Another season, another slow start for the Florida Panthers. Last year, the Cats actually won two of their first three before going off track, but this year they are one of two teams without a win in the NHL (the other is Detroit).
In a season with so much promise, and coming off one where a terrible start doomed the Panthers to another April off. With the new talent, and another year in Bob Boughner’s system, this shouldn’t be happening again, yet it is. So what can be done to fix what ails the Cats before the hole becomes too big to dig out of?
To start, let’s focus on where the Panthers haven’t shown anywhere near their capabilities yet: third periods.
They’ve been outscored four-nothing in three third periods, and according to Natural Stat Trick, their CF% (Corsi For) in third periods is 47.8%. Their total SCF% (Scoring Chances For) according to Puck On Net is 53.12%.
They are not able to fully execute their systems in the third period unlike in the first and second. Their special teams have also been incredibly poor to start the season, with a 0-12 start on the power play, while giving up two shorthanded goals.
Combine that with the three PP goals they’ve given up, they’re already -5 on special teams while being at +2 5v5.
And it’s not necessarily their team game that has been the biggest issue for the Panthers this season. They’ve had two totally dominant periods already this year unlike they had almost the entirety of last year: one against the Lightning and another against the Blue Jackets.
They’ve not been able to build on those periods and dominate a larger stretch of time, because teams have adjusted to not only the way the Panthers use their lines but also their breakout along the boards to the forwards.
The Panthers don’t really adjust back. Because they’ve not been able to consistently play better than their opponent for a good stretch, individual moments have killed this team, whether it be the shorthanded goal against in Tampa, James Reimer’s awful night against Columbus, or a few overly aggressive defensive moments against Vancouver.
They hadn’t lost two consecutive home games in regulation for over a year, until these last two.
Bob Boughner and his coaching staff have also been eager to change lines in their time in Florida, which they did before the Canucks game, but never want to change defense pairings that are clearly broken.
Matheson–Pysyk, for instance, have had three pretty poor games together, where they’ve been at best passable, and they’ve also been responsible for some of the bigger defensive breakdowns, yet there is no indication from the coaching staff that they’ll mess with the pairings barring injury or suspension.
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Some of the Panthers’ individual errors could be masked by balancing the pairings, as Boughner and company are always willing to do with the lines.
So what can the Panthers do to fix some of their issues before it’s too late? First, it’s more than past due to change the D pairings, whether Matheson is suspended for his hit on Pettersson or not.
They only did that once last year and abandoned it halfway through a said game. It’s a bullet that remains locked in a chamber that should’ve been fired off long ago, and it should help ease some of the defensive breakdowns, even with new chemistry needing to be developed.
The risk is well worth the reward. The man advantage also needs tweaking, whether it be going back and sticking with five forwards or reverting to a more traditional set-up.
Hoffman and Trocheck are both shoot-first players who eliminate some of the passing elements that make the first unit so good and fluid, which isn’t present without Huberdeau.
Hoffman could easily anchor the second unit alongside Ekblad with his shot. If they go back to five forwards, moving Hoffman’s position around would allow him to be the primary shoot-first option with Trocheck set up more as a passer.
Whatever option Paul McFarland chooses, he needs to stick with it. Panicking makes the Panthers PP worse, which it certainly was against Vancouver.
The Panthers haven’t been entirely outplayed in any of their first three games, but have been stymied multiple times in critical situations because they’ve not been willing to adjust mid-game in the ways they showed in spurts last year when the changes were needed.
The season is not in danger of spiraling out of control… yet. In order to prevent that from happening, the Panthers need to adjust systemically and with personnel deployment in order to prevent this rut from getting any deeper.
As this team knows from experience, you don’t make the playoffs in October and November, but you can miss them then.
And right now, the track is sadly more miss than make. If they make changes, the track could be back in the right direction. But the danger is there again, which it shouldn’t be this time.