The Florida Panthers didn’t officially eliminate themselves from playoff contention with their atrocious defensive performance in a 7-5 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs Tuesday night, but they did put themselves on life support. The official ousting will almost certainly come tonight, but the reality is that, once again, the Panthers have been devoid of hope since before the all-star break.
You look at the Panthers’ roster and sometimes you wonder why they’re so bad. It simply doesn’t make sense that a team with a roster this good should be so bad. They have arguably the best two-way forward in the league in Aleksander Barkov and two lines that are as dangerous as any in the NHL. They have five players on pace for career highs offensively. The Mike Hoffman trade worked out even better than anyone in the organization could have hoped. The Panthers have the second-best power play in the NHL and average 30 shots a game.
But once again, the Panthers are reduced to moral victories and selling hope for the future, the way coach Bob Boughner did when he pointed out that since three games before the all-star break, the Panthers are on a 95-point pace. Big whoop. Bad teams almost always play well in garbage games and there’s nothing to suggest that there’s any kind of carry-over to the next season. Or they can talk about the 16 regulation losses by one goal and the nine losses in overtime or shootouts, the way GM Dale Tallon did, and lead you to believe that it’s a matter of bad luck.
Hooey. Tallon also points out the Panthers have blown leads 26 times this season. And do you know why that has happened? Because this is a team that is so defensively flawed that it doesn’t even look like it cares about how it plays on the other side of the puck. The goaltending has not been great and that was exacerbated by injuries to Roberto Luongo, but the defensive lapses the Panthers have sometimes are inexcusable.
There has been lots of chatter about how the Panthers could be in the running to sign both Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin when they become unrestricted free agents this summer, but what the Panthers should be doing is focusing on defensemen. Every indication points to Jacob Trouba leaving the Winnipeg Jets, likely this summer. He has one year left of restricted free agency with arbitration rights and the chances of him remaining in Winnipeg, or playing for any other team in Canada, are almost nil. The Jets are not going to let an asset like Trouba leave for nothing, so he is a prime candidate to be traded, probably at the draft this year. He would look very good in a Panthers uniform.
As it stands now, the Panthers have about $17 million in cap space and no major holes to fill. Tallon made it clear that ownership has given him the freedom to spend to the salary cap and he intends to do that to bolster the back end. “We’ve got to be better defensively and that’s our goal,” Tallon said. “We have to be better in our own end, that’s basically our issue. We’ve made moves throughout the year to free up some space and we’re going to be a cap team and we’re going to be aggressive in the off-season.”
Part of the problem for the Panthers when it comes to UFAs is that they have zero chance of landing the best one, who will be Erik Karlsson if he doesn’t re-sign with the San Jose Sharks. But with Hoffman already in their lineup and the checkered history the players have from their days with the Ottawa Senators, there’s no way those two will be able to play on the same team. Which is probably just as well because, as talented as Karlsson is with the puck, what the Panthers need is someone who can stop the bleeding. Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Jake Gardiner will almost certainly be available, but again, he might not fit what the Panthers are seeking. Alex Edler will likely re-sign with Vancouver. Would Tyler Myers be a good fit? Perhaps. It’s not a deep field here.
The Panthers have some talent coming, but none of it is on the blueline. To be sure, Tallon would have to sacrifice some of that young forward talent to get a blueliner such as Trouba, but it would be worth the price. And as Tallon said, signing him to a long-term deal would be no issue.
“It’s been a frustrating year, but we have to take the positives and move forward,” Tallon said. “We have some good young players, we have money to spend, our owner is willing to go to the cap. So it’s great.”
For an organization that will have missed the playoffs six of the last seven years and hasn’t been out of the first round in 22 years, you might want to reserve judgment on how great things look. Panthers fans are tired of hearing about the future. They’re growing weary of a team that wins garbage games down the stretch and shows up the next season and puts itself hopelessly out of the race with terrible starts to seasons. The bleeding has to stop and the blueline is the place where that process has to start.