luck than it had to do with any decline in play.
Great! So we can expect a bounce back season from Tomas Fleischmann, does that same thinking work for Tomas Kopecky? Yes and no. Kopecky had a productive start to his Panthers career, tallying 32 points in 80 games in 2011-12 (10-22-32). In 2012-13 when injuries depleted the Panthers lineup, Kopecky stepped up in a big way tying a career high in goals 15 while accumulating 27 points in 47 games (15-12-27). The extra scoring raised expectations for his 2013-14 campaign but those expectations went unmet as Kopecky scored just 12 points (4-8-12) in 49 games before his season was cut short by an injury that he sustained at the Olympics. The past two years have been a tale of two seasons for the Slovak winger and they are a perfect example of how shooting percentages can fluctuate and wreak havoc on a players stat line.
In 2012-13 Kopecky posted a career high scoring rate of .57 points/game. In 2013-14 that scoring rate cratered to .24 points/game. His shooting numbers from these two seasons offer a possible explanation.
12-13: 47 GP, 92 shots, 1.96 shots/game, 16.3 shooting %
13-14: 49 GP, 95 shots, 1.94 shots/game, 4.2 shooting %
The two seasons are nearly identical except for the stark difference in shooting percentage. In both years, Kopecky took a similar amount of shots but in 2012-13 his inflated S% helped him reach a career high in goals while in 2013-14 his S% went the other way and torpedoed his season. In 514 career regular season games, Kopecky has a 8.0 S% so it is reasonable to concluded that 2012-13 was a product of good luck while 2013-14 was a product of bad luck. Kopecky is now 32 years old so he could begin to feel the effects of aging but if he can maintain his shot output this season, chances are he will improve upon last year’s 4.2 S% and have a resurgent season. Expecting a scoring rate similar to his 2012-13 season however, would be unreasonable as his 16.3 S% from that season was highly unsustainable.
It is an interesting thought experiment to think of the Panthers 2014-15 season as the outcome of a series of yes or no questions. For example, will the new free agent acquisitions make an impact? Will the young forwards take the next step towards stardom? Will the young defensemen take the next step? Will Roberto Luongo fight off age and have a strong season? Will Bergenheim and Upshall remain healthy and productive? And will veterans like Fleischmann and Kopecky bounce back after down years?
Obviously you can break these questions down into infinitely smaller questions (which is essentially what the games are for) but if at the end of the regular season the answer to each of these questions is yes, then it is a safe bet that the Panthers are preparing for a playoff run. If some answers are yes and some are no, then things get murky. If all are no then you might as well pencil Connor McDavid into the starting lineup for 2015-16.
The statistics indicate that Fleischmann and Kopecky both had unlucky 2013-14 seasons and a bounce back is likely. That resurgence would do wonders for Florida’s 2014-15 playoff prospects.