Lost in the shuffle of Harri Sateri’s bit of mini-magic, a brief glimpse at a road to a playoff spot, and continued narratives about computer boys and analytics versus grit, toughness and character is an important question: what are the Florida Panthers right now?
The answer: a lower middle of the pack team with a distant shot at a playoff spot. Not many outside the organization expected much different this season, and in a candid moment, most inside the BB&T Center would probably tell you this is what they thought they’d be getting from this motley crew.
That’s neither good nor bad, as last year at this time, they only had four more points than this year’s group did with the same number of wins. As the trade deadline edges closer, and questions about the future (and for some reason, the past) for this team are asked, let’s look to answer the question, “what are the Florida Panthers?”
As it stands, they’re a younger team than they’ve been in the last three or four seasons with a very top-heavy offense, mediocre special teams and streaky yet injured goaltending. This seems like a similar story to what recent Panthers teams have been in the past. But after a miserable start in which they started 5-9-2, they’ve been better since, going 18-14-4.
Their possession numbers have ticked up, from being in the low mid 20’s in score adjusted corsi at even strength to 18th prior to the game against Edmonton. That accurately describes what kind of team they are at this point in their development.
They’re also a top-heavy team offensively. They have 158 goals on the season, and their four best forwards have 71 of them. Depth was a problem at the start of the season (and last year too, to be fair), and it remains a problem now. No matter what they did this offseason, even keeping players many thought they should not have let go of, they’d still have some serious offensive deficiencies and be quite top-heavy.
However, those four best forwards for the Panthers, who are named Barkov, Huberdeau, Trocheck and Dadonov, have all taken the steps the team needed them to in order to be competitive sooner. The first three could easily end up averaging a point a game this season, which no Panther has managed to average since Olli Jokinen finished the 06-07 season with 91 points.
Once secondary scoring arrives, which could come as soon as next season with promoted young players such as Borgstrom and Tippett, perhaps then will they finally have the desired balance in finding consistent scoring lines that they need to take a step forward.
And finally, they have a distant shot at a playoff spot. They have about a 12.5% chance to make the postseason as things stand according to various metrics, which seems about right for a team seven points out of the second wild card as thing stand, though they have three games at hand on Carolina. The gap is surely too big to overcome, but as the team showed in two four plus game winning streaks this year, they are capable of chaining together solid performances, if infrequently.
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But all of that doesn’t necessarily answer the bigger question as to what this team really is. Is it one that underachieved considering what it was not too long ago, is it a rebuilding team trying to make up for past mistakes, or is it a bit of both or none of this at all? What this season has proven is what the Panthers are is a combination of all of this, underachieving yet rebuilding, disappointing yet promising.
The pipeline isn’t exactly flush with talent from prospects as it was earlier in the decade, but it’s not bare either. Most of the team’s critical young-ish veterans are locked up long term, and with proper adjustments to the team, they could take a big step forward in a fairly poor division.
Whether you believe Dale Tallon dismantled a promising team from last season because “he’s anti-analytics,” or that he was given the unenviable task of cleaning up a mess he didn’t make because he’s the only man who could do so, the Panthers were never set up for success in 2017-18.
No players on the Vegas Golden Knights or elsewhere who were once or could have been Panthers’ would have changed that overall story. That does not however mean this team isn’t taking required steps forward. They’re healthier up front than they’ve been in years, and the core group has taken on leadership roles certainly on the ice, and in the dressing room. Players like Mike Matheson and Denis Malgin have taken steps forward this year, and Aaron Ekblad seems to be his Calder winning self once more.
The magic comes in chaining this together with the right moves this season, coming from within or the outside, to take advantage of an opportunity that certainly will exist next season. As with everything in hockey, and life, it’s about balance, and the Panthers are trying to strike that balance on the fly. It’s not a process that happens overnight. Remember, it took the Panthers four years from 2012 to 2016 to make the playoffs again, and in both years they needed a magical confluence of circumstances to make it happen.
No matter what narratives you subscribe to, the Panthers are what their record says they are: a lower middle pack team with promise yet with obvious holes. They seem intent on staying the course, which was made clear by Colton Sceviour’s new deal, which isn’t exactly a horrible idea considering all of the upheaval in the organization during the past few years.
Patience is not a valued virtue much anymore, but it may take patience with this group in order to see them through to what they can become.
No individual performances, quick glances at the Vegas Golden Knights stats page or indulgence of twitter rants changes that. The Panthers are a team with a promising future, but steps are needed to reach that future.
Time will tell whether they get there or not.