It wasn’t all bad for the Florida Panthers last season. Yes, they missed the playoffs. But they remained in contention until Game 81, which they won on the final Saturday of the regular season, setting a franchise single-season record with their 27th home victory. Only a Philadelphia Flyers win that day knocked the Panthers out. After starting the year 12-16-5, Florida went 32-14-3 the rest of the way. Its 96 points tied an NHL record for the most by a team missing the playoffs.
So the optimism from star center Aleksander Barkov one June afternoon at the NHL Awards in Las Vegas was understandable, especially after a team so close to the post-season had just acquired left winger Mike Hoffman from the Ottawa Senators for a song hours earlier. At the same time, Barkov stressed the Panthers’ need to avoid starting the season in a hole again.
“We just need to be ready right from the start,” he said. “We just got a really good player in Hoffman, and he’s going to help for sure. We just gave up too big a gap between us and the playoffs, and it was too tough to catch. But we were in the playoffs at one point. Down to the last game of the season, we almost made it.”
Here were are with a week left in October, and the Panthers have wheezed to a pitiful 1-3-3 start, punctuated by a 5-2 defeat against a supposedly bad New York Rangers team Tuesday night. The Panthers appear headed for an even deeper trench than they dug last season. What on earth has gone wrong for this team?
The first and easiest place to look is goaltending. Starter Roberto Luongo played all of 32 scoreless minutes before sustaining a knee injury in his first start of the year. Typically, James Reimer has carried a reputation as an above-average backup goalie, so a multi-week absence for Luongo wasn’t a death sentence, but Reimer simply hasn’t answered the bell so far, nor has No. 3 Michael Hutchinson. The pair have combined for a horrific .856 save percentage and one victory, which Hutchinson earned in relief after Reimer got pulled Oct. 19. No Panthers goalie has won a game he started this season.
Special teams have been a true nightmare for the Panthers so far as well. Their power play sputters at just 12.9 percent, 25th-best in the league, while they’ve killed off a pathetic, league-worst 66.7 percent of penalties. Luckily they’re one of the league’s least-penalized teams so far. The main culprit on the P.K. has actually been goaltending. Per corsica.hockey, 54 goalies have played at least 10 minutes on the penalty kill so far this season. Hutchinson has the worst penalty-kill SP of that whole group, while Reimer ranks 51st. Only 15.4 percent of the chances Hutchinson has faced on the penalty kill are of the high-danger variety, yet half have gone in. Still, the P.K. skaters aren't helping their goalies enough. Per naturalstattrick.com, the Panthers have the 11th-worst Corsi Against per 60 minutes on the penalty kill this season.
In terms of general game flow, the Panthers haven’t been nearly as bad as their record suggests. They average the fifth-most shots per game in the league and allow the seventh-fewest. They’ve at least been middle-of-the pack in 5-on-5 possession play, and on the defensive side, they allow the fourth-fewest shot attempts per 60 minutes 5-on-5. It’s not like their offense has been positively anemic, either, as seven different Panthers have multiple goals after seven games.
There are still other dents to hammer out. For whatever reason, they’ve been a horrific second-period team, allowing a league worst 17 goals for versus eight against. But the sample size is still relatively small, and the idea of coming out flat for one period over another is a relatively intangible one, so the Panthers are better off focusing on the bigger-picture problems. The hope is their goaltenders get a bit more help if coach Bob Boughner’s new defense pairings can gel. He’s finally broken up Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle, with Michael Matheson joining Ekblad in what looks more like a shutdown top pair now than a pure offensive driver, while Yandle will play lightning to Alex Petrovic’s thunder in a pair mixing mobility and physicality.
On one hand, the slow start doomed Florida last year and thus must be taken seriously this year. On the other, the problems don’t look impossible to fix. The 5-on-5 play has more or less been there. The goaltending and special teams play have not. Chances are, Florida’s fortunes will change when Luongo returns, but he’s also 39, so there’s no guarantee he’ll be back in the lineup for good.