Panthers must resist making same old mistakes

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If we’ve learned anything from the last decade-plus of hockey in the salary cap era, it’s that even the most well-run NHL teams sometimes need to make the not-quite-ideal decision to fire a coach during the season.

Such gambles can pay off, whether we’re talking about short-term gains or the sort of stylistic changes that powered, say, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Look at Joel Quenneville; as frustrating as it must have been for him to get fired mid-stream, he was also an in-season replacement for the Chicago Blackhawks. That ended up being a pretty good call.

So, sure, sometimes such decisions are unavoidable, as messy as they are.

It gets tougher to argue for wholesale changes when you keep doing it over and over again, and that thought bubbles to the surface as there are at least faint murmurs about Bob Boughner and the Florida Panthers.

The Athletic’s George Richards reports that Boughner’s job wasn’t saved (sub required) when the Panthers eked out a 4-3 overtime win on Monday.

Out of context, it’s reasonable to at least wonder. The Panthers came into 2018-19 as a dark horse candidate after nearly roaring into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, suckering more than a few people (raises hand) into thinking that they could be a dangerous team.

Instead, they continue to be a day late and a dollar short, finding themselves with a mediocre 9-9-4 record, tying them for second-to-last in the East with 22 standings points.

What’s maddening is that so much is going right for the Panthers, at least when you consider the fact that they’re without sorely underrated center Vincent Trocheck for the distant future.

It stings that the Panthers are so mediocre despite Mike Hoffman being red-hot, Aleksander Barkov being Aleksander Barkov, Evgeni Dadonov solidifying himself as a great winger, Keith Yandle piling up points, and Jonathan Huberdeau actually staying healthy. If you were to give the NHL the “NBA Jam” treatment* and just boil things down to a team’s best players, then the Panthers could go toe-to-toe with anyone, more or less.

So, what gives? What’s coming down the road, and what should the Panthers do? Let’s explore.

* – Or “Open Ice” treatment, if you want to be a Midway stickler.

Trouble in net

For a budget team like the Panthers, investing $4.533 million in Roberto Luongo, $3.4M in James Reimer, and another $1.3M in Michael Hutchinson would be tough to stomach even if it was working out.

Troublingly, things very much have not been working out, and the future looks a little glum. After all, Luongo’s hated contract runs through 2021-22(!) and Reimer’s won’t expire until after 2020-21 season.

It’s tempting to give Luongo a pass because a) he’s been great for so long, not to mention often-unappreciated and b) injuries have really disrupted him lately. Still, when he’s been on the ice, he hasn’t been great, with just a .902 save percentage over nine fragmented appearances.

As a goalie who was once (mostly justifiably) a fancy stats darling, Reimer has been a big disappointment lately. Instead of flourishing with Luongo out, Reimer’s been lousy, suffering an .895 save percentage this season. Hutchinson’s been even worse.

Could some of those struggles boil down to coaching?

Possibly, but this isn’t a Randy Carlyle-type situation where a team is just bleeding chances at an alarming level. The Panthers are averaging 31.2 shots allowed per game, tying them for 12th in the NHL with the low-tempo, more-troubled Kings. That’s easier to stomach when you realize Florida is firing 35.6 SOG per game, second only to the volume-crazed Hurricanes. On paper, you’d think the Panthers could make that work.

Granted, certain numbers smile upon Boughner less than others. While the Panthers score well (to extremely well) in even-strength possession stats like Fenwick For Percentage, Natural Stat Trick’s numbers put them in the bottom-third when it comes to their balance between creating and limiting high-danger scoring chances.

However you weigh Boughner’s share of the blame, it’s not really as if the Panthers are a disaster.

They would need to be

And let’s be honest, it’s about time that this franchise picks a course and sticks with it for a while.

As Richards notes, Bougher is the fifth Panthers head coach since the team came under new ownership in 2013-14. They’ve had a bad run of pulling the plug early lately. Bougher’s merely in his second season with Florida. The Panthers also:

  • Fired Kevin Dineen 16 games in 2013-14.
  • Handled Gerard Gallant’s in-season firing as sloppily as possible in 2016-17, allowing for the notorious photo of the bewildered coaching getting into a cab after being canned. That was an awful look then, and it only gets worse as Gallant racks up achievements with the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Tom Rowe barely got a look in replacing Gallant, and things flip-flopped again when Dale Tallon took over for the analytics-minded, briefly-lived regime (thank goodness).

That timeline doesn’t even cover how wayward this franchise has been before new ownership took over, as it seemed like there was an unending stream of new cooks in the kitchen, whether the team continuously shed coaches, GMs, or both.

Such a scatterbrained (lack of) gameplan at least partially explains why the Panthers have only made the playoffs three times since 1997-98, and haven’t won a single playoff series since that stunning run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final.

Yes, it’s best not to simply double down because of sunk costs, but the Panthers would risk making the same mistake over and over again if they gave Bougher such a short run as head coach.

Big tests

That said, the Panthers are about to play the third game of what looks like a crucial eight-game homestand. Here are the remaining six games:

Wed, Nov. 28 vs. Anaheim
Fri, Nov. 30 vs. Buffalo
Sat, Dec. 1 vs. Tampa Bay
Tue, Dec. 4 vs. Boston
Thu, Dec. 6 vs. Colorado
Sat, Dec. 8 vs. Rangers

Not exactly an easy haul, right? Simply put, playoff teams fight through tough stretches, especially when it comes down to gaining crucial points during long runs of home games. So far, the Panthers have been up-and-down, yet they’ve managed to get three of four points (1-0-1).

It’s tough for Florida to see Montreal play well above expectations so far, and for the Sabres to make the leap they dreamed about. With the Lightning and Maple Leafs delivering as expected and the Bruins hanging in there through injuries, it doesn’t look like it will be an easy path for the Panthers.

Whether they can scratch and claw their way into a playoff berth or must suffer through another disappointing season, the bottom line is that Florida needs to start churning out better results. Boughner has to know that, even if it would be pretty harsh if it cost him his job.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.