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Florida Panthers: Playoffs Should be the Expectation for this Season

Tuesday 31 July, 2018 | RSS Feed

Florida Panthers: Playoffs Should be the Expectation for this Season

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They were only the second team in the history of the league to get to 96 points yet miss the postseason.

As it has been well documented in this space, their horrific start to the season doomed them to missing the postseason no matter how well they played down the stretch. In 47 games before the All-Star break, they had 44 points.
In 35 games after that, they had 52. That kind of form might be good enough to win the President’s Trophy if extrapolated out to a full 82-game slate, and last year’s Panthers team was fatally flawed in multiple ways.

They had no secondary scoring or depth down the lineup. Their specialty teams up until December was some of the worst in the league, both on the kill and power play. Defensively, they gave up too many shots and quality chances.

If even that flawed team could make the run they did, couldn’t a team theoretically much better on paper make it to the postseason in a top-heavy Eastern Conference? Not only can they, but they should, and it should be the expectation.

Coming into next season with the addition of Mike Hoffman, the Panthers will be returning with six 20-goal scorers from the previous season, not including Aaron Ekblad who had 16 and Nick Bjugstad who had 19.

Only one other Panthers team has had five 20-goal scorers on it: the division title-winning team in ’15-16. Over the entire season, the Panthers had a PDO of 100.1, indicating they weren’t unlucky or lucky and were around 50% in terms of score-adjusted CF%, meaning they were also playing to their level. This includes both the terrible start and the hot finish.
During the offseason, the front office targeted two needs and acquired players to fill those needs without a minimum of fuss. They needed a top-six winger and acquired Mike Hoffman, baggage and all.

They needed a shutdown lower pairing defenseman and signed Bogdan Kiselevich. Both players directly address key needs and both should be able to easily fill those roles. Barring injury, the rest of the Panthers lineup from last season will return relatively intact. There’s also no reason to think that some Cats who had their best seasons yet in ’17-18 aren’t poised to do even more this year.
Aleksander Barkov set a career high in points, assists, and games played while playing the second highest average ice time for a forward in the league (22:04 compared to Anze Kopitar’s 22:05). Vincent Trocheck set a career high in goals, assists, and points while also playing with perhaps 20 different line combinations during his second straight season not missing a game.

Jonathan Huberdeau also set career highs in everything after playing in a full NHL season for the first time. Evgeni Dadonov chipped in 65 points while having a RelCF of 6.3, better than two forwards who played in some other sunbelt market not to be mentioned.

Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad for their faults as a pair had individually solid seasons, certainly better than the disasters both had in ’16-17. Yandle was three up in goals, 12 up in assists, and Ekblad was only one point shy of his career high in his rookie campaign. Mike Matheson, who was of the only Panther to have a good ’16-17 season, improved by playing more even strength and specialty minutes.

Coaching also improved throughout the season. Bob Boughner and his staff seemed a little lost at times in November and December trying to implement their system of run-and-gun, high event hockey, but by the time Jonathan Huberdeau moved to the second line, the team didn’t just pick up the system, they played it almost perfectly.

Boughner also knew when to push buttons with line changes and man management better than he did at the start, and there can be no doubt that both the power play and penalty kill improved.

So why then in 2018-19 can’t this team take the next step? With no coaching change, and settling in after a chaotic season previous, they should be able to hit the ground running. For all of the off-ice controversy surrounding Mike Hoffman, he is a 20 goal, 50 point forward that should fit in seamlessly into the Panthers’ top six.

There will be full seasons of Henrik Borgstrom and presumably Owen Tippett to add more youth, skill, and speed to a team already teeming with it. As Bob Boughner and Jack Capuano didn’t change the defense pairings almost at all last year, there shouldn’t be any problem for that group to pick right up where they left off last season.

While the Panthers have improved in a big way over last season, their competition for those final few playoff spots in the East really hasn’t. Columbus added decent depth in Riley Nash, but if they have to trade Artemi Panarin, then they lose their best forward and a big part of their goal scoring push.

The Devils, who were a normal Taylor Hall away from being a lottery contender, didn’t add anyone this offseason, and pretty clearly overachieved last season. Carolina finished closest to the Panthers after that, and they only had 83 points.

With the Rangers committed to a rebuild, the Islanders losing John Tavares, and the rest of the East falling off, there’s no reason to think the Panthers shouldn’t be a top eight team in the East next year.

Last year figured to be a difficult one both on and off the ice for the Cats, and they exceeded all expectations. Now that they’ve addressed needs and have a quieter offseason from which to build on, and a weaker Eastern Conference around them, the expectation for the Panthers should be to make the playoffs.

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