If you’re of the mind the off-season doesn’t begin until the moment the Stanley Cup is handed out, you could make the case the Panthers were an off-season winner before the off-season even began. Call it the Joel Quenneville effect.
The belief was Quenneville’s hiring was going to put an up-and-coming team into consistent contention. Indeed, the pieces were seemingly in place, some of which could draw comparisons to the players with whom Quenneville had been so successful in Chicago. Aleksander Barkov was Quenneville’s new Jonathan Toews. Jonathan Huberdeau has the ability to masquerade as Coach Q’s Patrick Kane Lite. Aaron Ekblad is the malleable young defenseman, not unlike those Quenneville helped mold into stars. And Keith Yandle is the blueline’s calming veteran presence. It’s no one-to-one comparison, but he has the ability to be in Florida what Brian Campbell – coincidentally a former Panther – was to the early-Stanley Cup-era teams in Chicago.
And so far, so good. With more than one month in the books and 20 percent of the schedule in their rearview, the Cats find themselves four games above .500 with three wins and points out of all but one of their past five. Through 17 games, the Panthers are less speed bump and more actual impediment to its opposition.
The evidence of that can be found in the underlying numbers, be it overall percentages or per-60-minute rates, which indicate these Panthers have been better than those that took the ice last season in almost every noteworthy category. Florida’s Corsi percentage at 5-on-5 has increased from 49.4 to 53 percent. Florida’s shots percentage has increased by 4.5 percent to 55.1 percent, tops in the league. The Panthers’ 54.1 scoring chance percentage is second in the NHL and up 5.2 percent from last season. Florida has also seen a 2.4 percent increase in share of high-danger chances. That said, their 48.4 percent rating ranks 22nd. Can’t win ‘em all.
The process has led to results, too. While not dominating the Atlantic Division, perhaps the most difficult division in hockey, the Panthers have 21 points with 20 percent of the season in the books. That’s 100-plus points when extrapolated across a full campaign, almost assuredly enough for Florida to find its way back to the post-season for the first time in four seasons.
Yet, one can’t look at the Panthers – and, more specifically, peruse the individual statistics – without getting the feeling that something isn’t quite right, that this team could already be so much more that it is, that Florida has potentially left some points on the table.
Heading into Tuesday’s action, Florida’s offense has been among the league’s elite, producing 3.53 goals per game and 35.1 shots per game, second-best in the NHL. The power play has been excellent, ranking eighth with a 22.6 percent success rate. Even the penalty kill has been above average, the 83 percent clip only a fraction outside of the league’s 10-best. But the Panthers also possess the league’s sixth-highest goals against per game, a minus-one goal differential and it is incontrovertible that Florida has among the worst goaltending duos in the entire NHL some five weeks into the season.
Stunning about the play in the Panthers’ crease, of course, isn’t only that it has been so poor – only the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and New Jersey Devils tandems have posted a lower combined save percentage than the .886 SP registered by Florida’s duo – but that it has been so poor when it’s the one position into which the team poured a boatload of cash in the summer. An eye-popping seven-year, $70-million contract was handed to Sergei Bobrovsky, and for those who believed the needle needed to be moved further after Quenneville’s addition, Bobrovsky’s signing seemingly did the trick.
Five weeks in, however, and the results have been disappointing at best. Entering action Tuesday, Bobrovsky’s .884 SP and bloated 3.39 goals-against average rank 45th and 41st, respectively, among the 46 goaltenders with at least seven games played. Meanwhile, Bobrovsky’s .883 SP ranks 43rd among the 44 goaltenders with 300 minutes played at five-a-side and his minus-9.81 goals-saved above average, second-worst among the group of 44 netminders, paints an incredibly unflattering portrait of his performance.
But here’s the silver lining, what the overall numbers don’t say about Bobrovsky: he’s getting better and seemingly settling in. Since a 2-2-2 run in his first six appearances, during which he sunk to an .872 SP, Bobrovsky has dropped only one regulation decision and has posted an .895 SP. Granted, that’s not a total befitting a $10-million netminder, but it’s a start. That we’ve seen this story play out before with Bobrovsky before, too, should inspire at least some confidence that he can right his game. Of the eight prior seasons in which Bobrovsky has played 35 or more games, he has started with a .915 SP or lower five times. And in all but one of those campaigns, he’s rebounded from a slow start.
In 2012-13, Bobrovsky began with a .907 SP through 14 games. He finished with a .923 SP and the Vezina Trophy. In 2013-14, his .909 SP through 14 games was the preamble to a campaign in which he finished with a .923 SP. In 2014-15, it was the same story, a .907 SP through 14 games and a .918 SP by season’s end. And when it seemed he might lose his job due to his early performance in 2018-19, he wrapped up the campaign with a .913 SP and a league-best nine shutouts. That outlier is the 2015-16 campaign, which Bobrovsky began with an .888 SP through 14 games, near identical to his performance entering Tuesday. That season was the worst of his time with the Columbus Blue Jackets, one he finished with a .908 SP.
Still, there’s ways for the Panthers to help the netminder – and backup Samuel Montembeault, who has likewise disappointed – and the onus can be shared. Only eight goaltenders have faced more high-danger shots against per 60 minutes at five-a-side than Bobrovsky. That’s an area that can be cleaned up. And the same goes for clearing rebounds. Per hour at 5-on-5, only seven netminders face more second-chance opportunities. Bobrovsky’s average shot against also comes from tighter in than all but four netminders, which points to some crease-clearing and insulating issues that could absolutely be tightened up.
If the Cats can do that, too, then there’s no reason to believe Bobrovsky can’t bounce back. And if he rounds into form behind a team that’s offensively gifted and more defensively sound, the off-season success could very well translate to the end of a post-season drought and the long-awaited step forward that the Panthers have been waiting to take.
(All advanced statistics via NaturalStatTrick)
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