Florida Panthers Have a Massive Zone Start Problem

Oct 12, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Florida Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant behind the bench against the Philadelphia Flyers during the third period at Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers defeated the Panthers, 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

The Florida Panthers have generally struggled to start the season, and there are fingers pointing in every direction.  Some blame the special teams, some blame the coaching, some blame the team’s makeup, some blame Jonathan Huberdeau.  Twitter is simply abuzz with theories and culprits.

But allow me to present my suspect to the bench: the Florida Panthers’ zone starts.

It’s common sense to assume that a team’s best offensive players are given more time to play on offense.  Likewise, the best defensive players are allowed to shine playing in their own zone.  Healthy teams have the right players playing in their correct roles.

Judging by this criteria, the Florida Panthers are not a healthy team.

Let’s take a look at the offensive zone start percentages for each Panther player.  I took a look at the fantastic Puckalytics.com and used their 5v5 (ZS Adj.) to find out which forwards have started where for Gerard Gallant at even strength:

As you can see, everything appears backwards.  Jonathan Huberdeau, Jaromir Jagr, and Nick Bjugstad have primarily started outside of the offensive zone.  And when he was healthy, Aleksander Barkov had the lowest percentage of offensive zone starts on the team.  This is simply nutty, because any Panthers fan or impartial observer would tell you that those fellows are the best scorers on the team.  Instead, the supposed top line for the Panthers are put in the defensive zone to start close to half of their shifts.

And since the Panthers’ “top offensive line” is not being played on offense, players like Quinton Howden, Derek MacKenzie, and Jussi Jokinen have filled the vacuum.

Some of these numbers are simply unbelievable: Jonathan Huberdeau is a slight winger with great passing skills, and he has the most defensive zone starts among all Panthers forwards.  Jaromir Jagr is a hockey legend, and he has the same amount of offensive zone starts as Shawn Thornton.  I’m nauseous.

Now consider the Philadelphia Flyers, who have a very obvious top line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Michael Raffl.  The Flyers know these players are their best offensive weapons, so head coach Dave Hakstol puts them in a position to score.  As you can see, nobody else on the team comes close to matching their number of offensive zone starts.

And here are the Calgary Flames’ stats, and they have a well-known top line of their own.  Johnny Gaudreau, Jiri Hudler, and Sean Monahan are doubtlessly the Flames’ best scoring forwards.  So without a question, head coach Bob Hartley puts those players in the best position to succeed.  Pluggers like Michael Frolik and Matt Stajan hold the fort down in the defensive zone.

It’s difficult to understand why Gerard Gallant would organize his lines in this fashion.  Nobody would assert that Jagr and Huberdeau are defensive stalwarts compared to players like Reilly Smith or Jussi Jokinen.  My best guess is to assume that the Jagr, Huberdeau, and Barkov/Bjugstad will use their possession games to exit the defensive zone quickly and smoothly.  Then, the line can lead the puck up the ice on the rush.

The problem with that strategy, however, is collecting the puck in the first place, and that starts with the face-off.  Bjugstad and Barkov have defensive zone face-off percentages of 50.7% and 53.3%, respectively (which is above the league average of 48.8, for what it’s worth), but that’s still essentially a coin-flip.  And once you factor in forechecking and neutral zone traps, the top line has to run a hockey-themed gauntlet to get a taste of the offensive zone.  It strikes me as wishful thinking to ask your top line to create its offense in such a roundabout way.

But perhaps Gallant adjusts these zone starts based on the situation?  Not really.  This graph shows the Florida Panthers’ 5v5 Trailing (ZS Adj.) statistics, which shows the zone starts when the Panthers are trailing by any score.  Still yet, Bjugstad, Barkov, Huberdeau, and Jagr are forced to start completely on the completely wrong end of the ice.  Instead, MacKenzie, Pirri, and Howden get the call.

Now, for the sake of argument, let’s look at how Gerard Gallant organized the zone starts when the Panthers were trailing last season:

Jagr, Huberdeau, and Barkov all had a fair shot at the net.  In fact, you could say that about the entire roster, as the percentage of starts in each zone was relatively level for each player.  For whatever reason, the Panthers have done almost the exact opposite this season, and nobody can proclaim that it’s working better.  This season, the Florida Panthers have scored 5 goals while trailing at even strength, which is tied for 24th in the league.  In the same situation last season the Panthers scored 49 goals, good for 14th in the NHL.

Of course, zone starts isn’t the be-all, end-all stat for predicting offensive production.  There is no stat that can offer that.  But it does show the strategy that the coach is using to position his players, and it does explain parts of Corsi (which I might write about later).  The bottom line is this: you have to ask your coach to put his players in the best position to succeed, and Gerard Gallant is not currently providing that for the Florida Panthers.