Florida Panthers Remain An Endangered Playoff Species
When the annual NHL playoffs begin the Florida Panthers are rarely anywhere to be found. They’re bound to disappear again this season unless they can pull off a miracle of major proportions over their final seven games of the schedule. In fact they’re about to miss the postseason for the 20th time in 25 seasons since joining the league back in 1993/94.
The Panthers have managed to win just three playoff series in their history and they all came the same year in 1995/96. The franchise looked quite promising in its infancy by reaching the Stanley Cup Final in its third season of operation. It was a success story down south even though they were swept in four games for the Stanley Cup by the Colorado Avalanche. Their fairy tale campaign was something Toronto Maple Leafs‘ fans have been dreaming of since 1967.
Florida returned to the playoffs the very next season, but were quickly ousted in the first round by the New York Rangers. In 1996/97 the club made the postseason for the third time in its first seven years and were swept by the New Jersey Devils in the opening round. Ten seasons then passed by without an appearance by the Panthers any time after the regular-season schedule. However, they appeared in the postseason twice in five years by showing up in 2011/12 and 2015/16, but were quickly sent home in the first round each time. To add to the heartache they missed the playoffs by a single point last season.
That, in a nutshell, is the playoff history of the Panthers and it reads three series wins and five losses in 24 seasons with half of those coming in 1995/96.
The trend of disappointing seasons continues this year despite the fine individual performances of several players. A quick look at the league stats shows two Panthers in the top-20 scorers as human highlight reel Aleksander Barkov has posted 34 goals and 53 assists for 87 points while fellow center Jonathan Huberdeau has accumulated 23 goals and 59 helpers for 82 points in 75 games each.
We can’t overlook the contribution of wingers Mike Hoffman (35 goals and 32 assists) and Evgenii Dadonov (25 goals and 36 assists) while center Frank Vatrano has chipped in with 22 goals. Back on the blue line we find Keith Yandle as one of the league’s top-scoring rearguards with nine goals and 58 points and Aaron Ekblad with 35 points.
The Panthers are ranked ninth in the league in goals for with an average of 3.2 per game and their second-ranked power-play has been exceptional at 27.3 per cent. Barkov, Huberdeau, Hoffman, Dadanov and Yandle have combined for 54 goals, 97 assists and 151 points with the man advantage and the team’s penalty killing isn’t bad at 80.5 per cent. They also average 33 shots on net per game for the fifth highest total in the league.
There’s no question the Panthers have displayed enough offensive bite in 2018/19, but their downfall has been their overall defensive play. The only current regular on the entire roster with a plus rating is young defenseman Mackenzie Weegar at plus-3. The team’s goals-against average is the fifth worst in the league at 3.32 even though they give up the 10th-fewest shots per night at 30.6. But the overall save percentage is second worst in the NHL at 89.2.
Most fans will point their fingers at Florida’s goaltending as a reason for their downfall this season and it would be hard to disagree with them. Veterans Roberto Luongo and James Reimer have both struggled this year. The 39-year-old year-old Luongo’s record is 15-15-4 with a 3.13 goals-against average and a save percentage of 89.8 while the 31-year-old Reimer is 13-11-5 with a 3.02 GAA and 90.2 save percentage. Youngster Samuel Montembeault has played eight games and the 23-year-old is 4-3-1 with a 3.02 GAA and 89.3 save percentage.
Luongo has the team’s one and only shutout and the netminders have also struggled in shootouts. Reimer has made six saves on 11 shootout attempts and Luongo has stopped just one of eight shots. As far as contracts go, Luongo’s annual salary-cap hit is S4.533 million and he’s under wraps for another three seasons. Reimer’s on the books at $3.4 million a year and is under contract until the end of 2020/21.
The Panthers more or less have their hands tied here as Luongo has a modified no-trade clause and dealing Reimer would be difficult considering his salary and stats. However, both contracts could possibly be bought out. It’s also possible Luongo retires before his runs out, but if he does, general manager Dale Tallon will need to find a suitable replacement since Reimer clearly isn’t number-one material.
Sergei Bobrovsky of the Columbus Blue Jackets is the best available free agent goalie this summer. But with Florida paying out over $9 million a year for Luongo and Reimer they simply don’t have enough cap space for the two-time Vezina Trophy winner at the moment. That could change though if Luongo decides enough is enough and hangs up his skates before July 1st.
Injuries didn’t help Florida’s cause this season either as centers Derek MacKenzie and Vincent Trocheck were both out long-term during the season. Trocheck missed 27 games and MacKenzie played 2:43 minutes on opening night before being shelved for the year. MacKenzie may be a bottom-six forward, but he’s a former Panthers’ captain and his leadership and faceoff skills have been greatly missed.
So how exactly do the Panthers manage to return to the playoffs in the near future? Well, they appear to have enough scoring depth, but need to address the goaltending situation. They have some pretty good prospects in forwards Owen Tippett and Dryden Hunt along with defenseman Brady Keeper. In addition, Barkov and Ekblad are only 23 years old and Huberdeau is 25 with all of them having bright futures ahead.
There have been rumors about landing free agent forward Artemi Panarin in the offseason, but they’d need to make salary cap space. Also, the Panthers have a good offensive core and need to concentrate on strengthening the goaltending and defense instead. This is where the possible acquisition of Bobrovsky could quickly turn the team around next season.
But until they’re are able to keep the puck out of their net on a more consistent basis it’s unlikely we’ll see any sign of the Panthers in the playoffs in the near future.