Florida Panthers 2017-’18 Season Preview

Florida Panthers

35-36-11, 81 points, sixth in the Atlantic Division

Additions: W Evgeni Dadonov, C Micheal Haley, RW Radim Vrbata

Subtractions: G Reto Berra (signed with ANA), F Jussi Jokinen (signed with EDM), C Jon Marchessault (drafted by VGK), F Kyle Rau (signed with MIN), D Brent Regner (signed with DAL), C Michael Sgarbossa (signed with WPG), W Reilly Smith (traded to VGK), RW Paul Thompson (signed with VGK), W Thomas Vanek (signed with VAN)

Offseason Analysis: For some, the 2015-‘16 season feels like yesterday. To others, it was ages ago.

Then there’s Florida.

2016 marked the Panthers’ second playoff appearance since 2000’s sweep by Jersey, and Florida earned that berth in the most dominating way: winning the Atlantic by six points over archrival Tampa.

Though Florida was eliminated in the first round, the future looked bright. C Aleksander Barkov, C Nick Bjugstad, D Aaron Ekblad, C Jonathan Huberdeau, Smith and F Vincent Trocheck all had yet to turn 25-years-old, and they were led by ageless wonder RW Jaromir Jagr.

A year later, although that core remained intact, the Panthers found themselves golfing early, missing the playoffs by 14 points.

It’s one thing to narrowly miss the playoffs, but how could something like this happen?

One problem was Florida’s slow start. Former head coach Gerrard Gallant’s (now Vegas’ coach) Panthers started 11-10-1 before being infamously sacked after losing 3-2 at Carolina, but general-manager-turned-head-coach Tom Rowe proved unable to turn the squad around.

Maybe it was the slow start, or maybe it was the rash firing of the best head coach in franchise history, but since I’m a numbers guy (like Panthers management claims), I believe the answer lies in Florida’s goals against. During the 2015-’16 season, the Panthers scored 232 goals and allowed only 200 for a +32 differential. Last year, Florida scored 210 times (22 less than before) and allowed 237 tallies (37 more) for a -27 differential, a net change of -59.

Where did those opposing goals come from?

I believe the answer falls squarely on the front office’s shoulders. During the playoff season, Florida allowed 29.5 shots to reach G Roberto Luongo per game, tying for 13th-best in the NHL. Last season, that number climbed to 31.6 shots-per-game – the eighth-worst mark. To be fair, Luongo didn’t have the best of campaigns with a .915 save percentage and 2.68 GAA, but the fact that defensemen Brian Campbell, 25-year-old Erik Gudbranson and 26-year-old Dmitry Kulikov all departed the team before last season began, for no other apparent reason than supposed analytics, played a major role.

Trying to resolve this situation and get his squad back to where it belongs, re-anointed GM Dale Tallon elected to not resign 45-year-old Jagr (16-30-46), allow 26-year-old Marchessault (30-21-51) to be selected in the expansion draft (but, why?) and trade 26-year-old Smith (15-22-37) to Vegas.

You read that correctly: Florida thinks offense was the problem.

Don’t get me wrong: 28-year-old Dadonov (30-36-66, KHL) and 36-year-old Vrbata (20-35-55, Arizona) will be valuable additions in replacing Jagr and Marchessault, but it’s a question if Florida’s squeaking wheel didn’t receive the grease. Even if the plan was to draft the elite defenseman of the future, Tallon didn’t select one until Max Gildon of the US NTDP in the third round. Instead, he chose RW Owen Tippett with his first pick for a club with a lot of talent on that side already.

This preview isn’t an attack on advanced analytics – I’m a fan in most instances. However, this preview is an attack on GMs changing course while building arguably the most success the franchise has ever seen (yes, I know Florida won the 1996 Eastern Conference). Unloading young offensive talent – and Jagr – a year after keeping only half the defensive corps is a recipe for disaster, both now and for the immediate future of this organization.

Instead of building a team around a desired analytic, maybe management should have learned which stat was already working and build the rest of its team around that core. Now, Florida may be left in shambles for the foreseeable future.

Offseason Grade: F

First and foremost, letting, no, working out a deal with Vegas to ensure Marchessault was selected in the expansion draft was a crazy idea. That being said, even with the departures of him and Jagr, I still feel that the Panthers’ offense is capable of showing signs of growth with Dadonov and Vrbata in comparison to last year. But, until the blue line improves, Florida will not able to climb much further than seventh place in the Atlantic Division.

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