Florida Panthers: Rat Race to the Playoffs Fell Short. Why, and Now What?

At the All-Star break, the Florida Panthers’ playoffs hopes were dwarfed by hopes for Rasmus Dahlin in the Draft Lottery, as the season spiraled further and further down.

No one would have ever imagined that on the (original) last day of the regular season, the Panthers would still wake up with a chance at the dance, albeit as slim as they were. But after the Flyers win against the Rangers, the long shot of all long shots remained just out of reach for a Panthers team that came so close and yet will feel so far away.

What went wrong, what comes next, and what needs to happen for the Panthers to be preparing for the postseason this time next year?

Since the trade deadline, the Panthers have been at a blistering pace, but other teams ahead of them in the race somehow ended up playing a tiny bit better:

Florida went 15-5-2.

Columbus went 15-4-2.

New Jersey went 12-7-1, and 10-3-1 in their last 14.

Philly went 10-6-4.

At the trade deadline, the Panthers were five points behind the Blue Jackets and 10 behind New Jersey in the race for the Wild Cards with three games at hand on both. Pending their result against Boston, they could finish just one point behind them both.

The Flyers were 14 points up on Florida with the Cats holding three games at hand, and could finish only two points behind them. Even with some head scratching losses, including two against Ottawa and one against Edmonton, closing back that gap on three teams like that is legitimately hard. They were only in playoff position for one day in this entire stretch of remarkable hockey, showing how much of a hole they dug themselves in, but how far they climbed out if it.

But they still had that much of a gap because they didn’t find their feet until after the All Star break. They were 10 points out of a playoff spot on the morning of January 31st, tied for the third fewest points in the East with Detroit and Montreal.

50 points (should they beat Boston) after the All-Star break in 34 games is an insane pace that many of the best teams don’t even reach. Those best teams however don’t have to play at that pace just to keep themselves in contention.

Good teams aren’t in the bottom five of the standings at Thanksgiving, usually a death knell for teams then out of a playoff position. Bob Boughner and his staff will be pulling their hair out this summer wondering how and why a team that could play as they did post All-Star break could start so poorly.

A season that ends like this certainly ends with mixed emotions. There is promise because of how the Panthers played down the stretch, figuring out the type of game they want to play and becoming effective at it.

They remained remarkably healthy outside of Roberto Luongo’s long stretches out, and when he returned, he played like he did in his best days in Vancouver. Every one of the Panthers stars played like stars when they were called upon to, but that was only enough to keep this team barely in contention.

The regret comes from the start, which saw the Panthers start 8-11-2. They were leaking goals, they couldn’t kill penalties, and looked entirely lost trying to figure out how to play for their new head coach. According to Puck on Net, the Panthers were 21st at score adjusted puck possession at even strength, and had allowed 73 goals. Slow starts have often doomed Panther teams in the past, and this one may go down as one that truly ruined a season before it started.

Down the stretch, they threw in clunkers against Ottawa twice and Edmonton once, two of those games at home. They set a franchise record for home wins in a season with 27, but with two more they may have been in the postseason. Losses like those against teams who are well out of contention are killers, even if most of the best and hottest have a few of them. But for a team whose margin of error is essentially zero, those losses are even more detrimental.

A few young players took steps forward this year, such as Denis Malgin, Jared McCann and especially MacKenzie Weegar, but most fans would have liked to see others like Mamin and a few from Springfield play more than Micheal Haley or Jamie McGinn ended up playing. 34 games of stellar play is wonderful, but they can only do so much to mask 48 games of less than stellar play from a team that was still decidedly top-heavy.

If games at hand, incredible injury luck, red-hot goaltending and superstar performances from every one of the Panthers stars wasn’t enough to make the postseason, what will be enough?

Florida must start well in 2018, knowing how a slow start essentially doomed them this season. There will be no grace period to get used to a new coaching staff and learn the systems; the knowledge will be baked in already. They will have full seasons of Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett, making a team fast getting younger and faster even younger, without any other notable additions.

The Panthers must be more consistent on special teams. It took the team until the final 34 games to have a functional power play, and until the end of November to have a PK killing at better than 70%. Average specialty teams throughout a whole season would’ve saved this team multiple results.

Bob Boughner was eager to change his lines when things weren’t going well, but the D pairs that started the season together ended the season together outside of the occasional injury or healthy scratch from 6 (Petrovic), 12 (McCoshen) or 52 (Weegar). Would pairing Ekblad and Matheson together have given this team more balance on the backend? It’s certainly possible, and it’s a shame those questions didn’t even have a chance to be answered.

At the end of the 16-17 season, Panthers fans wondered how long it would take the team to get back into playoff contention after only one season ago watching the team win the Atlantic Division.

After 48 games this season, many fans were wondering what Rasmus Dahlin would look like in Panthers red and white. Now, most fans are wondering how they came so close to making the playoffs out of literally nothing, but why they fell so agonizingly short.

Improvements were made this season to a group that wasn’t anywhere near a finished product, so it stands to reason that another year of finishing and polish will get this team over the hump, right? People thought after last season, the Oilers had found their way back into the pantheon of elite teams, and they clearly haven’t. Some thought the Avs were years away from playoff contention, but it’s clear that wasn’t the case.

With parity, the NHL is a fickle league. Trends from year-to-year aren’t often linear and teams of promise can fade from memory fast. Florida has great potential going forward, but must make the changes necessary to prevent a situation like ones that developed in Calgary, Dallas or even Edmonton from happening in Sunrise. In today’s NHL, that’s no easy task.

So much had to go right for the Panthers to be in a place where contending for a playoff spot was even possible at this stage. Most of it did. To make the postseason next year, the Panthers will have an even smaller margin for error, and a fanbase (and ownership) who will not tolerate another backwards step.

Opportunity abounds for the Panthers this offseason, but they must make the right changes to take the team that was on a franchise point-record setting pace from February on and translate it to a whole season. It sounds easy, but the NHL proves that nothing is easy year-to-year.

Whether and how they seize this opportunity will determine whether the Panthers are truly on the rise, or just the same old Panthers: promising a lot, yet delivering very little.