What to make of the Florida Panthers? (Trending Topics)

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Last year, the Florida Panthers significantly outperformed their quality. They were a team with talent throughout the lineup, but it got a bit thinned out on the margins and were overall a negative team in terms of adjusted possession, shots on goal, expected goals and so on.

They were pretty close to the break-even point on all fronts, especially after a slow start, but in general if you’re in the 49.5 percent range across all those categories over 82 games, that’s not going to reliably result in your team finishing with 103 points. Even if they did finish with one of the better penalty differentials in the league.

The thing is, though, the Panthers knew this. They knew that’s one of the reasons they got bounced in the first round once again. They knew the way they cleared the century mark for the first time in team history wasn’t exactly dependable on a long-term basis. So they went out and got a bunch of very talented players to address the pain points they “should have” suffered more from last year; Keith Yandle and Jason Demers came in to shore up the blue line (a major problem last year), Colton Sceviour and Jonathan Marchessault added depth scoring (another major problem). James Reimer became the heir apparent to Roberto Luongo whenever he started to break down. There were some noteworthy losses (Brian Campbell, Jiri Hudler, Al Montoya) but for the most part, Florida had one of the best offseasons in the entire league.

You can more or less immediately see the improvements they made this summer: Their adjusted 5-on-5 numbers are mostly in the 52-plus percent range, which puts them near the top of the league in most categories. And they continue to draw a lot more power plays than do their opponents. So they’re right where you want to be at 5-on-5, for the most part. Scoring chances and shot generation could use a bit of improvement, but those typically follow everything else, and as long as goals-for are reliably in line with attempts-for, there’s not too much to worry about.

So it would seem the Panthers’ additions this summer to fix problems they knew they had are working, right?

Yeah, except they’re not winning now.

Florida has just 11 points from 11 contests, winning just four times. That’s not going to get you very far. Now, to be fair, the Panthers were always likely to take a bit of a step back in the standings this year. Most good statistical projections would have probably put them in the high 90s, which is where they perhaps should have been last year (especially based on the quality of goaltending they received). Anyone looking at their additions and saying “They got better so their point total should rise” failed to take into account that initial dramatic over-performance. In something resembling a reasonable best-case scenario, saying “They’ll be a 103-point team again” was probably pegging their ceiling.

But the team is also doing the thing it did last year, to some extent: They played low-event hockey, meaning that the margins on which they are now out-possessing/chancing/scoring teams per 60 remains pretty small. For example, their adjusted shot attempt differential per 60 minutes is about plus-5 attempts, which is good because it’s not negative. But Toronto is in the same neighborhood possession-wise but plays a more active game; their differential per 60 right now is plus-8. And that adds up fast.

Let’s put it this way: The Panthers have a positive goal differential right now despite the sub-.500 record, but they’re only scoring 2.6 goals per game, which is 19th in the league.

So the question is, “If the Panthers are so good at possession, outscoring opponents at 5-on-5, and drawing penalties on top of it all, then why isn’t their record better?” It shouldn’t surprise you that the answer is “special teams.” Which was a problem last year as well.

The Panthers have been awful in this early season in terms of results on both the power play (24th) and PK (22nd, entering last night). The power play isn’t generating enough looks to shoot — they’re only a little above Arizona and New Jersey’s level of offensive futility — and more to the point, when they do attempt a shot it’s not coming from anywhere near the net; only a little more than 1 in 6 attempts is coming from a high- or medium-danger area. Last year that number was more than 1 in 4, so it’s a clear area of deficiency for them.

And though they do the best job in the league when it comes to limiting shot attempts per 60 on the penalty kill, are the second-best in shots against, and 11th scoring chances conceded, they’re 24th in goals against per 60. It’s a lot easier to diagnose the problems with their PK: Reimer and Luongo can’t stop anything. An .800 save percentage on the PK is flat-out awful, second-worst in the league. The improved defense can only do so much to help goalies before it gets to “you gotta make the save.”

At some point they will. Reimer and Luongo are both better than they’ve shown to date (.912 and .907, respectively, in all situations) but they continue to excel at 5-on-5. One imagines special teams performance follows that trend and gets back near the top of the league as well. They’re too good for this to be anything but a temporary blip, but how temporary it is will be perhaps the biggest axis on which the Panthers’ fortunes will turn overall.

It’s not a surprise when great goaltending performances come from goalies who have been good forever. The Panthers were lucky last year because they had a high shooting percentage, but their save rate was only a little better than you might expect based on what Luongo and Montoya can do. Now with Luongo and Reimer underperforming, it looks like the Panthers suddenly aren’t good, which is incorrect.

That’s not to say they don’t have problems to address offensively, but .920-ish team goaltending would have saved them two and a half goals against already this season. Mathematically, that’s nearly a full point in the standings gone because they had a bad 10-game start.

So combining that with the slow offense, you have a pretty clear recipe for struggles. The Panthers have the talent level to play a more up-tempo game, but they’re succeeding — in terms of process — without it. The problem is that this makes them more visibly susceptible one way or the other to having their results driven not by quality but by bounces. If Luongo and Reimer can make stops at their career rates, it doesn’t matter that the offense is a little slower to make things happen. But if the goaltending goes away, you get results like this.

Again, I think it’s reasonable to expect improvement from the goalies, just as it’s reasonable to say that despite all the improvements, the Panthers almost certainly aren’t going to break 100 points again.

They’ll be a better team even if the results don’t reflect it. It might not always be easy to accept that for the “Just win, baby” crowd, but it’s the truth.

This is a franchise headed down the right path. Doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps in the road. And sure, they could perhaps do more to avoid them, but overall, this is a pretty safe ride.

Ryan Lambert is a Puck Daddy columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

(All statistics via Corsica unless otherwise noted.)