Panthers at the quarter pole: A review of the first twenty games

With a quarter of the season's games played, we take a look at how the Panthers are faring, where the strengths and weaknesses are, and who has been noteworthy.

There is a mantra of sorts around the NHL that says that those teams that would be in the playoffs as of Thanksgiving (U.S. version, of course), are typically those teams that are actually in the playoffs come the conclusion of the regular season. The truth and wisdom of this mantra have been time tested, which is not to say that this is absolute: there are teams that will drop off and others that will climb their way in after the holiday, the Los Angeles Kings in years past being the most noteworthy of these examples. Yet, when its all said and done, the majority of NHL playoff teams will be the same teams that were in playoff positions on turkey day.

The game against the New York Rangers on November 21st, Florida's 20th game of the season, is the quarter mark of the 82-game NHL regular season for Florida. This marks an excellent opportunity to take a look at a well-sized sample of the 2015-16 season, to explore some statistics that have at least started to average themselves out, and to look at how the roster has performed to date.

The good news is that despite what can, at best, be referred to as a "roller coaster" start to the season, the Cats sit 6th in the Atlantic Division and within reach of the playoffs. This is somewhat remarkable because the team has been deficient in many respects, something we will explore further in this article. Thinking positive, the team is still in the playoff hunt despite playing what essentially amounts to sub-.500 hockey- if you consider overtime loss points "loser-points." So where is this team and what needs to improve?

The Good News:

There is no better news than the fact that the Panthers are still in the playoff race. The team has been up and down, awful and great, and they have survived the first quarter of the season by still being in the race. What makes this extra positive is that the team did this despite an injury to Aleksander Barkov, who (prior to his injury) was possibly the team's top forward both offensively and defensively. They also survived despite playing a bevy of young players completely new, or in some cases relatively new, to the NHL, such as Logan Shaw, Connor Brickley, Garrett Wilson, Rocco Grimaldi, Quinton Howden, and Alex Petrovic. They made it through this stretch despite line juggling combinations that had players trying to fit with new faces on their left, right, or both. The team hit the quarter turn still in the hunt despite goaltending in the month of November that posted save percentages as follows (from 11/4 to 11/21): .839, .950, 1.00, .857, .842, .893, .886, .871, and .949.

Nick Bjugstad and Vincent Trocheck are on pace to score 28.7 goals this season. Jaromir Jagr is on pace to score 36 goals this season. Reilly Smith is on pace to score 20.5 goals this season. Barkov is on pace to score 40 goals this season. This is not to say these team leaders will do so, scorers across the league are notoriously streaky, and Barkov's number is inflated by the lack of games he has played. This is simply to point out the pace these players are presently on- which is very positive.

Both Panther goaltenders, despite the recent downturn, have goals-against-average in the low two range, and save percentages above .920. The team is 9th best in the NHL in save percentage, with a .918 combined.

And with two goals against the Rangers on Saturday night, the club's power play is now ranked fifth in the league, humming along at a tidy 22.2% conversion rate. While we expected improvement in this area, many of us would have been content with a middle-of-pack ranking.

The Bad News: A Troubling Lack of Scoring and Battling:

After 20 games played, the Panthers are 17th in the league in goals-for-scored per game, and 24th in the league in shots-for-per-game. Aside from large goal outputs against Calgary and Tampa Bay in November, the Cats scored 9 goals in the 6 games leading up to a shutout loss to Anaheim on November 19th. The Panthers gave up 3 goals to the Ducks, who were, at the time, tied as the lowest scoring team in the NHL.That game also stands out because it was the game when Coach Gerard Gallant finally called out his team. In post-game comments, Gallant had this to say that evening:

There are no names mentioned, but its not altogether hard to figure out some of the players he was talking about, and while that was only one, admittedly very poor game, some of the names we can surmise are ones we fans have been raising concerns about. Looking at playing time in that game, Dave Bolland's ice time was cut to 11:35 and he had no shots or hits and was 44% in the face-off circle. That was the second game in a row that Bolland was reduced to under 12 minutes. The Anaheim game also saw Bolland demoted to the 4th line (which does explain some of the ice time loss), while Derek MacKenzie was moved up to the 3rd line. One game later, against the Rangers, Bolland again found himself relegated to the 4th line, and only saw 10:58 in ice time. If we are looking for clues, these are strong ones that our multi-million dollar free agent signing is not performing to coach Gallant's expectations.

Brandon Pirri played 14:19 and had one hit and one shot against the Ducks in Sunrise. Pirri would make a bone-headed blind pass turnover against the Rangers on Saturday that led to the Broadway BlueShirts first goal of the game and finally find himself benched. He would finish that game with only 12:52 in ice time. Hopefully, the benching finally got through to Pirri, as he responded with 2 assists later in that game. All we can do is wait and see.

Of some concern is that Trocheck's ice time was also cut in the Ducks game, where he had no shots, one hit, and was -1. For Trocheck this could have something to do with Barkov's return moving him back to the 3rd line, where he was again bumped from center to wing. Against the Rangers, Trocheck was moved back to center on the 3rd line, where he logged 16:39 of ice-time and launched 5 shots to accompany one hit. Trocheck is far more effective at center, and we can hope that moving forward he will remain in that 3rd line spot over the underachieving Bolland.

Rookie Grimaldi may be heading back to Portland soon. Despite starting the Rangers game on the 3rd line with Trocheck and Smith against the Rangers, Rocco (unfortunately) again showed a lack of effectiveness, and his ice time dipped below that of all other Panthers skaters (9:57). He was sent out to serve a too-many men penalty in overtime against New York, further evidence that Gallant has lost confidence in the youngster. Grimaldi has fantastic speed and worth ethic, but he has not looked ready for NHL play yet.

It's the Defensive Zone:

The trouble we are seeing with certain players is on the defensive side of the puck. Staying with the team's two-way play, battles, and dedication to defense, we can look at plus/minus stats. The plus/minus number is a deeply flawed stat that is rarely used for much anymore (it does not take into account the quality of competition, ice time differences, zone usage, and we could keep going here describing flaws). Yet, I have come around to using it as a cliff note style tell tale that sheds some light on what's happening when a player is on the ice, we can use it as a kind of canary in a coalmine.Taking a look at the plus/minus statistic, on the season Pirri is a team worst -5, Trocheck is -3, Grimaldi is -3 (in only 9 games), Bolland is -2, and Jaromir Jagr is -2 (incredible because he has been on the ice for goals by himself or that he assisted on).

How do we use that plus/minus number in a useful way? Well, we know from this article how players are being used and against whom. Taking Erik Gudbranson, we know that he is playing against opponents top lines whenever possible (especially in home games where the team can match lines), that he is averaging 20 minutes of ice time per-game, that his defensive-zone start % has gone all the way up to 66.5%, but that he is at an even plus-minus. Against the Rangers, Gallant tried to match Gudbranson with Rick Nash whenever possible, although he was unsuccessful on several critical shifts where Nash burned the Campbell-led pairing.

Now contrast Gudbranson with Bolland, who is facing less challenging quality of competition, has averaged only 15:18 of ice-time per-game, and has a 56.2% defensive-zone start %, yet is minus-2. To be fair, Bolland's quality of competition did get more difficult after Barkov was injured. But I am not altogether certain that this paints the high-priced center in a better light, as that was more or less what Bolland was brought in to do, and he has not done a very good job of it.

But our canary in that coalmine really sings when we get to Pirri, who averages 14:49 in ice-time per-game, has still less challenging quality of competition and a defensive zone start % of only 44.1%, yet is -5....despite scoring 2 even-strength goals himself, and assisting on 2 others. Pirri has an offensive zone start rate of 55.9%

Don't panic, Corsi is alive and well:

Allow me to digress for a moment: it is true that Corsi stats can-in theory- tell you similar stories, or even better stories than plus/minus. But I want to know, on a purely superficial level, who is getting scored on while on the ice, not just who is getting out-shot and out-possessed. Possession stats we fans use are not necessarily those used by NHL teams. The Rangers have poor possession metrics using shot attempts for and against, yet they are one of the best teams in the league. This is likely because they have the highest PDO in the league at 106. That would appear unsustainable.

This is not to say that Corsi stats are not important- they are, and often tell important stories, but I have argued repeatedly that bare Corsi stats must be adjusted, and that is something we will do later in this writing. But I do think that plus/minus can give some relevant information as well. That information in this case is to confirm what the so called "eye-test" has been revealing, and that is: players who have been weak in the two-way game, weak in battles, and weak on turnovers. Lets finish this section with this: Pirri has scored 3 goals, on 42 shots, for a 7.1 shooting percentage. Bolland has a 4.2 shooting percentage , and Jonathan Huberdeau has a 2.4% shooting %. Why might this be?

They don't call them the "hard areas of the ice" for nothing:

What has been notable with the Panthers so far is the lack of scoring in too many games. A big, perhaps even gigantic part of that problem likely stems from the team's lack of net front presence. After the loss to the Ducks at home on November 19th, where the Cats were badly outshot 41-25, Captain Willie Mitchell had this to say:

Gallant added his comments along the same lines:

The team was outshot 72-24 over a two-game span against the Ducks and Tampa (at home). Despite the win over the injury riddled Lightning on November 16th, the shot differential shows a team doing a very poor job possessing the puck. Gallant noted this after the loss to the Ducks in Sunrise:

But the loss to the Ducks at home was not the first indication that the Panthers are not playing well or hard enough in the "hard areas" of the rink. As Travis Yost, at showed in an article on November 19th, the Panthers were near the bottom of the league in "in-tight shots on goal." "In-tight shots" are exactly what they sound like: shots from the slot area of the ice. Take Barkov's goal against the Rangers late in the third period for the perfect example. Yost found that the Panthers were second-worst in the league, with slightly more than 7 in-tight shots per game, making it somewhat of a miracle that the team was in the top-half of the league in in-tight goals scored per game.

Now lets go back to those shooting percentages we looked at earlier. According to your "eye-test," are Bolland, Pirri, or Huberdeau spending much time in front of the opposition net, and if so, are they getting shots off? Huberdeau has been doing a far, far better job going to the net in the last seven games, and his point totals have exploded as a result. But look at the season average and it's not surprising who has some of the best shooting percentages on the team: Connor Brickley: 25%; Vincent Trocheck: 20%; Jaromir Jagr: 21.6%; Aleksander Barkov: 17.9%; Reilly Smith: 13.9%; Nick Bjugstad: 14.6% All players who make their living around the net.

After being called out by coach and captain, the Panthers went to work against the Rangers, and one of the NHL's top goaltenders, posting 43 shots and 4 goals. The 4 goals the Panthers scored showed a total commitment to in-tight shooting and play, with tip-in goals by Bjugstad and Jokinen, a low slot goal by Barkov, and a wide-low slot goal by Jagr. The team showed great commitment to going to the front of the Rangers net and outworking New York's outstanding defense on the low boards, and the results were obvious and fantastic.

Pieces of the team are playing the way this squad was envisioned:

This was supposed to be a big, strong and fast team that plays Western Conference style hockey. But instead the team has showed an utter lack of battle and fortitude. This was supposed to be a team that had been shown the sacrifices of members of the military by it's owner to inspire the same from them. Yet, scratching at the surface, the above comments and Yost's chart show a team that is either not battling or going to the hard areas of the ice.

The Panthers are 3rd in the league in hits, which looks exceptional, until you realize that the vast majority of those hits are coming from four players: Gudbranson, Petrovic, MacKenzie, and Howden. There is a 67 place drop off from Quinton Howden at 39th in the league in hits to the next Panther, Nick Bjugstad at 106th in the league. Once again, the post-game comments of Gallant and Mitchell are confirmed as correct analysis.

Some of the names that keep appearing on the "problem" lists are repeating: Bolland, Pirri, Grimaldi (unfortunately), and until recently, Huberdeau. While Huby seems to have turned a corner, the others are struggling on defense, and not proving themselves willing to go to hard areas of the ice on offense. The team is also struggling at the face-off dot, sporting a 22nd in the league 48.3% face-off percentage.

Infographic comparing the Cats of '14-15 to the Cats of '15-16 after 20 games.

Francisco was kind enough to put together a comparative infographic of players this year compared with last year:

More Stats:

Team PDO is 101, 8th highest in the league. Right about where the average should be on the season. We are not experiencing an unusual amount of puck luck or save percentage, nor an unlucky level of either.

Team Save %: .918, good for a tie for 8th in the league. As the information above has shown, our goaltending has not been nearly as solid through the month of November though.

PIM: The Cats have 185 penalty minutes this season, tied for 14th in the league. Not altogether awful.

Face-Off Win %: 48.3%, 22nd in the league. For possession, this need to improve dramatically. Barkov's return will hopefully help this.

Corsi For %: 48.4%, 23rd in the league. So the eye-test is confirmed, we are not possessing the puck well.

Fenwick For %: Like Corsi For %, 23rd in the league at 48.3%.

Shots For Per Game: 24th in the league at 28.6 per game.

Shots Against Per Game: 28th in the league at 31.8 per game.

Key Injuries:

Barkov missed 10 games.

Jagr missed 2 games.

Dmitry Kulikov has missed the last 3 games, with more to come.

Putting it all together:

You can find a stat that can be calculated to show you just about any outcome, so I am the first to admit that some of the suppositions made in this piece may be incorrect. Nonetheless, when you take the comments of Gallant, Mitchell, as well as Yost's findings, and the shots for and against, they start to back up what we see with the poor Corsi For numbers. Hockey is the ultimate team game, and when one piece of that team is not working correctly it will throw the efficiency of the whole off. I have laid a lot of blame off on a small collection of players, and I believe that their shooting percentages and plus/minus stats back this up. I also believe that this explains why their playing time has been cut. Taking a look at point-per-game rates at the quarter mark for the "offensive output" of the team, the break down is equally telling:

Name Games Played Points Point-per-game rate
Barkov 10 9 .90
Jagr 18 16 .88
Jokinen 20 14 .70
Trocheck 20 13 .70
Smith 20 12 .60
Bjugstad 20 12 .60
Huberdeau 20 11 .55
Ekblad 20 9 .45
Pirri 20 9 .45
Campbell 20 8 .40
Brickley 10 3 .30
Bolland 18 5 .27
MacKenzie 20 5 .25
Howden 17 4 .23
Kulikov 17 3 .17
Grimaldi 9 1 .11

The team is getting less stellar goalie play in November. It is also getting a lack of offensive output from members of what should be prominent scoring lines. This includes Pirri, Bolland (if being used in a 3rd line role), Grimaldi, until recently, Huberdeau, and, like Bolland, when used on a top 3 line, Howden. I am unsure why Brickley got sent down to Portland as the 4th line output has never recovered from losing him. It is also true, as we noted earlier this season, that we are counting on our first line to play stringent defense, which they, aside from Barkov, are not well-equipped to do. But the defense we are getting from Pirri, Trocheck, Bolland, and Grimaldi has not been good either. That's a lot of forwards who are hurting the team on the defensive side of the puck. And you can now see that other team's video units have identified this flaw as more teams are scoring from the same places on the Panthers: just inside the tops of the face-off circles. Teams are actively moving pucks off the low walls to this spot and exploiting poor defensive zone coverage by Florida's forwards.

But as bad as all of this sounds, there is reason for optimism. Barkov is back. He is the team's best offensive and defensive forward. His return settles down the lines. Pirri responded well to a benching against the Rangers. Huberdeau is playing much better of late. The three pieces that must still be figured out are what to do with Grimaldi, Bolland, and the 4th line. Garrett Wilson has not played poorly at all, but he has not been the spark that Brickley was either. Once again we are looking at a 4th line that is not putting points on the board, but not being used in a defensive role either.

The defense has been solid, with only Petrovic and Kampfer posting below even numbers on plus/minus, despite Gudbranson and Mitchell playing tougher quality of competition than Ryan Suter of the Wild, Brent Seabrook and Niklas Hjalmarsson of Chicago, and Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo of the Blues. The defensive giveaways have been about even with those by the league's top defensemen. Aaron Ekblad's production is suddenly up on the offensive side of the puck. The defense is playing about to expectations.

Ultimately, the team must settle into lines that work, that possess the puck and get shots on net. That will reduce the shots against dramatically. They must start winning more face-offs and going to the hard areas of the ice. The goaltending downturn will correct itself, Roberto Luongo is still too good not to. What we are likely seeing is the effect of an injury to one of the team's few elite centers, coupled with some young players breaking into the NHL. The Panthers have games in hand on Tampa Bay, Detroit, and Montreal, but they must stop slipping further behind their division foes. The corrections must come soon.