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Once More into the Breach! Making sense of the Florida Panthers success

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Thoughts from atop the Atlantic Division....in late February!

It's okay, you can feel good about the team!
It's okay, you can feel good about the team!
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

It is late February, with 23 games remaining on the Florida Panthers regular season schedule, and our Panth-Pirates still sit atop the Atlantic Division. This is despite the fact that four first round draft picks are currently out of the lineup with injuries, along with the team captain, and team shootout leader. This is also despite the fact that the Cats are still holding company with rotting eggs and dastardly Conepatus Leuconotus (the American hog-nosed skunk for those not up on their species names) in the advanced stats world. Seems like an appropriate time to enjoy and reflect, and pray to the hockey gods for more of whatever got us here.

The doctor is in and the prognosis? The metrics are not good... I can live with that.

Around the time the Panthers rolled off their franchise record 12-game winning streak, I took a look at some advanced statistics that ended up being somewhat controversial. The all powerful Corsi stat has a way of, shall we say--invigorating people. Subsequent to that statistics article I asked if Panthers goalies were carrying the team.  That was somewhat less controversial... I think. At this point, Florida remains in first place in the Atlantic Division, as well as 25th in the league in team Corsi-For %. The team continues to defy the odds, and that makes some people angry, and others wary. But what the majority of the outside world doesn't get is this: most Panther fans don't care about Corsi or sustainability right now- they just want some playoffs!

PDO, well... at least the neighbors are noteworthy?

There is no getting around the fact that the Cats have had a great deal of puck luck. The Panthers have the 3rd highest PDO in the league (behind the Rangers and Capitals.... who are nice to be close to), with a 102. That measure of save percentage and shooting percentage normally regresses to the average (around 100). Teams that ride above-average PDO do not normally maintain long-term success. There are statistical outliers every season, but it's difficult to ride abnormally high PDO for an entire season.

The Panthers continue to maintain a high shooting and save percentage. Despite ugly games, and well played ones, the team has maintained a steady shooting and save percentage- which is the antithesis of luck over long periods of time. I think it can safely be said that based on the amount of time the team has maintained a high save percentage, for both goalies, and high shooting percentage, despite injuries to productive forwards, there is merit to the argument that the team is running an effective shot suppression and selection system.

What the injuries have shown us:

Depth is the easy answer. The injury bug has struck hard recently. The team has been playing Steven Kampfer consistently (and he has performed very well), and has had to rely on AHL call-ups Brent Regner and Mike Matheson recently to fill out its rearguard. Up front, the forwards have been even more decimated, with call-ups galore from Portland.

Despite the Pirate heavy roster, the team remains 3rd in the league in goals-against-per-game, and 12th in the league in goals-for-per game. But during the injury riddled stretch of recent games it has not always been pretty. The team gave up 13 goals over its last 5 games. There is no question that they settled down once again in the games against Pittsburgh, San Jose and Winnipeg (4 goals against in those 3 games). Two games where the team was blown out, followed by three games against two very tough opponents, and one that has long had the Panthers "number," where the team allowed few goals despite missing so many regulars spells "organizational depth." That speaks volumes about the team defensive concept Gerard Gallant has attempted to return his team to.

The Panthers have played the most difficult schedule to date, of the Atlantic Division "contenders."

Something else has been noted by many in the comments sections of several LBC stories- and that is- the Panthers have finished playing the majority of the league's top teams. At the time of this writing, the Panthers have 23 games left to play, 7 of which are against teams presently in the playoffs (if the season were to end today). This is not to say that the remaining teams are not tough competition- in this age of parity, any team in the league can beat you on any given night. There are no let-downs in the modern NHL. But the Panthers are done with Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Nashville, St. Louis, Anaheim, and have only one game remaining against the Rangers and Lightning. Clearly, the team standing atop the Atlantic Division at this time will be challenged for a banner, but it is equally clear that the team has come through this season's murderers' row.

What does it look like for our closest competition?

Tampa Bay is similarly situated with the Panthers- with 8 games left against teams in the playoffs today. Their remaining opponents include two dates with Boston, two with the  Islanders, and one with the Rangers, Panthers, Detroit, and at Dallas.

Boston has a whopping 15 games left against teams that would be in the playoffs today. They still must play Chicago (twice), Los Angeles, Anaheim, and San Jose (all on the road). They also have remaining games with St. Louis, Washington, Pittsburgh, twice against Tampa Bay, the Islanders, and Rangers, as well as the Panthers.

Detroit has 10 games remaining against presently-in-the-playoffs teams, including Chicago, Dallas, Chicago again, Colorado, two games with the Rangers, the Panthers, the Lightning, Pittsburgh, and Boston, and also still has to play Minnesota.

The Panthers have played a more demanding schedule to date than any of our direct competitors in Tampa Bay, Detroit, or Boston. Perhaps the Cats are a bit better than some people suggest...

Team Corsi For % predicts that the Panthers will suck.

Let us return once again to the numbers. It is 100% correct that Corsi numbers are the best predictive statistic the public has for trying to determine the future success of a team. Yet, even the public analytics pundits have had to look outside this "tell-all" stat to explain what has occurred this season. St. Louis, Chicago, Washington, the Islanders, Boston, and the Rangers, all sit around the mid-mark (or worse) in the league in Corsi-For percentage. Some of these lackluster Corsi standings have been explained away, as the team may have great power plays, or have a player who can carry an abnormally high shooting percentage, all of which is true. But the question I want to pose is this:

Does the predictive power of Corsi fall off when you are discussing a team that is full of young players, replacements and rookies?

The Panthers have a lineup that has spent much of the season with players in their first full NHL season. This includes Vincent Trocheck, Alex Petrovic, Brandon Pirri, Quinton Howden, and Logan Shaw, as well as various call-ups, like Matheson, Kyle Rau, Connor Brickley, Garrett Wilson, Greg McKegg, Rocco Grimaldi, and John McFarland. In theory, young players are on a development path that predicts that they should improve as they gain experience. This is equally true of young players in their second season, like Aaron Ekblad. Thus, their ability to positively impact play should increase. It is my prediction that many of these players will be more effective next year than this year. I know, bold, bold prediction,

Let's throw another wrench into the predictive aspects of possession as they relate to this team: everyone knows that there will be more changes next season. Shawn Thornton, Willie Mitchell, Brian Campbell, and perhaps Dave Bolland's roster spot may all either stay or go. In some cases, this could open the door for another player to improve the team- such as Matheson. With roster turnover for a team coming out of a rebuild, a host of injury call-ups to replace regulars, and youth throughout the roster- how predictive can possession stats be?

The Panthers have been at least two full wins (no counting loser points) above .500 since December 1, 2015. The team has been below .500 only twice this season- on November 7th, and November 23rd. Nonetheless, the Corsi numbers have predicted absolute disaster all season long. Instead, the team has maintained a steady pace, against some of the league's top opponents, with a multitude of AHL players in the lineup. There is more to the story than mere Corsi percentage, as valuable as it is to analyze, and I am not the only one saying so. Here is USA Today Hockey writer Kevin Allen's recent take during a debate about whether the Los Angeles Kings are the top team in the west:

Allen: I like numbers as much as the next guy. But if we are going to base this solely on puck possession numbers then are our entire premise is flawed. In case you have forgotten, the Caps (50.4%) are in the second division when it comes to puck possession. If puck possession told the entire story, the Carolina Hurricanes and Montreal Canadiens would be among the best. Do you see them among the NHL's best? Are the Blackhawks as strong as they have been in the past? Probably not. All I know is that they have a bunch of players who know a whole lot about winning in the postseason. I'm pretty sure when opponents line up against Toews they don't view him as a player on the decline. Until someone knocks the 'Hawks off the mountain, I'm going to believe they will finish their ascent to the summit.

Consider this, from the Sports Illustrated department of Hockey Analytics:

But why look at just one variable when you can look at many? Those who are familiar with statistical analysis will know that looking at all possible variables isn’t that useful. Sure, you will be able to fit the data better, but you lose a sense of which variables are actually important. The right approach is to balance the temptation to just throw lots of data at a problem against the conceit that one thing will tell you everything you need to know.

So what exactly has been driving the team's success if not possession? One thing is for sure: Its certainly not the power play.

The power play is... lacking.

The Panthers are 28th in the league in power-play percentage. This is not good. It's really bad. It shows. On the ice, the casual observer can witness just how bad it is. The question is: why? For a team that is 3rd in the league in goals-for-% at 5 on 5, and 2nd in the league in goals-for %-Close 5 on 5 (in close games) why can they not score on the power play?

One answer may be the lack of a dual threat defenseman to run the point. As superb as he is, Brian Campbell poses little threat with his shot, allowing penalty kills to sit back on the passing lanes when he is on the point. This is likely why you notice a frustrating lack of passing choices for Soupy when he has the puck on the point on the power play. Eklblad is likely going to work his way into that position as time goes on, but he is not there yet.

Another answer may be a lack of net front presence with the present system. Is it any surprise that Reilly Smith scored on the power play against Winnipeg when he had Rau screening the goalie? There have not been enough Panthers willing to stand and take the abuse that Rau took in that position.

It may also be that the Panthers, especially without Aleksander Barkov, do not have a player that is so dangerous, he forces opponents to shadow him, like (for instance) Alex Ovechkin, Steven StamkosPatrick Kane or Shea Weber. It makes it harder for the opposition to attack out of their box or diamond when one player must always watch that massive threat. The good news is that, whatever the thoughts are on Lawson Crouse, every scout noted his utility on the power play. Other than that, the system likely needs to change, and the right player combinations still need to be found.

In the meantime, the power play stinks (full on Conepatus Leuconotus), and it likely is costing the team points. Yes, they could be even better.

The team needs a fully operational battle station.

Fan or not, the defense has been less effective without Erik Gudbranson in the lineup. Gudbranson was typically playing heavy defensive zone minutes against the opposition's top possession lines along with Campbell. The two played very well together and complemented each other's respective skill set. Petrovic has had an excellent rookie season, but he is not yet as effective in suppression as Gudbranson, and not complementing Campbell nearly as well.

Thankfully, it appears pretty certain that Barkov will return for the game against Arizona. Jonathan Huberdeau's status is unknown for that game as well, but it looks like he will be out. It was incredible to see the team score three goals and beat Winnipeg with 2/3 of the top line out of the lineup. Yet, it is difficult to imagine continued success without those players on the ice.

An NHL season can be cut into chunks. Every team is going to go through highs, lows, streaks, and injuries. The Panthers have had two bad stretches to the season: a five-game losing streak in late October/early November (when Sasha Barkov was injured), and the other a four-game losing streak in mid-January (when Aaron Ekblad was out). Aside from those two stretches, the team has played well, with blowout wins over Dallas, Chicago, Washington, Tampa, and Detroit at various times this season. The team has consistently been in the middle of the pack in shots-against-per game, the top of the pack in goals-against-per-game, the middle of the pack in goals-for-per-game and the bottom of the pack in shots-for-per-game. At some point the consistency of these standings must show something. In this case, I remain convinced that it shows a young team learning its way in the modern NHL, and playing a well-coached system of hockey.

What must the Panthers continue to do to get into the playoffs?

So we have noted that our power play, shots-for, and Corsi numbers all stink. Yet, it is impossible to believe that the team has simply ridden mere puck luck to a spot atop the Atlantic. The length of time playing well and winning games suggests more at work than luck (which comes and goes). The ability to continue winning with an AHL-heavy lineup also suggests there is more at work here. Further, the fact that both netminders are posting big numbers suggests that it's not simply a really lucky hot goaltending streak at play here (which would look more likely if only one of the goalies was putting up those numbers).

In years past, the anti-stat darlings like Colorado and Calgary have won despite giving up large numbers of shots-against. The Panthers are doing the opposite- they don't take many shots, but they are in the top half of the league in preventing shots, and within that number, are doing a great job suppressing high-quality shots against. This is very much a team winning with a defensive system, and they must continue to do exactly that.

Reports of Gudbranson and Barkov's return for the game against Arizona will hopefully return the team to some normalcy and end the up and down, wild west feel of the recent games. I can't say for sure what has led the Panthers to defy the odds and find success, but like so many others- I can say that I don't mind: all I want are some playoffs!