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(Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend’s events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.)
It took a while — almost half the season, in fact — but we now finally have our Team Doubling Down On Bad Process And Everyone Thinks It's Actually Good.
In this case, the role of the Maple Leafs/Avalanche/Flames is played by the Florida Panthers.
They lead the division by three points but also have a game in hand on Montreal behind them, and also ended Sunday night's tilt against the Wild tied with the fourth-best point total in the league. The Panthers therefore closed the weekend with 50 points from 39 games. But that shutout of the Rangers was one in which they were utterly dominated in every facet of the game besides “putting the puck in the net.” Sound familiar?
The Cats ended Saturday's game as a 47.8 percent possession team, which isn't quite as bottom-of-the-barrel as their defiant forebears carried through. But it's still 22nd in the league, behind bad teams like Buffalo and Edmonton, and only ahead of a murderer's row of abject poorness (Columbus, Calgary, New York, Arizona, and Colorado, among others).
Things are even worse when you consider the rate at which they trade high-quality chances, a number which on Saturday night was fourth-worst in the NHL. They also get killed in shots-for (48.1 percent, 24th in the league) and so on.
And yet, their goal differential? Plus-12, and fifth in the NHL.
Again, we've seen all this play out before, so it's no surprise that in the past few days the Panthers extended GM Dale Tallon for another three years, and about 24 hours later announced that coach Gerard Gallant for two.
At this point, it should be no surprise to see a team conflate winning over a period this short with overall success, but one immediately wonders whether any lessons have been learned from the post-”Save By Roy” era. Or the post-”Carlyle is a genius” era. Or the post-”Bob Hartley is the best coach in the league” era.
The following tells you an awful lot about what the Panthers have actually done this year. This isn't score-adjusted but believe me when I tell you score-adjusting things doesn't make it look any better.
It is easy enough to say Tallon has done a good job rebuilding this team, and easier still to say Gallant has done a good job running it on a day-to-day basis. The results in the standings table would seem to speak for themselves.
But the question of whether this is a team that's actually good, right now, is no.
The harder one to answer is whether they're even trending in that direction.
Just to get things out of the way very quickly before moving onto the broader topic: The Panthers are mostly good this year because Roberto Luongo is turning in a .929 season at age 36, and when he's out of the lineup 30-year-old Al Montoya is coming in hot at .930. The team's 5-on-5 save percentage is .941 this year, tied for the highest in the league. Luongo should probably be leading the Vezina discussion at this point based on his individual stats and the dim quality of the team in front of him, because his team gets outshot and out-chanced on what is basically a nightly basis and he's been borderline bulletproof, conceding the second-fewest goals at full strength in the league among goalies with at least 30 appearances this year, despite facing the third-most shots.
Being 6-4 after regulation also helps pad the season point total a bit.
It's reasonable to argue that Tallon has become adept at finding players from the discard pile who can make things happen on the ice. Say what you want about Jaromir Jagr's quality at this point (shockingly, he's still legitimately great), but any time you sign a 40-plus player you're taking a huge risk, and Tallon is reaping the rewards. He also grabbed Jussi Jokinen when no one wanted him, and Luongo and Brian Campbell are obviously on the team because Tallon saw value and a sucker. Good GMs do these kinds of things, but you'd have to say they do them on a more regular basis than Tallon does.
Because at the same time, there's Dave Bolland, there's Willie Mitchell, there's Shawn Thornton. These are flat-out money pits, the result of a GM throwing lots of cash this team really doesn't have at players over the age of 30 who cannot meaningfully contribute.
The Panthers have been getting results for the last month-plus (just three losses, all in regulation, since Nov. 27). That's 30 points from the last 18 games, but that also means the Panthers pulled only 20 from their first 21. So the question is: Which team are these Panthers, really?
It's incredibly difficult to say for sure, in part because of the top-heavy roster. You can win that way, but not consistently, and not when you go up against actual good teams on a regular basis. Jagr, Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are fantastic on the ice together. Add in Campbell and Aaron Ekblad grinding opponents to dust in the club's tough minutes and you're gonna get results.
Indeed, have a look at what happens — via Puckalytics — for the Panthers when those two groups are on the ice over the last two seasons, and when they are not (there's only 115 minutes of overlap with all of them on, so this is some relatively clean data).
You don't necessarily want to read too much into WOWYs as a general rule, because of the way in which they necessarily make sample sizes do weird things, but when the drop-off between “on” and “off” for your five best players are this significant, it's at least somewhat instructive. When your top groups are that dominant, all you really need to be able to do is duck and weave as your team gets pumped somewhat badly while those guys are off the ice. Because when they come back on, everything goes your way again almost immediately.
But has Gallant really even put his team in a good position overall here? After all, you can't play Jagr and Co. more than, say, 20 minutes a night, and the same goes for Campbell (no spring chicken) and Ekblad. As a result, you're giving lots of minutes to guys like Willie Mitchell and Nick Bjugstad.
And because of that, the Panthers are only plus-14 in goal differential at 5-on-5 over the last two seasons (and 12 of those are this season alone). That's only 13th in the NHL, which is middling at best, especially when you consider the gargantuan effort put in this year to even get to that point. In shot attempts, they're only plus-45 (50.2 percent, 17th in the league), in high-danger scoring chances they're minus-37 (48.9 percent, 20th).
What's interesting, though, is that this is a team that clearly wants to play at a very slow pace. In terms of events per 60, they rank lowest in high-quality chances both for and against over the last two years, and sixth-lowest in attempts both for and against.
Roster problems or not, I'm willing to attribute that to coaching and systems. There are plenty of teams that are bad at both generating a lot of attempts and chances. There are some that are really bad at one or the other (you can reasonably argue Florida falls into this category when it comes to offense). There are very few who are likely excel at suppression like that over 120-plus games with a roster this not-good.
As with Toronto, Colorado and Calgary, this is not a team that has “figured out” how to rig the system so that they can excel in terms of shooting and saving, but not in terms of keeping the puck. This is also not a particularly good team.
Are they trending in the right direction on the ice? Certainly. Are Gallant and to a lesser extent Tallon responsible for that? Sure. Gallant is doing this with minimal talent outside what's effectively an overwhelming starting lineup, Tallon is doing this without a lot of money to spend.
But for Tallon in particular, you shouldn't get credit for drafting high (which is how he got Barkov and Ekblad) while also throwing tens of millions at a roster that's not very good. He's made some shrewd moves for veterans but they're mostly canceled out by the really dumb ones.
It's not easy to figure out where this team is headed over the next two or three years granted by these extensions, but if you're drawing conclusions based on 38 games (and really, only 17) of fortunate bounces, there's significant reason to be skeptical about the decision-making process in Sunrise.
What We Learned
Anaheim Ducks: Just when this team was starting to look like it was getting its act together, Cam Fowler is out for another three weeks at least. Awful news.
Arizona Coyotes: Hahaha yesssssssss.
Dallas Stars: I was just sitting here thinking, “Man I wonder if the Stars are slowing down,” but they're 28-8-4 so they could slow down a lot more and still murder anyone in the league on any given night.
Florida Panthers: Eight straight wins for the Panthers sets a franchise record, but beating the Rangers should barely even count these days.
Nashville Predators: The Preds' ‘W’ over the Hurricanes on Saturday night was their first OT win of the year, on their 10th try. They're now 1-6 in the 3-on-3, while three more went to shootouts, of which they won two. That's a lot of points to leave on the table.
New Jersey Devils: For the Devils' sake, you gotta hope this is a real short-term injury. He's been on the ice for 29 of New Jersey's 52 goals at full strength this season (55.8 percent) despite only getting 30.7 percent of the ice time.
St. Louis Blues: The Blues have scored just one goal or fewer in three of the last four games. Worrisome.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Jonathan Drouin has asked for a trade away from Tampa. There aren't too many guys who put up junior numbers like he did and flop hard with a good team like he has. Something weird is going on here.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Jonathan Bernier is good again (until he has a bad night at which point he stinks).
Washington Capitals: Braden Holtby hasn't lost in regulation since Nov. 10, during which time he has a .938 save percentage. Alex Ovechkin recently said Holtby is the team's best player. At what point does the hockey world at large go, “Hmm yes he is a top-5 goalie in the world.
Winnipeg Jets: After Saturday night's 27-of-28 performance at San Jose, Connor Hellebuyck is up to .929 and it will be almost impossible for the Jets to play anyone else when the other goalies get healthy again.
Play of the Weekend
This Drake Caggiula goal is so nice I am even being kind and ignoring the fact that he did it against Alabama-Huntsville.
Gold Star Award
Jaromir Jagr is my heart.
Minus of the Weekend
If you think John Scott being at the All-Star Game is some sort of disgrace, what does it say about the team that pays him, or the sport that allows players like him to exist in it? Hmm. That's a tough one to put together in your head isn't it?
Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Year
User “Zhamnov10” is starting the new year off right.
1st via FLA
I don't recall saying good luck.
(All stats via War On Ice unless otherwise noted.)
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