On Friday, the
Florida Panthers signed defenseman Dmitry Kulikov to a three-year contract extension, though the long-time rumor mill subject may not play out all three seasons with the Panthers. We'll see. With Kulikov, the Panthers defense is taking pretty good shape. Brian Campbell, despite carrying a very heavy cap hit, is the most productive and best possession player on their blueline. Kulikov and likely third-pair guy Dylan Olsen had positive Corsi relative percentages in 2013-14, while Erik Gudbranson had a 51.2 percent 5-on-5 Corsi for percentage - not bad at all for a defensive blueliner. Willie Mitchell replaces Ed Jovanovski for that experience and Aaron Ekblad is brand new. Florida is a team of promise and hope that never fulfills its prophecy. Jonathan Huberdeau should bounce back some from a disappointing sophomore season. Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad have all sorts of potential to become a dominant 1-2 force down the middle, but they're a few years away from hitting their primes. Jussi Jokinen was a good, quiet signing. Dave Bolland provides depth and, hopefully, doesn't see more than third or fourth line duty. If the Panthers' younger players could just grow a little and give the team some more, the pieces would be in place for this team to make a jump up the standings. Ya. We've all heard this tune before. But what if the Panthers could get into the post-season, or at least into the race, if their kids did not improve at all? The pieces are in place for that, too. Florida will be in the hunt next season.
For the first time since Jose Theodore surprised everyone with his .916 save percentage in 2011-12, the Panthers will have solid goalies for a full season and it should make a world of a difference. Consider this: in 2013-14, Florida had the NHL's second-worst shooting percentage 5-on-5 in close game situations. Bad, right? The two teams just above them in 28th and 27th respectively were the Los Angeles Kings and New York Rangers. Then consider that, in 2011-12, the last time Florida qualified for the playoffs, they had the league's worst shooting percentage in the same situation. Florida's shooting percentage has stayed close to the same across three seasons. (Los Angeles, the Cup champs in 2012 as well, was only one spot above Florida that season, too.) Then consider that, in 2013-14, Florida's Fenwick for percentage (49.9 percent) was actually
better than its total in 2011-12 (49.7 percent). Although in close situations, its Fenwick for was down in 2013-14 compared to the playoff year.
So what did the 2011-12 playoff team have that the 2013-14 lottery team didn't? The answer: goaltending. In 2014-15, Florida will have Roberto Luongo as its No. 1 for a full season and Al Montoya as his backup. Luongo, we know, had better numbers facing more shots in Florida than he was posting in Vancouver, so we've seen a small sample size from him. Montoya had a good season facing a fair amount of shots in Winnipeg, and he's been an average or better backup over the past four seasons. Exacerbating Florida's problem as a young team with middling possession stats was the fact Tim Thomas, Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom were a terrible trio. Two of those three had a save percentage below .900. Luongo and Montoya should be better than all three. The Panthers surrendered 2,551 shots against last season and allowed 268 goals against for the league's second-worst team save percentage. If you combine Luongo's and Montoya's shots against and saves from 2013-14, their combined save percentage would be .919. The Colorado Avalanche, the surprise playoff team from the West, had a .919 team save percentage in 2013-14, which was
fifth-best in the league. If Montoya and Luongo can replicate those numbers (and why not with their history?), regardless of if the team improves its possession numbers or not, Florida should see marked improvement. The Panthers are a middle-of-the-road possession team, but even bad ones can get in the playoffs as long as they have solid goaltending. Colorado showed that last season. You probably don't want to bet on these teams winning the Stanley Cup, but you can look for major regular season improvement when there's an upgrade to goalie performance. And if you refer back to the table near the top, which shows Florida's struggles in close situations, these two goalies should boost them there, too. Via
So even without improvement from their skaters, look for the Panthers to take a step forward because of their goalies alone. Then, if they get more out of Barkov and Huberdeau and Fleischmann and Pirri, etc., - and have a top scorer who can get more than the 38 points that led the team last season, this team has the potential to really surprise. It's OK to believe in the promise this time. It will get better.
I'm coming for you, Brian.
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