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

Florida Panthers new coach Bob Boughner speaks during a press conference at the BB&T Center Monday, June 12, 2017 in Sunrise, Fla. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
Florida Panthers new coach Bob Boughner speaks during a press conference at the BB&T Center Monday, June 12, 2017 in Sunrise, Fla. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images) /

First year head coaches in the NHL often have to overcome growing pains as they learn the ropes of running an entire ship at the NHL level. Bob Boughner was no exception.

Boughner came in with every pre-requisite needed for success at the NHL level, including detailed systems analysis, plans and ideas for how he wanted his teams to play. Adapting to new systems takes time, especially since Boughner was the third coach the Panthers had in around a year, but by the end of the season, Boughner had imparted his system on his team and it certainly looked as if they found a formula for success. Where did Boughner go right, where did he go wrong, and what does he need to do to take the next step so his team can take the next step?

Bob Boughner found a way to adjust and grow as a bench boss as the season went on. At points, he didn’t seem willing to adjust to how other teams played against his, particularly when it came to in-game adjustments. His teams ended up playing too aggressive, too open and too risky when it came to the forecheck and the breakout.

Florida as a result was one of the worst teams defensively in terms of shots allowed and high-danger shots allowed until February. Defensive zone breakdowns became less frequent and less egregious as they went away from a strategy that required them to collapse in front of the net defensively in high-danger situations, which played a major role in the improvement.

It obviously helps to have good goaltending to mask some of those issues, and he did, but the changes that were made did solidify a creaky defensive team to some extent, even as his D pairs almost never changed.

Where he was more willing to adjust was with the forward lines, which seemingly changed almost every game. He knew, and admitted as much multiple times, that his team didn’t have a ton of scoring depth, so he tried to formulate whatever he could with lines to compensate. Until he broke up the HuberdeauBarkovDadonov troika, the team could reasonably be described as a one line team, even though that one line was one of the most underrated in the game.

Once Huberdeau slid down a line, the Panthers found themselves some balance and scoring depth while not sacrificing any of the top line dominance they had. That adjustment is in no small part why the Panthers had the best record in the league after the All-Star break. Unlike Gerard Gallant, Bob was also willing to ride his big horses when required, which meant that the ice time for the 27-16-63 and 11-16-63 combinations were nearly 12 hours combined of time on ice, according to Matt DeFranks.

His delegation of specialty teams responsibilities to Paul McFarland for the power play, and Jack Capuano for the penalty kill did eventually pay dividends. After a woeful start in both areas, the penalty kill became one of the best in the league from after Thanksgiving on, and the power play, while inconsistent, did have better bursts than any Cats man advantage had since perhaps the days when the Panthers had a top 10 PP under Kevin Dineen.

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However, both the PP and PK relied a little too heavily on the big guns in both cases to be successful, and the lack of experimentation with personnel particularly on the PK proved to be an issue at times.

Boughner certainly improved as the season went on, but he still needs to improve in areas for the Panthers to take the next step. Item #1 would be in-game adjustments. He was willing to put his lines in a blender in a pinch, but the team never really changed how they played to counter what other teams were good at, and they could often get whitewashed in periods and not have a chance to recover.

For one reason or another, he also never wanted to tinker with the D pairings, which certainly caused the team some problems at the start of the year, even if the pairs eventually did gel. A better willingness to switch D pairings to spice not only offense but to better balance defensive responsibilities is something he and Jack Capuano would do well to try next season. Less Micheal Haley would also do wonders for the Panthers’ fourth line, which could easily be used in more of an offensive context if more players like Maxim Mamin were used instead of Haley, for instance.

Bob Boughner is not exactly a great tactician like Mike Babcock or Mike Sullivan, and he doesn’t have the horses to do what those two coaches (and others) can do either. But he certainly made lemonade with some of the melons he was given, which should give Panthers fans hope that he could improve even further, not just with his own coaching acumen and instincts, but with better players, his team could take another step in the right direction.

His team next season cannot start slowly as they did in 2017-18, as that was what doomed them in their hopes to make the playoffs. If he’s willing to adjust more in-game, and be willing to take risks when necessary, the Panthers have the potential to really blossom, as does Boughner as head coach.

Next: Four Defensemen the Cats Should Look to Acquire

If his progression continues to be linear, then his next step could be a great one not just for him, but for his team.