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Why we should've seen the Florida Panthers' strong start coming

Some oddsmakers didn’t believe Florida could eclipse the 75-point mark this season. But with an improvement in goal and good underlying numbers, the Panthers are pushing for the playoffs.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Before the season began, betting site Sports Interaction was taking wagers on whether or not the Florida Panthers could eclipse 74.5 points this season. It appears smart money was on the over, as with more than 50 games remaining the Panthers are on pace to rack up 96 points and a potential playoff berth.

But these Panthers are vastly different than the team that was iced last season’s, basement team that floundered due to soft goaltending and bad 5-on-5 play. These aren’t the Panthers you’re used to seeing, and, come April, don’t be surprised if the Panthers are playing an 83rd game.

Like a lot of teams in the league, the Florida Panthers wanted secure their net. For most of 2013-14, the Panthers used a platoon of netminders that included Tim Thomas, Scott Clemmensen, Jacob Markstrom, and Dan Ellis. Thomas, who saw the bulk of the starts, crumpled behind a soft Panthers defense to the tune of a 2.87 goals-against average and .909 save percentage. It forced GM Dale Tallon to make the obvious fix.

One day before the 2013-14 trade deadline, Florida dealt Markstrom and Shawn Matthias to the Vancouver Canucks for veteran goaltender, and former Panther, Roberto Luongo. The team was immediately improved between the pipes, as Luongo steadied the opposition charge as best he could to the tune of a 2.46 GAA and .924 SP. This season, that acquisition is paying off in droves.

In 2012-13, the average save percentage in the NHL at 5-on-5 was .921. In 2013-14, the number was slightly higher, at .923. Generally speaking, the leaguewide number will fluctuate around an average of .922. How did the Panthers fare in the past two seasons? In 2013-14, Florida’s netminders posted a combined .908 SP, which, amazingly, was an improvement on 2012-13’s .903 SP.

You need look no further than those numbers to show the improvement the Panthers have had this season, as the team’s 5-on-5 save percentage is at .931. While that may be unsustainable, even a slight step backwards would still be a world of improvement.

Luongo’s play has been a big reason for the bump. At all strengths, the 35-year-old has the ninth best mark in the league at .925. At 5-on-5 he’s just as steady, as his .936 SP is ranked sixth among goaltenders that have seen at least 500 minutes.

With subpar goaltending and not much on the offensive side of the puck, the Panthers’ PDO, a measure of shooting percentage plus save percentage, in 2012-13 was 96.1. With nowhere to go but up in 2013-14, that figure jumped to 98 in 2013-14. As we know, PDO is a helpful predictor for a team’s future success. This season that success is coming, as Florida has a 99.9 PDO, thanks in large part to their goaltending.

Aside from Luongo, though, is the fact Florida has been pushing play in their favor at an increasing rate over the past two seasons. Since 2012-13, when the Panthers Corsi For percentage was a middling (but not entirely awful) 49.1 percent, they have only gone up. Last season’s Cats were a positive possession team at 51 percent, increasing their attempts on goal by nearly two a game, and breaking about even when it came to shots for and against at season’s end.

That progression is shining through this season. As of mid-December, Florida has a Corsi For of 51.6 percent, increased their attempts on goal to 55 per game, and are allowing half an attempt less per game. While a mere half shot per game may not seem like a lot, if Luongo’s play holds, it should be roughly three fewer goals he allows all season. On a team that can use all the offense it gets, three goals can be huge.

Add to it all that some of the Panthers young stars are rounding into tremendous form, becoming the players Tallon had hoped he would be getting. The reason for the turn around is as much thanks to the young guns as it is to the veterans.

Aleksander Barkov, the young Finnish center, has been a prime example. Facing tough minutes, tough competition, and getting the bulk of his starts in the defensive zone, Barkov has helped drive play. And while he may only be on pace for 20 points, the 19-year-old is looking like the type of player who will put himself in the Selke conversation in a few years.

Acquiring forwards Brad Boyes, Jimmy Hayes, and Brandon Pirri has looked brilliant. The first overall pick in the 2014 draft, Aaron Ekblad, has looked tremendous alongside Brian Campbell. Vincent Trocheck, 21, has been a steady offensive force, as has fellow 2011 draft selection Jonathan Huberdeau, who the Panthers took in the first round.

That’s not to mention the play of defensemen Campbell – underrated only due to his massive salary cap hit – Dmitry Kulikov, and Willie Mitchell, one of the Panthers main off-season acquisitions.

It’s hard to believe – on paper or on ice – that this team was ever supposed to miss the playoffs. At their current pace, they’ll be looking at one of the two wild card spots, if not a chance a divisional placing. While it may not be home ice advantage this season, if things keep going the Panthers way, the Sunshine State will continue to have a second team in playoff consideration.



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