Math caught up to Panthers this season, but the future looks bright in Florida

Injuries and losses early in the campaign put Florida in a tough spot and their chase for a playoff spot was too little, too late. But the Panthers can bounce back next season thanks to a strong core.

Metaphorically, there are probably a few old-schoolers kicking back with fat cigars these days, chortling at the downfall of the Florida Panthers. The Cats have lost six of their past 10 games, suffering elimination from the playoff race in the process. Whether they were actually in the race before that, I leave to your judgment. But the mathematics are now entirely stacked against them.

And I use that term because Florida has become synonymous with new thinking; the ‘Computer Boys,’ as they are known in the divisive world of Inside Hockey.

Possession stats will tell you that Florida should be in the playoffs – the Panthers rank 10th in the league in Corsi For percentage – but this has been a bad year for that metric. Starting with the top possession team in the NHL, Los Angeles, we may see as many as half of the top-10 Corsi squads miss the post-season.

I am not here to bury the Computer Boys, however. Because one stat does not make a season. Florida, like Los Angeles, has been one of the least efficient teams in the league when it comes to shooting the puck, scoring on just 6.5 percent of their shots.

The kicker for the Cats? Two of their most deadly marksmen, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, missed extended times with injuries. Huberdeau in particular has suited up in just 26 of Florida’s 77 games. Not that it’s much consolation for the squad.

“Nobody likes to make any excuses,” Barkov said. “We’re not that kind of team. Of course we had bad injuries, but we needed to find ways to win games earlier and be in the race. Right now, it’s a tough situation.”

Toss in ailments for Nick Bjugstad and Aaron Ekblad and you’ve got a lot of potential that didn’t get a chance to really come together this season. Which is really too bad, because on paper, Florida is a pretty solid outfit. Vincent Trocheck, Michael Matheson and Jonathan Marchessault are all quality players hitting their strides, with Marchessault the oldest at 26. Along with Barkov, Huberdeau, Bjugstad and Ekblad, that’s a great start, especially with veteran goaltending.

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“Right now it’s tough to think about next year,” Barkov said. “But we have a great young team in this room and when we play good, we can beat any team in the league.”

So perhaps the Panthers just need to bake in the oven for a little while longer. Attracting veterans to the organization hasn’t been a problem lately and Jaromir Jagr has expressed interest in extending his legendary NHL career (though I suppose we can’t assume it’s going to be in Florida).

Because there is still learning to be done with this young core. Though the 2016-17 season has almost run its course in Florida, the Panthers can still use the remaining games to get better and show what is possible next season. What does coach Tom Rowe want to see?

“Compete level, ability to make plays,” he said. “Make plays under pressure, make plays with poise. Just learn to be a consistent team day in and day out.”

I think they’ve got the crew to do it. Barkov in particular appears to be on the cusp of something special, if only he could play a full 82 games. The big center has great creativity with the puck and uses his body so well when he has possession, there’s no reason he cannot be a point-per-game player or better next season. And with the offensively dangerous Huberdeau skating alongside him, things get even more intriguing.

Florida probably deserved a better fate this season, but reality said otherwise. But one of the philosophical underpinnings of possession stats is that eventually, the math catches up. The Panthers couldn’t make the equation work this season, but there is plenty to be excited for in the near future.

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