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Is a playoff appearance in the cards for the Florida Panthers?

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Can the Panthers compete in the Eastern Conference next season, or will it be more of the same old, same old?

More of a healthy Sean Bergenheim will lead to more points in the standings
More of a healthy Sean Bergenheim will lead to more points in the standings
Jen Fuller

This summer saw "Florida Panthers Day" on NBCSports.com and the prognosis, according to the "Pro Hockey Talk" writers was: dismal. With that in mind, I undertook a search mission (and it had nothing to do with finding a children's chess prodigy). No, my search is for something far more difficult than that to find: 27 points.

Unless you are Nick Bjugstad, 27 is a cruel and dispiriting number for Panther fans. Its the number of additional points the team needed last season to make the playoffs. It is the number that displayed this franchises' 2013-14 mediocrity in all its awful glory. But is that number really that far away? Is it Mars or the Moon? Is it as far away as it was last season? Is it as far as the writers at NBCSports.com think? Take warning before you read further: this may not be easy.

Throughout the summer we here at LBC have looked at Panthers history, statistics, free agency, the draft, the players, and the farm system in detail. But when that is all said and done, how does it look for the team when it comes to competing for a playoff spot next season? What happens when one puts aside the advanced player stats and looks at pure wins and losses? If we look at where we finished last season, with the flawed roster, coaching changes, and injuries- can we find out if the team was closer to being competitive than the finish made it seem? And if we than apply the changes for this coming season, is it enough to suggest a better outcome?

The Panthers finished with 66 points last year, 27 points behind the final Eastern Conference playoff teams in Detroit and Columbus, each of whom finished with 93. If the Panthers expect to compete for the playoffs next season, they will have to come up with roughly 13 more victories than they did in 2013-14. (It is also true, in theory, that the team could cobble together some combination of wins and shootout/overtime losses to hit the 93 point mark, such as 8 more wins and 11 overtime or shootout losses--but lets keep it simple). Thirteen more victories, it really is a lot more than a few, and thats only if the Eastern Conference stays at similar points totals, it could be even worse.

Is it unreasonable to expect the team to make up 27 points to contend for a playoff spot from one season to the next? To seek out that answer I first looked at two types of losses from last season: one-goal losses (where the Panthers lost by one goal in regulation, overtime or in the shootout) and blow-outs (which I define as a negative goal differential of three goals or more). The one-goal games were all games (in theory) within reach of a win or overtime point, so with even minimal improvement from last season to this one those games are, by definition, winnable. To put it very bluntly- as bad as this team was last season, and by all accounts, it was ugly bad, they got very close to getting an overtime point or win against actual NHL teams 23 times last season. I'm going to go ahead and record that as a good clue in my search.

My theory goes like this: one goal games were winnable games, or, at a minimum, overtime-able games with points to be had. Blowout games were games the team had little chance in, and are likely to (in the majority of cases) stay losses, but perhaps they could be made closer losses. Through the work done this summer it appears we have general agreement that the Panthers were crushed by a league worst power play and penalty kill, and goaltending.

The Cats have improved, there is no doubt about that, if for no other reason than the re-acquiring of Roberto Luongo and signing of Al Montoya. Many prognosticators, including the naysayers at Pro Hockey Talk admit that Luongo is a difference maker to this team, and they are absolutely correct. Earlier this off-season I critiqued the Panthers' goaltending woes and suggested that simply improving on the worst save percentage in the league will result in more wins. A season's worth of Roberto (who loves to log lots of games and lots of shots) will be an enormous upgrade over a year of cobbled together starts by Tim Thomas, Scott Clemmensen, and Jacob Markstrom. Further, a season's worth of Al Montoya (a very capable career backup) is also likely to make a big impact over the three afore-mentioned goaltenders and Dan Ellis in the backup roles. We are going to take a look at some of the one-goal losses in detail to see just how much impact goaltending had on them shortly. But I believe the theory to be inherently accurate that goaltending will have a major positive impact on one-goal games.

The one-goal losses:

The Panthers had 23 one-goal games they lost last season. Of those, 15 were lost in regulation, while 6 were lost in the shootout, and 2 more in overtime. To see if these one goal losses might be turned around next season, I looked at five things from every one of those games: 1) who was the Panthers goalie; 2) Final score (to see if the problems were easily identifiable as offensive or defensive shortcomings); 3) the Panthers' power play; 4) the Panthers' penalty kill; and 5) the number of shots against (to give us an idea of whether it was a more one-sided affair than the score suggested).

The goaltender breakdown for the 23 one-goal losses was as follows:

  • Tim Thomas-- lost 13 of those games
  • Roberto Luongo- lost 4 of those games
  • Jacob Markstrom- lost 3 of those games
  • Scott Clemmensen- lost 2 of those games
  • Dan Ellis- lost 1 of the games

Before we go any further, let me steer you away from what you may be starting to think: I am not saying that the Panthers' goalies were responsible for all these losses. In many of those games, the team's goalies wracked up large numbers of saves. Tim Thomas faced 40 shots against in one of the one goal losses (3-2) to Boston. But there were other nights such as in a loss to Washington, where Clemmensen faced only 23 shots against in a 3-2 shootout loss, or a Tim Thomas 3-2 loss to Minnesota where the Cats gave up only 20 shots against. In sum, it is still with some confidence that I maintain that goaltending was a major problem on this team last season. A league-worst save percentage backs up that theory. We can pull notes from some of these games and see where poor goaltending made an enormous difference:

October 8, 2013, the Panthers lost 2-1 to the Flyers. Here is the description from NHL.com of the Flyers game winning goal:

Coburn's goal, which came 2:42 after Schenn opened the scoring 4:49 of the first period, came after Sean Couturier's long shot went wide of the net. Panthers goalie Tim Thomas went down awkwardly to defend the shot and struggled to regain his footing. When the puck rolled along the right wall to Coburn, the defenseman floated a shot on net that Thomas, stumbling through the crease, let get past him at 7:31.

Thomas would leave that game with a strained groin immediately after the strange goal, something he was rather prone to: strange goals and injuries nearly as often as the spectacular save. After that injury Thomas would remain out of the lineup for a healthy stretch. During that time the Panthers would call more heavily on Jacob Markstrom. Markstrom played in 8 games for the Cats in October after taking the ice for the injured Thomas in Philadelphia. That time period for the team was filled with losses. Some of those losses appear to have a relationship to poor goaltending. In a one goal loss to Nashville on October 15, 2013, the Predators scored two goals in the third period to overtake the Cats and win. Here is how NHL.com described the game-winning goal for the Preds:

Hornqvist gave Nashville a 4-2 lead 5:13 into the third when, on a power play, he skated off the goal line to flip a sharp-angled shot past Panthers goaltender Jacob Markstrom.

"Sharp-angled shot" is, of course, not one an NHL goalie should normally be giving up. It happens, of course, but it shouldn't. We can also see the league's worst penalty kill coming into play in that game.

On October 25, 2013, the Panthers lost to Buffalo 3-1, (not logged as one of our one-goal losses, but the reality is that it was number 24 when you study the box score) with Buffalo scoring its final goal on an empty net with 46 second to play. It was, in effect, a one-goal game, and the Panthers only allowed 20 shots against in the loss. Two days later, on October 27, 2013, Florida lost to Tampa Bay in Sunrise in a shootout. Markstrom allowed the first goal just 41 seconds into the game and the second goal roughly 4-minutes later to go down 2-0. The Panthers battled back to force the shootout. Markstrom faced a total of 28 shots through 3 periods, overtime, and shootout. Days later, on November 1, 2013, Markstrom started against the Blues. He would face only 23 shots in the 4-0 loss, and would give up 3 goals on 7 shots in the second period (which the Panthers entered down 1-0). By the 7-minute mark of the frame, the Blues were in all out defense mode, not bothering with taking any chances on their way to the shutout victory. On November 5, 2013, The Cats lost in overtime to the Oilers. Did goaltending play a factor? Markstrom faced 27 shots through the game and overtime and allowed 4 goals against (an .852 save percentage). More important was the timing on the goals, as the Cats entered the second period tied at 1, only to give up back to back goals less than 30 seconds apart to start the 2nd period. Florida battled back to force the overtime. On December 20, 2013, Markstrom would play his final game for the Panthers, a 5-2 loss to Winnipeg. By that time the young Swede had given up 4 or more goals in 4 of his final 5 games with the team.

Goalie play was not the biggest problem, however. The Panthers power play was an unbelievable 8 for 76 in the 23-one-goal losses. The NHL's worst power play was on all-out display on most nights. In a 2-1 loss to the Flyers, the Cats power play went 0-5. In a 4-3 shootout loss to Tampa, the PP went 0-4, and was merely 1 for 6 in a 3-2 shootout loss to Washington. And it was not just lack of production on the power play, it was defensive lapses as well. In a March 31, 2014 blowout loss to New Jersey (6-3) a one-goal game became a two-goal lead and went out of reach for the Panthers when:

The Devils opened a 5-3 lead 4:02 into the third when Josefson scored his first of the season with his team shorthanded.

The numbers are staggering. Not only did the Panthers not produce on the power play, they gave up too many shorthanded goals (6). In 10 of the 23 one-goal games the Cats had 4 or more power plays, but in only one of those games did the Panthers score more than one goal on the man-advantage. It has been noted that even moving from last place to second-to-last place in power play production would net the Panthers 6 more goals.  If we are talking about one-goal losses, those goals are very important.

The penalty kill was a more respectable 51 for 69 in those 23 games. Nonetheless, the PK was still abysmal. Like the power play, small improvement here, from last place in the league on the PK to anything better, will result in points in the standings. In the search for 27 every little bit comes into play.

There's another factor included in the 23 one-goal losses that must be analyzed. The Cats averaged 2.2 goals per game in those games and gave up an average of 3.2 goals per game. Twelve of the Panthers opponents in those games were playoff teams, leaving 11 non-playoff teams that the Cats managed to lose to. When it came to goals scored, I paused to take a look at some important players who lost games to injury and what their averages tell us they might have possibly produced if healthy. Bergenheim in particular was injured for much of the early season, when the team fell off quickly. Barkov was injured in the late season, when the team saw some improvement that he could likely have helped push along. Because these were one-goal games, almost 50% of which were against teams that (in theory) were among the leagues' lesser teams, even small differences in point totals for players lost to injury could have made an impact. The important manpower losses to injury/suspensions/and scratches and how many additional points they may have scored if they stayed on their season long points per game trends broke down like this:

  • Nick Bjugstad- lost 7 games, and at his ppg average may have produced an additional 3.5 points
  • Scottie Upshall- lost 7 games, and may have produced an additional 3.36 points
  • Brad Boyes- lost 5 games, and may have produced an additional 2.3 points
  • Sean Bergenheim- lost 20 games, and may have produced an additional 9.2 points
  • Tom Gilbert- lost 10 games, and may have produced an additional 3.83 points
  • Jonathan Huberdeau- lost 13 games and may have produced an additional 5.2 points
  • Aleksander Barkov- lost 28 games, and may have produced an additional 12.32 points
  • Tomas Kopecky- lost 33 games, and may have produced an additional 7.92 points
  • Erik Gudbranson, lost 17 games.

For those counting, that totals 47.63 more points. Admittedly, it is just as easy to predict that if these players had been in more games their points-per-game averages could have slipped rather than stayed at their final rates, so the 47.63 point total may be quite generous. But even a few additional points from 50% of these important, contributing players could have resulted in a statistically significant number of additional wins or overtime losses. Remember, we are looking for 13 more wins, or some other combination that results in 27 points, such as 11 more wins and four more overtime games. Slight improvement on the power play and penalty kill is certain to get us a portion of the magic 27 points, but improved season long goaltending truly is the magic bean to grow more wins.

But before we start getting too optimistic, we must look at the blowouts. They are even more astounding than the one-goal games: the Cats lost 25 games by three-goals or more last season. There is little to suggest that these games were going to be won by the Panthers, they were going to be losses no matter how you run the numbers. Twenty-five blowout losses is very depressing news on our search for contention, there is no getting around that.

In these bad losses, the power play was an even more abysmal 3 for 83, while the penalty kill was 54 for 79. The team averaged only 1.32 goals-for in those games, while giving up an average of 4.92 goals-against per game. In net, Tim Thomas took 9 of the blowout losses, Markstrom took 4 of them, Clemmensen 5, Ellis (an unbelievable) 5, and Luongo 2. Nineteen of the blowout losses were to playoff teams, and 7 of those were to Western Conference teams. We need to stay away from the west, its a bad place for this team.

Looking closely at the shots-against in the blowout losses, there is more wild inconsistency, with Thomas seeing 41 shots against in a 6-2 loss to Boston one night, but only facing 22 shots against from the Rangers in a 5-2 loss. For the most part, Ellis was as bad as the Panthers power play in 3 of his 5 blowout losses. There is a lot of misery to go around in those games, with stagnant offense, special teams that were so bad the Panthers should have taken a page from the NFL rule book and declined the penalties, and a lot of below average NHL goaltending. In 13 of the blowout losses, the team had 4 or more power plays, in 12 of those games the team did not score a single power-play goal, while they scored one goal in the remaining game.

So where does this leave us on our search? At a minimum, we will all know exactly what to look for out of the gate next season: special teams play and goaltending. The law of averages tells us that improvement in those areas is going to lead to more wins and overtime/shootout points. We will also need to keep an eye on streaks. It is obvious that the streak in October where Markstrom replaced Thomas was a devastating stretch. XM Home Ice's Jim "Boomer" Gordon is fond of looking at the NHL standings at U.S. Thanksgiving and comparing them to the teams that end up making the playoffs: with few exceptions the teams that were "in" at Thanksgiving remained "in" at the conclusion of the regular season. The same was true of those teams that were "out," they mostly remained "out." Early season streaks will be an important indicator.

To be in contention the Cats are going to have to turn slightly more than half of last season's one-goal losses into victories. Possible? It would be a big jump, and therefore one that is unlikely. However, Roberto Luongo is the big deal that analysts claim him to be, and could easily correct many of the losses that stemmed from poor goalie play by Markstrom, Clemmensen, Ellis, and even Thomas. CBSSports.com writer Chris Peters said this about Lu's addition to the team:

"After he was added via trade with the Vancouver Canucks, Luongo posted a 6-7-1 record, .924 save percentage and 2.46 goals-aganist average. For a team that finished with a .900 save percentage overall last season, that's a massive improvement."

It is impossible to predict player health, but more games from a healthy Huberdeau, Bergenheim, and Barkov will lead to more goals and success as well. It is yet to be seen what the free-agent signings and Ekblad will do to remedy the team's play. There was slight improvement in special teams down the stretch with Coach Horachek, but that is the one Godzilla sized question that remains: will special teams improve enough, or even at all? insufficient improvement in that area and the Cats will likely be crossing their fingers in the Connor McDavid - Jack Eichel lottery.

But there may just be contention late into the season, whether it ends up in a playoff berth or not, and thats the kind of improvement we should be starting to see at this point in the rebuild. As the afore-mentioned Chris Peters wrote about this team:

"The Panthers are a tough team to predict next season. It could be a much improved campaign with even the postseason possible, but there's always going to be that doubt."

Add to this the "Puck Daddy" Greg Wyshynski's comment, post Eklblad signing about the 2014-15 team:

"Come to think of it, they’re not abjectly terrible up front either. Could the Florida Panthers actually be contenders in the Atlantic?"

So maybe this search has found a possibility for success and this team could actually be poised for a surprise.....but don't get crazy excited just yet.