Florida Panthers: Recap of Bob Boughner’s First Season as Head Coach

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 22: Florida Panthers Head Coach Bob Boughner directs his team from the bench along with Assistant Coach Paul McFarland during a break in the action against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the BB
SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 22: Florida Panthers Head Coach Bob Boughner directs his team from the bench along with Assistant Coach Paul McFarland during a break in the action against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the BB /

The move made by the Florida Panthers signing San Jose Sharks‘ assistant coach Bob Boughner as their head coach seemed a match made in heaven.

Despite any experience as a head coach at the NHL level, Boughner’s background experiences with the Sharks and the Columbus Blue Jackets, as well as his expressed interest in advanced analytics and promised style of play, seemed to make him the perfect man to right the South Floridian ship sailing on high tides.

Boughner had a lot of work to do with a pedestrian Panthers squad that waltzed through the 2016-2017 season with no real ambition under interim head coach Tom Rowe. The Cats were 23rd in power play percentage, giving up the 11th most goals, and were 23rd on goals scored despite the 3rd most shots per game. The team obviously had the pieces to compete; Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Vincent Trocheck to name a few, it just needed that gentle nudge back towards playoff hockey.

In the first two months of the season, the Panthers played very different from the season prior. Some of the positives included the high scoring, as the Cats scored 40 goals in the first month of the season, putting up high shooting numbers and able to break down and defeat high quality teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Washington Capitals, and Anaheim Ducks.

These weren’t squeaked-out wins either, the Panthers were able to dominate Washington and Anaheim, winning 4-1 and 8-3 respectively, while coming from behind to take down Tampa by a 5-4 final.

However, one of the Panthers’ biggest strengths from the year before became their biggest nightmare, as the penalty kill looked totally lost out on the ice. The Panthers lost out on valuable points from their dreadful PK, conceding 3 goals to the Pittsburgh Penguins on the PK in a painful 4-3 loss, 2 goals to the Montreal Canadiens in a 5-1 thrashing, and at least 1 goal in 11 other games across the months of October and November.

Skipping ahead to the all-star break, the Panthers season looked flatter than ever. Florida stood 20-22-6, 6th in the Atlantic, and 11 points behind the Penguins for the 2nd wild card spot, meaning that something needed to change. Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov had played with each other for years, but Barkov had struggled the two months prior, with just 20 points across 23 games, a massive step down from his electric October.

At the same time, Vincent Trocheck and Nick Bjugstad were going through growing pains themselves with their new teammates. Trocheck especially has been a victim to the experimenting of Bob Boughner.

Boughner rolled out Jonathan Huberdeau with Vincent Trocheck and Denis Malgin on the second line whilst Barkov was partnered with Evgeni Dadonov on the left and Nick Bjugstad on the right in the first game back from the All-Star break versus the New York Islanders, a 4-1 victory in Brooklyn. The Panthers follow-up the Isles win by winning 5 of their next 6, and dominating February with a 8-3-0 record-setting them into prime contention for postseason.

The change completely revolutionizes the Panthers top players going forward to the end of the season. Bjugstad explodes for a 15 point March (7 goals, 8 assists), more than all of what he had in the 2016-2017 season. Bjugstad also ended the season with career-highs in assists (28) and points (48).

Vinny Trocheck’s second line puts up even more than the first, as him and Huberdeau finish just under point-per-game averages across the two months, with new Panther Frank Vatrano improving the second line even more upon arrival from Boston.

While the forwards are sorted out after January, what hasn’t been given enough credit is the work Bob Boughner has done with the defense. A former defenseman himself, Boughner knew how to work with some of the defenders in particular.

MacKenzie Weegar, a 7th round draft pick, impressed under Boughner with his defensive quickness and solid use of the body, earning a starting place on the third pair for a majority of the season.

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Aaron Ekblad seemed a shell of the player he was is in the 2016-17 season following concussion symptoms. Ekblad began to recover his form this season, scoring a career-high 16 goals (as well as a career-high 8.6 shooting percentage) and 22 assists, with a career-high 119 blocks, able to benefit from Boughner’s defensive strategies.

The most improved player under Boughner had to be Keith Yandle. In the season prior, the former New York Ranger completely underachieved, with infinite amount of turnovers and a very limited factor on the offensive end.

This year, Yandle was given the role of “quarterback” of the power play, as he delivered in style. Yandle’s 17 power play assists was a great homage to the 2013-14 season when he totaled 31 assists on the man advantage. He had 3 more goals, 12 more assists, 2 less penalties, and a bonus 13 on his plus/minus rating. Yandle and Ekblad’s line was restored to the confident line the Panthers had expected.

As a rookie head coach, Bob Boughner definitely was up and down throughout the year. His first half of the year was frustrating, the penalty kill was awful, the team wasn’t scoring as much as it should have, stockpiled with the multiple bad losses and well behind any of the Panthers’ low expectations.

Once Boughner found the winning formula, there was no going back, as the Cats finished as one of the best teams to ever miss the playoffs, just the second team to finish with 96 points and not make the postseason.

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

Decisions will need to be made about a lot of players in the offseason, but Boughner has my faith going forward to lead this team to its potential.