We've been as loud as anyone in shouting praises from the hilltops regarding an incredible turnaround by the Florida Panthers' defensive unit over a span of twelve (seemingly short) months. It's easy to generalize such short-term success with a quick tip of the hat to the astounding efforts of first-year assistant coach Gord Murphy, but just how impressive was the bottom line?
Right off the top, here's the layman's version...
- 2009-10 - Under Mike Kitchen: 2.85 goals against/game (19th overall)
- 2010-11 - Under Gord Murphy: 2.71 goals against/game (14th overall)
(For perspective on GA/game, the Columbus Blue Jackets - Murphy's former club of a year ago - dropped slightly in this category from 3.04/24th in 2009-10 to 3.05/26th in '10-11.)
A modest improvement by the Cats, especially considering injuries to offensive stalwarts such as Bryan McCabe, and the trade deadline purging of half the blueline in February, including minute-muncher Dennis Wideman (though his somewhat less-than-heroic minus-26 likely wasn't mourned any worse than Brani Mezei's departure).
While goals-against was indeed a solid step forward, the Grade A prime is found in the penalty kill. Say what you will about a 30-40-12 club who scraped past Washington in the final match of the year to end a ten-game winless streak; it was the defensive half of Florida's special teams which benefited the most dramatically from Murphy's presence.
Is "dramatic" a bit too, well, dramatic a word? Behold...
- 2009-10 - Under Kitchen: 79.4% (23rd overall), 228 of 287 opportunities
- 2010-11 - Under Murphy: 84.6% (6th overall), 226 of 267 opportunities
Further, consider the playoff clubs which finished behind the Panthers in the category: Montreal (7th), Tampa Bay (8th), the Rangers (10th), Buffalo (13th), Philadelphia (15th!), Boston (16th!!), Detroit (17th), Anaheim (19th), San Jose (24th), Chicago (25th), and Phoenix (26th). All five ahead of Florida were postseason teams as well.
Obviously, with plenty of evidence up and down the final standings, penalty killing is not a guarantee for success, but on a team so starved for any measure of progress, such a step is a very welcome development.
With a strong increase in funding on the backend this summer (and whether they wish to at this point in the rebuild process or not, the club must spend), along with further development by young guns Jason Garrison, Dmitry Kulikov, and Keaton Ellerby, the PK should theoretically be even more formidable come October.