Before the 2019-20 NHL season started, and long before anyone shuddered when they heard the term “Coronavirus,” the Florida Panthers were expected to make the playoffs for the sixth time in franchise history.
They spent money on a franchise goalie and franchise coach, had superstar forwards in their prime, and seemed destined to make a move in an open Eastern Conference.
As the pandemic spread and the NHL paused play, the Florida Panthers were three points outside the postseason but it felt like a far bigger gap. They only won five out of 16 games in February and traded away their No. 2 center at the trade deadline. They were a desperate team making desperate moves to save a desperate situation. If they did fail to make the playoffs, a shakeup in the front office looked likely.
The pandemic, as morbid as it sounds, gave the Panthers a mulligan. They got a free pass into the “postseason” when they likely wouldn’t have qualified otherwise. Now, it’s a matter of taking advantage of that opportunity, which is something this franchise has failed to do countless times. What are the expectations for the Panthers in this pandemic postseason, and what will the result say about the future of the franchise?
First impressions of the post pause Panthers were bad, and that’s being charitable. They didn’t have Aaron Ekblad or MacKenzie Weegar, and no team will look good against anyone without their top two defensemen, but the Lightning were missing two stars and still looked like a juggernaut. Many of the now-ubiquitous concerns for the Panthers remained: a myriad of problems in the defensive zone, a team lacking offensive depth when Barkov and Huberdeau are shut down, and goaltending that brings more questions than answers. It looked like the pre pause Panthers picked up right where they left off. They’re not beating any team once, let alone three times, playing like that.
One game does not a postseason make but if the Panthers wanted to assuage concerns about their issues, they didn’t do much of that against the Lightning, even considering who they were playing and who they were without (don’t forget, D coach Mike Kitchen opted out of the restart). Perhaps it’s a good thing they got their bad performances out of their system in a meaningless scrimmage, and the Islanders are by no means the Lightning, but this team is streaky. When it’s going well, they get on a roll. When it goes wrong, see February 2020.
On one hand, the Panthers should be beating the Islanders. While very different teams stylistically, they are in similar places in the standings. If the Panthers want to be what they say they are, they should be better than the Islanders in a five-game sample. It’s not unreasonable to expect the Panthers as currently constructed to win this series, and after all the investments made, they should be expected to beat a team similar to them.
Should the Panthers lose to the Islanders as many are predicting would not be surprising or unexpected, however? This is a massively flawed team that was on the bubble when the league paused, and no time in quarantine is going to change the roster to address those concerns or make any player magically better. Any good team should be able to exploit those flaws rather easily as the Lightning showed.
Perhaps the only way the Panthers could truly change the perception around them is by getting swept by the Islanders, altogether possible, or by winning a seven-game playoff series for the first time since 1996, which is less likely. Whatever the outcome, the stakes are high. Elliotte Friedman says the Panthers are cutting payroll next year, so key free agents are going to be leaving. Nick Kypreos has also said on his new podcast that Dale Tallon’s contract expires at the end of this season, and renewal might hinge on what they do this postseason. With Chris Pronger already gone, the Panthers could look extremely different on ice and in the front office if the postseason goes badly.
But no matter the stakes or the unique situation, the Panthers are what they’ve been for multiple years: a bubble team consistently on the wrong side of the bubble. They should be better than that by now, but they’re not. They have moments where they rise above that, but those moments never appear consistently enough to be anything more than flukes. Their organizational issues are well documented and only an extended postseason run can fundamentally change those perceptions. With that outcome unlikely, it seems the Panthers will settle back into their pre-pandemic position: a team that should be far better than it is but cannot get out of its own way.
The quirky nature of the qualifiers gives the Panthers a chance to temporarily change the narrative around them, but only temporarily unless they make a long run. They are a team with massive questions in the front office, a development model that isn’t working, and will soon be under a cap crunch trying to win with stars who are only getting older and might be getting antsy. It’s far beyond time that they shed their past identity as nearly men, but there isn’t much reason to believe that they will. Beating or losing to the Islanders won’t necessarily change that.
The Panthers should be expected to beat the Islanders, but they won’t have failed to meet expectations if they don’t. It’ll just be the same old Panthers again, just in a new form: failing to meet a lower and lower bar.