The Florida Panthers made a couple big splashes this summer that suggest they are ready to take the next step. That next step is making the playoffs in 2019-20. It will not be easy as so many teams have improved in the Eastern Conference.
Florida finished with 86 points which was below expectations in 2018-19. That was enough for the Panthers to make changes in the offseason. Let’s look at what Florida has done.
First, Florida hired John Quenneville
It is not like Bob Boughner was an awful coach, but he just could not always get the best out of his players when needed. The 2017-18 season gave him another year but remember, Florida dug itself too much of a hole before a hot streak was too little, too late.
Last season, Florida had every chance to make the playoffs but fell far short. That was enough to bring a Stanley Cup winner in Quenneville aboard on April 8th. The former Chicago coach was fired last season but the defensive mess with the Blackhawks was far from all his fault.
Quenneville will make his players more accountable and he will lean on the veterans more. Florida has a promising blend of veterans and younger players alike. He has the experience to command the respect needed to get Florida to the next level.
Second, Florida signed Sergei Bobrovsky
Alas, it was obvious that Florida needed a goaltender last season. The dual approach of using an aging Roberto Luongo and James Reimer just could not work. Luongo was not reliable enough health wise and Reimer just was not the goaltender he has shown at times in the past.
The result was Dale Tallon spending the money needed to secure a franchise goalie (seven years, $10 million per season). Bobrovsky is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner (best goaltender) and won a playoff round last year for the first time in his career. Bobrovsky looked more like the goalie he was in the regular season during the playoffs. That had not been the case in previous seasons.
Florida assumes the risk in the later years of the contract as Bobrovsky ages. However, the Panthers have a window to start contending and that time is now. Bobrovsky has a .921 save percentage since the 2013 shortened season and one of the better penalty-kill save percentage in the league during that span. Florida’s penalty kill was below average mostly because of goaltending the past couple campaigns.
The last line of defense just improved greatly in Florida.
Third, several teams could easily regress in the East
Again, the Eastern Conference features a series of team that have improved their fortunes greatly in the offseason, but several teams could find themselves in the regression category. Those include the Columbus Blue Jackets and New York Islanders especially.
Columbus lost Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, and Ryan Dzingel to free agency. That would decimate any team to lose two of their best players alone. This will be more of a rebuilding year for Columbus who mortgaged their future a bit to win a playoff round.
Then, there are the Islanders who shocked everyone by making the playoffs then also sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins in round one. The problem is New York lost their best goaltender in Robin Lehner to Chicago. They signed Semyon Varlamov who has been in poorer form the past few seasons for Colorado. The expectation is that New York will slide back because of goaltending, the penalty-kill, and a decrease in goal scoring and defense as well.
Other bubble teams could make this interesting as well in the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens. Do these teams drop back a bit or stay the same? That may determine Florida’s fate as well. It may be a year where at least 97 points are needed to make the playoffs, maybe more. Do the Panthers have that type of team? On paper, they do. However, they will need a little help.
Fourth, Florida must be better defensively
The ascension of the power play hid one side effect and that was Florida’s ability to be counter-attacked on it. It offered an illustration to their problems at even strength as well. Overall, Florida yielded 13 short-handed goals which does not sound like much. On the other hand, a short-handed goal allowed often feels like two goals given up. It deflates a team that much typically.
Florida was fourth in the league in goals per game against at 3.33. That cannot be a number which happens again. San Jose was 11th on the list at 3.15 but scored at a 3.52 goals per contest. Bobrovsky should help here too as his ability to stop the puck should help defenders exhale a bit. Also, Quenneville can help here by helping to devise a better system to suppress shots. Florida goaltenders saw nearly 33 shots per 60 over the second half of the year.
This was a team that tired late and to make the playoffs, that is something which cannot occur.
Finally, Florida must get off to a good start and can.
Typically, most teams that are in a playoff spot around Thanksgiving stay there. Furthermore, Florida started off up and down which became too much of a theme throughout the season. They started 2018-19 by losing four straight games, then won five in a row before ending up 8-8-3 at the Thanksgiving mark.
It seemed like Florida would go on a run and then be done in by their defense and goaltending time and time again. A six-game losing streak early in March sealed their fate and probably Bob Boughner’s as well. The Panthers made too many mistakes that were teachable ones.
To make the playoffs, Florida will need to finish around 15 games over .500. In order to do that, they must be at least 3-5 games above .500 by Thanksgiving to get a good springboard. They are capable but again this is no St. Louis. Florida must improve how they start a season in order to finish strong. If they can do that, the playoffs is a realistic possibility.
By Chris Wassel