When a team overachieves in the NHL, multiple things have to go right. Players need to take a step up, coaching has to improve, management needs to make shrewd decisions while also having a little bit of luck too.
If a team fails to meet expectation, a similar combination of things will inevitably end up going wrong.
Undoubtedly, the 2018-19 Florida Panthers are the most disappointing team in club history. For a team with five 20+ goal scorers, multiple players hitting career-highs offensively and one of the best power plays in club history, to miss the playoffs by double-digit points is absolutely unacceptable.
Failures like this do not come about with one or two things going sideways; it has to be an accumulation of smaller mistakes snowballing until they cause an avalanche.
This team is no different, although some of the problems are certainly greater among equals.
While multiple Panthers have had career seasons, many have also regressed and failed to meet expectations at the same time.
Aleksander Barkov is having one of his best offensive seasons but is not having the same kind of year at the other end of the rink.
Some of that is no doubt the team structure, and some of that is his coach overusing him, but if you caught him in a candid moment, he would tell you he could certainly play better.
Outside of that group, too many players have regressed or not reached their potential. Aaron Ekblad is having a solid season, but he hasn’t taken the leap to elite defenseman status that in his fifth NHL season, he probably should have.
Players like Vincent Trocheck, Mike Matheson, and Mark Pysyk have had nightmare seasons either through injury, regression or both, and their regression is notable on a team that is still far too top heavy with glaring structural deficiencies.
Bottom-six woes are still a major problem, and the goaltending maladies are self-explanatory. Florida has had six coaches since the start of the decade, and consistently, coaching has let this franchise down time and time again.
This season is no different. Bob Boughner was brought in to do much of what Gerard Gallant was able to do briefly with the Panthers, which is meld together a more modern, up-tempo style of play with an old school toughness and strength.
That has not happened. Boughner’s teams are structurally deficient at all phases, particularly 5-v-5.
They rely too heavily on low-quality shots from bad areas of the ice, so even as they’re a marginal team at even strength puck possession, they’re 29th in high-danger scoring chances and one of the worst teams in the league in expected goals.
Not only are the Panthers the most reliant team in the NHL on the power play for scoring (61 of their 212 goals as of this writing are PP goals, 29%), defensively they’re one of the most disorganized and lackluster groups in the league, and they’re even worse when they lead in games.
They’re 26th in the league in CF% when leading, they’re 10-7-8 when they lead after one period, 17-6-3 when leading after two, are 3-10 in one-goal games this season, and have blown 12 multi-goal leads.
No matter how good a team is on special teams, with those kind of stats, they’re destined to be at best mediocre, if not outright bad.
If the Panthers had a marginally worse power play, one wonders if they wouldn’t be one of the worst teams in the league, either.
Boughner’s player mismanagement has also cost this team a handful of games. He’s overplayed Aleksander Barkov to the point where he’s too tired to contribute for a team that desperately needs his offensive and defensive skills to be in games, let alone win them.
He’s overplayed players like Troy Brouwer, Riley Sheahan, and Jamie McGinn, and underplayed players like Denis Malgin when healthy and especially Henrik Borgstrom, costing his team in innumerable ways.
Boughner has said he doesn’t want to play young players in fourth line positions and give them fourth-line minutes, and then consistently does, even when those players are producing offensively.
This team has also been let down by management. Dale Tallon has made many good moves, including trading for Mike Hoffman, but not addressing the goaltending position during the offseason has destroyed any chance of this team being competitive this season.
Not enough was done to address the bottom-six issues or add a second pairing defenseman to balance out the problems the top four on the blue line have had all year long.
The player development model in Springfield is also broken. Too many players are not given chances to succeed and develop there because of similar structural and player deployment issues, meaning when players are called up, they’re not able to contribute not only right away, but at all.
Juho Lammikko and Dryden Hunt are a few examples of players who may have had NHL potential, but have never shown it largely because of deficiencies under the hood in the AHL and that became quickly exposed in the NHL.
Ownership cannot escape blame for this season, either. While they’ve spent more on payroll this season than any other, that alone cannot be used to shield them from fault.
They have not spent on the coaching staff in any meaningful way, nor do they spend in the off cap ways that are integral for success in this league such as in scouting or even analytics, though they have at least spent somewhat there.
The decisions they made after the 2016 playoff run have set this franchise back at least a decade by not only making an emotional decision, but by putting people in positions of power who had no qualifications to be in those positions.
That created a culture of fear, a culture of arrogance, and a culture of excuses that has continued to this day even though the slogan painted on the dressing room wall clearly says “No Excuses.”
And when fans have openly wondered if and when management and ownership would address some of these major concerns, they’ve stayed distressingly quiet, unlike in-season two years ago when they didn’t want to stop talking.
Most everything with the Florida Panthers is broken and is in desperate need of large-scale fixing. Signing Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin or any free agents would only paper over some of those cracks.
The failings of the Panthers have little to do with a lack of “toughness” or being “easy to play against,” code for needing more enforcers and tough guys who will only serve to exacerbate problems rather than fixing them.
Aleksander Barkov’s captaincy also has nothing to do with this team’s failings; he’s done all he possibly can and he’s been let down by those around him.
Some problems are bigger than individuals or even an on-ice culture; some problems are deep-rooted and deep-seeded that need heavy-duty investment to fix, and those who have the wherewithal to do so haven’t wanted to.
Ownership and management and everyone working at the BB&T Center have to ask themselves how much they are willing to invest and how much they are willing to give to fix these problems in order to make the Florida Panthers a winner.
Will they do the bare minimum, try to cut corners and save money, which will only lead to more failure, or will they invest the time, capital and effort to make this organization as robust as possible to address fundamentally broken areas of this club before it’s too late?
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Will ownership spend on proven coaching instead of spending little on inexperienced coaches who are not the right fit for a team that isn’t so young anymore?
Will they create a plan and a vision and stick to it, rather than blowing it up on a whim when someone says “I can help you win faster?”
Will the Panthers stop making excuses for every disadvantage they have and every bad decision that goes against them, and instead ask why they haven’t been able to overcome these challenges themselves?
Do they want to make money by having a winning hockey team, instead of continuing to lose money by not investing in the product to turn it around?
Only then can this team reach its potential, but the clock is ticking. Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck become unrestricted free agents in three years, and while hockey players are loyal, how loyal do you want to be to a sinking ship when there are greener pastures elsewhere?
Some of the best players in franchise history are currently wearing the sweater, and if the organization doesn’t want to lose them, they’d better act fast until those decisions about the future are made for them.
There is a crisis of confidence from what’s left of the fanbase towards the decision makers in this club. There is no trust, belief, or confidence that the organization will make the right decisions to turn the franchise around.
This is the same issue plaguing other dysfunctional clubs like the Senators and Oilers, and it’s all of their own making.
Vincent Viola, Doug Cifu, and Matt Caldwell have the opportunity to set the tone for a more promising future that will make Dale Tallon, whoever the next head coach is, and the players’ jobs all far easier, that is if they want to invest the time and money to do so.
Bold decisions must be made and a plan must be created and stuck to if the Panthers want to become what they can be, instead of reverting back to what they always are: a mediocre organization with no direction, no goals, and no hope.