Incremental improvements to the Florida Panthers‘ roster has given a historically moribund team in a non-traditional hockey market a chance to make some noise in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Buoyed in the standings by stellar goaltending and fortunate bounces, the Panthers have upgraded at the margins. In the process they’ve genuinely become more formidable.
Some of these marginal gains have been internal. In mid-December, the club decided to scratch under-performing veteran Dave Bolland and split up their struggling, old school shutdown pair of Willie Mitchell and Erik Gudbranson. These adjustments permitted the Panthers to control play more effectively, helping to catalyze a month-long winning streak.
Of late though, the Panthers’ incremental improvements have come from within. Florida was a big player at the NHL trade deadline, making a series of splashy moves to bring in rental forwards like Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell.
Florida’s roster is peppered with greybeards, but the core group is extraordinarily young. The club is constructed around a group of players – Nick Bjugstad, Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trochek, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau – all under the age of 23. Their best days are ahead of them.
When you consider the age of their core group, it’s difficult to argue that this was the optimal time for the Panthers to shed future assets in pursuit of playoff success. The business logic of ‘going for it’ in a non-traditional hockey market that hasn’t enjoyed much success in a generation can’t be ignored, though.
"It is important, but I think ownership showed that last year at the deadline too,” said longtime Panther Roberto Luongo of the club’s all-in posture. “We were trying to make a push and we went and got Jagr (last year). So we knew management and ownership were committed to making the next step and trying to build something good here. They showed it last year and this year we added some pieces as well to compliment our group.”
In many ways the Panthers appeared to be operating on parallel paths at the deadline. Though general manager Dale Tallon purchased a pair of veteran forwards on expiring contracts, his club also sold a pending restricted player in Brandon Pirri and made a value bet on under-rated defenceman Jakub Kindl.
There were other Kindl-type value bets to be made, and the Panthers kicked the tires on the likes of Shane Prince and Patrick Wiercioch before ultimately deciding not to match the New York Islanders’ bid for Prince. One is left to wonder if players like Prince and Wiercioch — younger players with strong underlying numbers — may have provided a higher yield for the Panthers, both now and long-term.
As it is, the moves Florida made have improved the club. The Panthers have only won five of their nine games since the deadline, but they’ve controlled better than 52 per cent of score-adjusted shot attempts, which indicates that they’re controlling play at a good enough rate to be a handful in a playoff series.
The Panthers are also generating more offence. Florida has been an unsustainably opportunistic shooting team this season, with only the New York Rangers capitalizing at a higher rate of five-on-five shots on goal.
"Good shooters,” said Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant on Thursday. “We play it one game at a time I don't really care how many shots we get per game or how many quality chances we get in a game. Our guys are good goal scorers, it isn't about looking at the shot clock."
Luck played a major role in the Panthers’ victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Thursday night – Jussi Jokinen’s second goal was so weird it was almost an optical illusion – but Florida is generating chances at a higher rate since the deadline.
Going into Thursday’s game, the Panthers were creating just over 14 scoring chances per game, the 17th best rate in hockey according to Sportlogiq. In the small eight-game sample since the deadline though, they have managed more than 17 scoring chances per game – a rate that would rank them first in the NHL if they sustain it.
It’s interesting to note that Hudler and Purcell have only made a marginal impact. Hudler has four points in nine games and his ice time is way down from where it was in Calgary. The Czech-born scoring winger profiles as the sort of player that might fit in with what the Panthers are already good at. He’s always been more of a percentage-driving player than a play-driving one, but it’s unclear that he’ll provide his new team with a fresh element. He does fit well when slotted onto the Panthers’ third line, though.
Purcell, meanwhile, has been limited to just four games for Florida since the deadline, due to injury. Before enjoying a renaissance campaign attached to Taylor Hall’s hip in Edmonton, the 30-year-old winger hadn’t performed like a top-six forward since 2012.
The deadline acquisition that might make the biggest difference for the Panthers, then, is Kindl. The defenceman cleared waivers earlier this season and was acquired from the Detroit Red Wings for a song. Though he’s playing a prescribed third-pair role, Kindl brings a puck-moving element that the Panthers have generally lacked. The team's blue-line currently ranks 20th in the NHL in controlled entries, according to Sportlogiq.
“Since the first game he's been there, I noticed that in him, he moves the puck right away,” said Bjugstad of his teammate. “Especially as forwards we like that, we like getting the puck rather than having to keep circling and regroup.”
This spring the Panthers will have an opportunity to win their first playoff series in 20 years. Though they paid a high price to improve themselves incrementally at the deadline, they’re poised to be a tough out.
If they can pull it off, there will be no second-guessing.