Florida Panthers signings look good short term, but there is cause for future concern

Digging into the numbers of the four newest Cats

From a fan’s perspective, the Florida Panthers have been one of the most frustrating NHL teams to follow over the past decade. Dale Tallon’s arrival in 2010 signaled a new era for the team, with the architect of the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks promising a complete turn around in South Florida, after the team missed the playoffs for the ninth consecutive season.

Tallon somewhat delivered on his promise, with the Panthers making the playoffs during the 2011-12 season and the 2015-16 season while constructing one of the stronger young cores in the NHL. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are bona-fide superstars, while Aaron Ekblad and Vincent Trocheck round out a roster that’s full of youth and promise (though they’ve struggled since their 2016 playoff appearance).

This team has drastically under-performed relative to expectations though. The 2015-16 set a franchise record for points in a season (103) and captured the first division title in franchise history, but they followed up the next season with a meager 81 points and a disappointing 23rd place finish.

The team bounced back in 2017-2018, especially near the end of the season, storming back from the basement of the league to finish with 96 points - just one point shy of a playoff spot. With expectations high headed into 2018-2019, the Panthers again floundered, managing just 86 points and finishing a distant 12 points back of the final Eastern Conference Wild Card spot.

For many fans, last season was one of the most frustrating seasons in recent history. Though individual players excelled (such as Barkov and Huberdeau with 90+ points each), the team as a whole was mediocre. Despite having the second most effective power play and one of the most potent offenses in the league (their 264 goals ranked 8th in the league), the Panthers were a horror show at the other end of the ice, ranking 27th in the league with 273 goals against.

The team’s biggest need was obvious: goaltending. The Panthers finished the year with a .892 SV%, the second lowest number in the entire league. Between Roberto Luongo (.899 in 43 GP), James Reimer (.900 in 36 GP), Samuel Montembault (.894 in 11 GP) and Michael Hutchinson (.839 in 4 GP), the Cats just couldn’t figure things out between the pipes, and cost the team roughly 29 goals compared to their expected goals against. If the goaltending makes up those extra 29 goals compared to the expected values, the Panthers are sitting with a +20 goal differential over the course of the season compared to the -9 they actually finished with.

So it’s understandable that the vast majority of the fan base is absolutely thrilled that the Panthers were able to add two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky today, locking down the 30-year-old to a 7-year, 70 million dollar contract that will likely take him to the end of his career.

Combined with signings of Brett Connolly (3.5 million for 4 years), Anton Stralman (5.5 million for 3 years), and Noel Acciari (1.67 million for 3 years), most of the fan base seemed ecstatic at the team’s outlook headed into next season.

And, really, there’s almost no doubt that the Panthers will be a better team next season. Over the past three seasons, Bobrovsky’s .922 SV% is tied with John Gibson for first in the league among goalies with 90 games played. Compare that to the .906% that the Panthers have had over that same time frame, and there’s clear reason to be excited for his arrival in South Florida.

Brett Connolly is also a nice depth piece, albeit one that may be a bit overrated. His 1.28 goals per 60 rate at 5v5 last season would have ranked first on the Panthers, at 27, he still has some decent years ahead of him. Noel Acciari is a solid 4th line center, and at less than $2 million against the cap, there isn’t much to complain about. The Anton Stralman signing may be a bit too much money for a bit too long, especially considering his injury history and age (32), but there’s no denying that he makes the top-four better, at least for next season.

All signs point to an improved hockey team in South Florida, and with former Chicago Blackhawk coach Joel Quenneville (yes, the Quenneville with three Stanley Cups this decade) behind the bench, there’s plenty of reason to be optimistic headed into the 2019-2020 NHL season.

And yet... There’s also plenty of reason to be concerned. Here’s a look at each free agent signing, their projected future performance, and where they fit into the Panthers long-term plans.

Sergei Bobrovsky

For starters, Bobrovsky’s deal is massive, to say the least. With an annual cap hit of $10 million that carries all the way until the end of the 2026 season, Bobrovsky will be the second highest paid goaltender in the league next year, and one of the highest paid goaltenders in the league for the foreseeable future. Now, if you were acquiring Bobrovsky during his prime, that wouldn’t be a problem. The issue is that Bobrovsky turns 31 in September, has had previous issues with groin injuries, and struggled mightily last season - his .913 SV% in all situations was just .003 points above the league average of .910.

Though projecting goaltender performance is incredibly difficult, we can still put together a reasonable estimate using some publicly available estimates of goaltender aging curves. If we establish Bobrovsky’s “peak” being his 24-year-old season (2012-2013) when he posted a .932 SV% (compared to a league average of .912), the projections for Bobrovsky’s future performance relative to his age don’t exactly paint a great picture.

For three years, Bobrovsky is projected to be reasonably above league average. By year 4, he’s projected to essentially be a league average netminder. The last three years of his contract, he’s projected to be below league average, all while making $10 million per season.

This also assumes that Bobrovsky’s peak is the aforementioned .932, even though he’s historically under-performed the projections associated with that “peak” value.

Though he’s expected to bounce back after a rough 2018-2019 (Dom Luszczyszyn of the Athletic ($$$) also has him bouncing back, going up to a .917 SV% next season), the years after that start to get dicey. If Bobrovsky underperforms (which is a perfectly reasonable outcome), then the Panthers could be paying $10 million against the cap for league average goaltending by year three of that contract, which would almost certainly be a negative value investment.

Bobrovsky could beat the projections, too. Goaltender analysis is difficult, though, and the only other mega-dollar contract for a goaltender doesn’t exactly inspire confidence - after posting a .928 SV% from 2013-2017 (ages 26-29), Carey Price has posted a meager .910 SV% over the past two seasons (ages 30-31). His $10.5 million cap hit carries until 2026.

Bobrovsky provides immense value for the Panthers next season, and projects to be an above average goaltender over the length of Barkov’s contract. He’s also a massive risk heading into the latter half of the deal, where the Panthers could be paying $10 million a season for below average goaltending. Cap space is valuable, and the Panthers could really be put in a tough situation where they have to give up a ton of assets in order to keep Barkov/Trocheck. It’s ok to be both excited and concerned over that kind of contract.

Brett Connolly/Anton Stralman

The signings of Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman are also concerning. Taken at face value, they seem to bolster the depth on a team that already has the core pieces, and just needs to add complementary players to push them to next level.

Digging a bit deeper, however, exposes some underlying issues with both players that may result in them not being worth the combined $9 million cap hit that the two will carry for the next three seasons.

Brett Connolly

Connolly has been one of the better 5v5 goal scorers in the league over the past three seasons (among skaters with 500 minutes TOI), with his 1.14 goals per hour rate tying him with Alex Ovechkin and Anders Lee for 12th in the league. That scoring has been mostly inflated by a 17.9% shooting percentage, the 7th highest total in the entire league. Considering that Connolly’s expected goals per hour in that same time frame was just 0.64 (tied for 230th in the league) and that his career shooting percentage (even including the past 3 years) sits at 13.6%, it’s just not reasonable to expect him to match his 21 5v5 goals from last year, regardless of who he plays with or how much ice time he gets.

Still, he picks up primary assists at a reasonable 0.68 per hour rate, which ranks 103rd in the league, so there’s definitely some scoring value, but the best metrics we have indicate that he’s a slight net negative at 5v5, especially considering his penalty differential. At the end of the day, the Panthers are also acquiring Connolly for his age 27-31 seasons, so he’s likely already past his prime, and one could argue that he doesn’t provide much value outside of a bottom six role. With that in mind, $3.5 million per season seems like a bit of an overpay, though the Panthers certainly have the cap space to get away with a little bit extra money over the next couple of seasons.

Anton Stralman

Stralman was an analytics darling after he first signed his contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning, and his strong defensive play helped propel the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015 and two Eastern Conference Finals (2016, 2018).

Unfortunately, that has changed as time has started to take it’s toll on Stralman. He played in just 47 games last season while battling lower body injuries, and just isn’t the same player he was when he first signed with Tampa Bay. Though there are certainly worse options the Panthers could use to round out their top-four, Stralman certainly isn’t a player that’s going to provide a drastic boost to the back end, and at $5.5 million per season, there’s a decent chance Panthers fans come to regret the team signing Stralman, especially in that last season.

Noel Acciari

There’s really not much to be said about this signing, as the 27-year-old will be making $1.67 million for the next 3 seasons to be the team’s fourth line center. Acciari comes in as a decent defensive forward making a minimal amount against the salary cap, and was a key part of Boston’s bottom six as they made a run to the Stanley Cup Finals this past season.