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Inside Look Into The Florida Panthers Second Best Start In Franchise History

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NHL: Detroit Red Wings at Florida Panthers Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

I’d like to quick introduce myself, my name is Aaron Heckmann and I am a new contributor for Litter Box Cats. I am from the Land of 10,000 lakes known as Minnesota. I am a huge Wild fan as well as NHL fan in general. I’ve kept tabs on the Panthers the past couple seasons because I have been hopeful one day the Wild would find a way to get Aleksander Barkov. I will be moving to Florida for college in the fall, so I thought it would be a perfect time to start writing about the Florida Panthers. I also write for Fansided’s Wild site known as GonePuckWild and for a well known hockey site you have probably heard of called The Hockey Writers.

While I will help cover some game recaps and news pieces, most of my articles will be data based. I love writing about analytics on a player and team level. My hope is that my writing will give you a different and fresh perspective as analytics can be such an informational tool that can help solve problems, tell stories, and help discover things that can’t be found through the eye-test. Feel free to follow me on twitter @Aaron_Heckmann.

Without further ado, let’s dive in!

Second Best Start In Franchise History

The only time the Florida Panthers have had a better start to the season through 10 games than their current 7-1-2 record is the 1996-97 season went they went 7-0-3 to begin the season. The Panthers 8-game point streak that was ended in a regulation loss to the Detroit Red Wings is tied for the longest in franchise history. This is a historic start for a team that has continued to deliver underwhelming results.

It doesn't guarantee the Panthers anything, but this is one of the best starts in their history and rightfully so. The spotlight is not unwarranted because they have been fantastic to say the very least. The new realigned “Discover Central” division has an array of talent and competition that will be showcased from game-to-game. The Panthers currently sit in second place, albeit they haven't faced the reigning Stanley Cup Champions or the other heavyweights in the division including the Carolina Hurricanes and Dallas Stars.

As I briefly mentioned, the caveat is that the Panthers have had a relatively easy schedule. This isn't to say the Panthers haven't played good because they have got the job done day in and day out. Their next three games against the Lightning will be the biggest test this season and could be very telling too.

Even-Strength: Average Offensively, Strong Defensively

The Florida Panthers have struggled offensively at 5-on-5 this season. Not only do they rank 27th in goals for per hour but they also rank 20th in expected goals for per hour. While this could be a cause for concern, it could also be a positive. The fact that they have been winning yet average at even-strength is impressive.

Looking back at a year ago, the Panthers were scoring at a rate of 2.82 goals per hour at 5-on-5 which ranked 4th while they were only expected to score 2.33 goals per hour which ranked 22nd league-wide. The distinct difference between now and the 2019-20 campaign is the finishing aspect. Their 6.24 shooting percentage ranks second to last just behind the Chicago Blackhawks. The Panthers aren't scoring on their chances at the rate they did last year which could be a cause for concern because they are an average team at generating offensive opportunities.

One of the biggest underlying themes regarding the Panthers is their defensive play. These first 10 games are a small sample size and it is unclear whether this is sustainable, but the Panthers have pulled a complete 360 if this is truly is a change. The Panthers allowed 2.51 goals against per hour at 5-on-5 in 2019-20 which ranked 24th league-wide. They were simply not a good defensive team but that has surprisingly changed, at least in the small sample size so far this season.

This season, the Panthers have allowed 1.93 goals against per hour which ranks 7th in the NHL. Furthermore, the Panthers have allowed 53 high-danger chances which is the second fewest in the NHL. This is something that will be interesting to monitor as the season progresses as to whether this team is able to sustain this elite defensive play.

A Dominant Power-Play

The Panthers have been dependent on their dominant power-play since they have had offensive struggles at 5-on-5. Their 37 power-play percentage is league leading (tied with Washington), albeit they are dead last in the NHL in power-play time. Their 15.1 goals for per hour and 8.23 expected goals for per hour on the power-play rank 2nd and 5th respectively.

Looking at Hockey-Viz’s shot maps, it can display the volume of shots that the Panthers take on the power-play. Likewise, it also displays the expected goals based on the shots and how that compares to a league average power-play. Purple represents less shots than average while the orange represents more shots than league average.

The Panthers shoot a high volume of shots right in front of the net which is one key reason why their power-play is so dominant. Likewise, there are a high volume of shots in the left circle. The Panthers are a perimeter team on the power-play which explains the below average amount of shots in the center of the ice.

The Panthers 8.69 expected goals for per hour on the power-play is 23 percent higher than league average. The Panthers power-play is definitely saving the Panthers this season because they they haven't been dominant 5-on-5.

Goaltending Conundrum: Bobrovsky Struggling, Driedger Flourishing

When Bobrovsky signed a seven-year contract with the Panthers back in July of 2019, the Panthers thought they were getting an elite top-tier goaltender. While Bobrovsky shouldn't be written off by any means just yet, it’s not looking good for the 32-year-old or for the Panthers. One thing that I hope the Panthers learned from this painful lesson - and the NHL for that matter - is that signing a goalie long-term is never the solution unless it is a young franchise goaltender. The harsh reality is that Bobrovsky will never play up to his contract, even if he does indeed rebound.

He finished last season with a .900 save percentage and has a .899 save percentage to start this season. Looking at goals saved above expected which takes into account the quality of each shot a goaltender faces, he allowed 13.46 more goals than he was expected to which was 8th worst in the NHL in 2019-20 among all NHL goaltenders. Likewise, he has already allowed 3.73 goals more than expected in just 10 games.

It is too bad because Driedger is a legitimate starting goaltender. The 26-year-old goaltender had a .938 save percentage in his limited time last season and saved 7.39 goals more than expected, a truly ridiculous number for someone who is considered a backup. He has started this season just where he left off, he has a .938 save percentage and has saved 1.39 goals more than expected which ranks 13th league-wide.

The Panthers are truly in a conundrum: what do you do when your backup is outplaying your starter who is signed for six more seasons at $10 million per season?

Offseason Acquisitions Proved Difference Maker

The Panthers made a lot of changes to their roster in the offseason and it has turned out to be the difference maker and the reason why they have a good chance to secure a playoff spot. The trade that sent Colton Sceviour and Mike Matheson to Pittsburgh in exchange for Patric Hornqvist was a work of art. Not only was Panthers GM Bill Zito able to move one of the worst contracts on the team but he got a legitimate top-six forward in Hornqvist as the return. Hornqvist holds a 57.92 Corsi for percentage and a 52.96 expected goals for percentage. He has been above-average 5-on-5 and has been elite on the man advantage. The 34-year-old winger has 6 goals, 4 assists, and 10 points in 10 games.

The Panthers free-agent acquisitions in Marcus Nutivarra, Carter Verhaeghe, Radko Gudas, Alexander Wennberg, and Anthony Duclair have really propelled this team into a legitimate playoff team. While it is important to remember sample size, the Panthers are witnessing Verhaeghe breakout and become a legitimate top-six forward if he continues at this pace. The 25-year-old has 6 goals, 3 assists, and 9 points in 10 games. He’s been strong at generating offense as represented by his strong expected goals number while still being above-average defensively league-wide.

Nutivarra, Gudas, and Wennberg have all been quality depth additions too. Duclair might be one of the biggest under the radar candidates so far this season for the Panthers. While he has yet to score a goal, he has tallied 6 assists and his underlying numbers stand out. Duclair’s 60.30 Corsi for percentage leads the Panthers and his 65.76 expected goals for percentage ranks 2nd. He has been a strong defensive forward and is 7th among all forwards in expected goals for per hour. Looking at Dom L of the Athletic’s game-score which is a combination of points and analytics, Duclair’s 1.36 average game-score ranks 3rd on the Panthers which is a representation of how valuable he truly has been.

Is This Sustainable? Are The Panthers A Stanley Cup Contender?

I wrote an article before the season predicting the standings and I have the Panthers as a playoff team despite a lot of doubters. I am really high on the Panthers because the offseason acquisitions really was a massive upgrade. I do think this is sustainable to a degree. This all depends if they can clean up their 5-on-5 play which is league-average at best.

It is hard to say at this point if the Panthers could be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. While I don't think they are quite there, if they are able to sustain this level of play all season, I think they could make a deep run. There are a lot of variables but the most important one is whether they can play like this over the entire season.

Final Notes

Letting Mike Hoffman go to free-agency was one of the best moves the Panthers made this offseason. Hoffman is a below-average forward 5-on-5. While he is a power-play specialist and a great finisher, his contract would likely have been more than what he was truly worth.

Contrary to popular belief, Alexsander Barkov has been below-average defensively over the past three seasons. However, he has reclaimed his elite two-way status in the 10 games he's played this season. If Barkov can sustain this, he will be a force, more than he already has been.

The Panthers have a bright future ahead of them, but every decision has to be made with upmost precision in order to avoid any mistakes that will handicap future decisions.

If you have any article ideas you would like to read regarding the Panthers and analytics, let me know in the comments as well as if you have any questions.

(All Data and Information Via Evolving-Hockey, Natural Stat Trick, Hockey Stat Cards, Hockey-Viz & Hockey-Reference)