Florida Panthers Remain Stuck in Playoff Purgatory

SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 30: Head coach Bob Boughner of the Florida Panthers directs the players during a time out in overtime against the Buffalo Sabres at the BB&T Center on November 30, 2018 in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Sabres 3-2 in overtime. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
SUNRISE, FL - NOVEMBER 30: Head coach Bob Boughner of the Florida Panthers directs the players during a time out in overtime against the Buffalo Sabres at the BB&T Center on November 30, 2018 in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Sabres 3-2 in overtime. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) /

The Florida Panthers are 5-2 in their last seven games, with a slight uptick in overall play.

Much of that can be attributed to Henrik Borgstrom and Jayce Hawryluk replacing Dryden Hunt and Anthony Greco in the lineup, but the Florida Panthers have rebounded a little after their worst two games of the season in St. Louis and Minnesota.

They’ve also made two small but decent trades in getting money and spare parts out with draft picks coming in. However, neither of these things brings the Panthers any closer to playoff contention or even a full-on sell-off.

So Florida is stuck where they’ve been stuck for almost three seasons: the messy middle.

MoneyPuck has the Panthers at only 13.05% odds of making the playoffs, behind everyone in the East except Detroit, Ottawa, and New Jersey.

They had to beat Montreal last Friday to make any meaningful playoff waves but put in one of their more lackluster performances of the season instead.

Montreal is a team that has overachieved in spite of notable roster deficiencies, especially on the blue line, but is seven points better off than Florida currently.

Buffalo is another team that has overachieved based on their underlying numbers, but they sit safely in a playoff spot.

Teams like the Red Wings, Rangers, and Hurricanes are having similar seasons to the Panthers in spite of their far lower expectations.

In spite of the recent uptick in form, the Panthers still have notable problem areas including in a top-heavy roster, poor coaching, and a lack of direction that hasn’t changed in the last two weeks, and won’t unless major moves are made.

Part of this can be elucidated in this chart from Sean Tierney of Charting Hockey:

In spite of slightly positive possession numbers and a bit of bad PDO luck here and there, the Panthers are currently closer to the worst teams in the league as opposed to the best.

Their GF% (Goals For Percentage) is far below what would be expected based on shot and other underlying numbers, and even if they matched their GF% to their xGF% (Expected Goals For), they’d still be a fairly mediocre team.

Florida is also in the red for xGF/60 vs. xGA/60:

Structurally, this team hasn’t changed in its good and bad stretches. They still have consistent defensive breakdowns, especially after one-and-done offensive zone possessions, they struggle to clear the zone on routine exits multiple times a game, and outside of the top line, no one can generate meaningful offense at 5v5.

These few wins against mediocre opposition and two small but decent trades will not change the trajectory of the season for Florida, no matter what the coaches and players say.

The Panthers are where they are largely because of an amazing power play, and Herculean efforts from their top four forwards and two defensemen to keep this team’s head above water.

If 11-16-63 or 68 are taken out of a game, the Panthers are often blown out or dominated, as they were in Minnesota and against Montreal.

Teams know the game plan to stop this line and if they can, Florida is rather toothless everywhere else. Florida’s stars can only do so much if they don’t have support from down the lineup and behind the bench, and it’s clear that more often than not, they don’t have it.

Calling them out as Jim Lites (Dallas’ President) did with his team’s stars makes the situation worse, not better.

These concerns are why the Panthers are underachieving vis-a-vis their expectations, and they must be addressed if the Panthers are to get out of the messy middle they’re currently stuck in.

Trading away Hutchinson and Petrovic is a start, but more has to be done. It can be done on the ice with tweaked systems, changing line combinations and defense pairings or even changing the approach to possess the puck more in situations where they would otherwise want to be on the rush.

They have a few other tradeable assets that they’d be willing to move, including newly acquired Chris Wideman, but that would only net them a minor return.

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Florida also isn’t necessarily asset rich in order to trade for the depth scoring they’d need to make a playoff run of any significance, and would it be worth giving up what few assets they do have to make a more than likely feeble run towards a first-round exit against Tampa or Washington?

The first two months of 2019 should be used to determine whether the Panthers as presently constructed can contend with Tampa, Toronto and the rest of a toughening Atlantic Division not just now, but for years to come.

They certainly aren’t playing like they can, and almost half of the season has gone by. Another run like they had from the All-Star break on last season does not seem feasible either.

Ownership has to be committed to a plan in 2019 to make this team a consistent contender like those they now have to face night in and night out, and they need to commit to that plan.

Whether that plan is a rebuild on the fly to get in younger players and assets or buying bigger names at key positions through trade or free agency to contend now, they must commit to something.

Being stuck in this purgatory they’re stuck in will hurt this franchise in the long run not just considering the expectations they had for themselves, but who and what they must go up against, which includes contract negotiations for the biggest stars who are all due substantial raises.

If there is a New Year’s Resolution in Pantherland for 2019, it should be this: commit to a vision and a plan, and see it out. Invest in it and support it financially.

Finding these answers will be difficult, but winning a Stanley Cup is not easy. Bold decisions need to be made this year to decide the future of this franchise because being stuck in purgatory is not a feasible way to win.

A few wins and decent trades will only cleanse the pallet for so long.

Next. FLA Acquire Chris Wideman and 2019 3rd-Round Pick From EDM. dark

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