Florida Panthers: Is the Problem Goaltending, Defense, or Both?

RALEIGH, NC - NOVEMBER 23: Florida Panthers Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (72) looks through traffic to find a loose puck during an NHL game between the Florida Panthers and the Carolina Hurricanes on November 23, 2019 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC. (Photo by John McCreary/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
RALEIGH, NC - NOVEMBER 23: Florida Panthers Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky (72) looks through traffic to find a loose puck during an NHL game between the Florida Panthers and the Carolina Hurricanes on November 23, 2019 at the PNC Arena in Raleigh, NC. (Photo by John McCreary/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

History and circumstance often divide us on fault lines. Hatfields and McCoys, “Team Edward” and “Team Jacob,” “Yanny or Laurel” and any number of debates that cleave us in two and leave us heading for our respective rhetorical trenches.

The debate among Florida Panthers fans as to whether the problems plaguing the team are predominantly the goaltending or the defense won’t go down as one of history’s great debates, but as the team scuffles along, the debate has gotten louder and louder, and the fans more and more divided, and many wonder whether there is a black and white answer. So are you team “it’s the goaltending” team, “it’s the defense,” or team “both?”

There can be no doubt that the Panthers have had bad goaltending this year. In terms of team GSAA, only one team is worse than Florida at this writing, and that’s New Jersey, who just fired their coach.

According to Hockey Reference, Sergei Bobrovsky’s GSAA of -14.42 isn’t just the worst number in his career by a substantial margin, it’s worst among all starters this season by a substantial margin. By his own admission, he’s been bad. Sam Montembeault’s number is better, but still in the negatives, and he’s been sent down to the AHL.

Roberto Luongo and James Reimer combined for a -22.66 GSAA last season, and this year, Bobrovsky and Montembeault have combined for a -18.1 GSAA, which is “better,” but not by much. In 2016-17, they had a 9.07 team GSAA, and in 2017-18, they had a 19.83 GSAA, 19.52 of which was from Roberto Luongo.

When the Athletic’s Alison Lukan calculated the xG for the Panthers’ top 20 best scoring chances against back in November, they actually graded out 11th in terms of xG against, suggesting that goaltending woes are a major contributor to their issues. They’re also 22nd in high-danger save percentage, which is not league-worst but not great either. Dale Tallon and Joel Quenneville expected better goaltending this season, and they haven’t seen it.

Another recurring problem in Sunrise has been the defense corps. While the Panthers scored the most goals in franchise history last season, they also gave up the most. This year, they have new coaching, a much improved MacKenzie Weegar, a stabilizing presence in Anton Stralman and a better overall team concept. That has led to… the Panthers giving up on average over two xG against a game:

They’ve been worse than average in xG against for the entire month of November, no matter whether Weegar, Pysyk or Brown are sitting, and no matter the goalie behind them. Since 2016, they have got worse, on average, in allowing shots and chances right in front of the crease every year as the defense corps has aged.

On an individual level, multiple defensemen are having career-worst seasons, including Mark Pysyk and Mike Matheson, two players who the Panthers were banking on improvement from, but have not gotten. Even Anton Stralman, a player the Panthers signed to help steady the blue line, hasn’t offered much improvement in that area.

While the Panthers’ goaltending has been poor this season, they have had to face some of the highest shot quality in the league. It hasn’t mattered what goalie the Panthers are using either, the shot quality against is largely the same.

James Reimer, who had a GSAA of -9.27 last year in Florida, has a 2.74 GSAA this year. That cannot be all attributed to Reimer himself improving, even though he has. According to Charting Hockey, Bobrovsky is facing 2.720 xG against a game. Even though he’s been playing poorly, no goalie can play well facing that heavy workload on a consistent basis, especially facing shots on average from closer in than almost every other starter, though he’s given up too many rebound chances. Being 25th in high danger CF% according to Natural Stat Trick has not made his life any easier, either.

What “team” you support largely relies on your interpretation of a classic chicken and egg debate. Would better goaltending lead to better and more assured defense? Probably. Would better defensive coverage lead to better goaltending on average? Probably.

As the Panthers’ defense has gotten worse over time, their goaltending, on the whole, has gotten worse too, outside of an incredible two months from Roberto Luongo in the winter of 2018. The Panthers have tried to address their goaltending from the outside, and the woes that affected Luongo and Reimer are starting to bear on Bobrovsky too.

So what is the Florida Panthers’ major malfunction? Both bad defense and bad goaltending coexist in the same space and are not mutually exclusive, so if one improves, the other stands to improve.

Goaltending, in spite of adding Sergei Bobrovsky, has not appreciably improved. Defense, in spite of adding better coaching, Anton Stralman and a massive jump for MacKenzie Weegar, has not appreciably improved on the whole either.

Florida has tried to make massive changes in net and behind the bench, and neither has changed the results. At some point, a new system becomes familiar and team chemistry can no longer be an excuse for why a team struggles defensively. At some point, a goaltender cannot be expected to flip a switch and have his performance dramatically change overnight.

The Panthers aren’t getting rid of Sergei Bobrovsky or their new head coach. They can, far more easily, make changes on the blue line and in the forward group. Improving those two areas from a personnel standpoint might be the path of least resistance to getting a spark and improving results.

Whether it’s goaltending, defense or some combination of the two (it’s both), the concerns are urgent enough that something must be done as soon as possible. Whether it be a trade on the blue line, an investment in another goalie coach or sports psychologist for Bobrovsky, whatever it may be, something needs to be done.

Next. Huberdeau Making a Strong Case for 2020 All-Star Game. dark

This season is too important for the Panthers to wait around and hope things get better on their own.