For the Florida Panthers, there may be no more important month of any season than October.
Slow starts have doomed this franchise in countless seasons, and with the investments made in players and the coaching staff this year, another slow start would be unacceptable.
There’s also a curiosity as to what Joel Quenneville’s Panthers would look like, and they got a stern test with back-to-back games against Tampa Bay. Here are a few observations from the first two games, and how they might translate to future play:
When Joel Quenneville talked about what team plays a style most comparable to his, he said the Bruins. Boston dominates with physicality, puck possession and grinding teams down, even though they’re not necessarily fast.
In the first two games, you can see a more aggressive forecheck in the offensive zone, more physicality from the forwards on opposing defensemen and a willingness to slow the game down in order to neutralize the opponent’s speed.
Against Tampa, the games were slogs, which is similar to what Boston wants to do when playing on their terms.
It’s not all that dissimilar from what the Florida Panthers looked like a season ago, though the path to those results is different, although they’re still underwater from an expected goals perspective because the chances they do give up are good ones.
On the whole, they’re still a bit too loose defensively, which could be partially due to bad habits from previous seasons, and they’re still not generating a ton 5v5 with only two goals as of game two, likely because many of their shot choices are still coming from non-dangerous areas, and perhaps due to the focus on defensive structures in training camp.
One of the more notable changes to the Panthers’ play is their breakout. No longer is the team relying on their defense to rush the puck out of the defensive zone.
Quick passes are being used to establish speed from the blue line in, and that’s now being done by the forwards, which is leading to fewer turnovers in transition.
The pace of play is slower, but considering how the Panthers gave up so many goals last year, the sacrifice is worth it in the short term to help fix some of the defensive issues.
Point shots have also decreased in volume, which is another positive sign, though they could still serve to cycle more in the offensive zone.
In terms of new signings, Sergei Bobrovsky has already proved his worth with some truly amazing saves in both games against the Lightning, though he has given up seven goals in the first two and some of the goals were not the best.
That’s not entirely a surprise considering how many shots the Panthers give up and where they usually give them up from, but the Cats have clearly not seen the best of Bob yet.
Anton Stralman has teamed up with MacKenzie Weegar to create a true shutdown defensive pairing, and simplifying Stralman’s tasks has worked wonders in addressing some of the problems that plagued him in Tampa last year.
Noel Acciari has been the kind of fourth-line center that Quenneville will perhaps use too often in key situations but has shown his physicality can work to grind down the opposition, and Brett Connolly hasn’t done much yet 5v5 or on the power play but tends to be streaky.
Two games against the Lightning are not necessarily indicative of what Florida will be this season since the Bolts are still a top-three team in the league, but most of what we’ve seen is an extension of what the Panthers were last season with better goaltending.
That probably won’t cut it over an 82-game season especially since outperforming their expected goals as they have is not a formula for success.
But the building blocks in terms of structure, phases of play and principles are not going to be established over two games, and the difference in having Sergei Bobrovsky versus last year’s rotating cast of Reimer, Luongo, and Hutchinson at this point in the season is noticeable, and that is worth something in terms of team confidence.
Joel Quenneville’s stamp is not fully imprinted on his new team yet, but positive signs are emerging.
While the Panthers don’t look too different than last year, it has taken them 10 fewer games to pick up their first regulation win than last year.
If they can get results while their play is not 100% right, that will be a huge difference when it matters most, since that hasn’t happened in recent years.
If the steady improvement continues, the Florida Panthers could be on to something.