Will Bobrovsky put the Panthers over the top?

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers. 

Let’s ponder three questions facing the Florida Panthers…

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

1. What Sergei Bobrovsky will the Panthers get? 

Three years ago, Bob won the Vezina on the heels of a ridiculous season where he posted 41 wins, a .931 save percentage and seven shutouts.

He followed that up with 37 wins, a .921 save percentage and five shutouts in 2017-18 and then and identical 37-win record last year with a league-leading nine shutouts and a .913 save percentage.

Nine shutouts are nothing to scoff at, but two straight years of a falling save percentage and a rising goals-against average might be.

Consider this: Bobrovsky’s 5v5 save percentage dropped from .939 during his latest Vezina season to .918 last year. The numbers of goals he saved above average went from 27 in 2016-17 to 34 in 2017-18 to just 0.2 last season. That’s a massive drop.

Don’t get me wrong, signing Bob was a huge get for the Panthers. At 31, the best years of Bobrovsky in his massive $70 million deal are likely coming over the next few seasons. The Panthers will do well with even league-average goaltending at this point. Bobrovsky supplied that last season, even if just.

And a rejuvenated Bob could be a dangerous one for opponents. He’s out of the craziness in Columbus now and perhaps with a much clearer head.

2. Can the team figure out their defensive woes?

The Panthers scored with the best of them last season, putting up the ninth most goals-per-game thanks to a very good collection of primary and secondary goal scorers.

None of that has changed heading into this season, and it’s likely only been improved with the addition of Brett Connolly.

Couple that with the league’s second-best power play and 10th best penalty kill and all the right pieces are there for a playoff team.

Well, other than a commitment to team defense.

You see, as much as the Panthers scored and did well on special teams, they couldn’t find the same success when defending. So when you couple their ninth-best goals-for per game (3.22) with their fourth-worst goals-against per game (3.33), a quick calculation shows you’re going to lose more often than you win.

The hope is that the addition of Anton Stralman will help that cause, as will a new system put forth by Joel Quenneville and the Panthers new-look coaching staff.

3. It’s built, but will they come? 

We’ve all seen it.

Rows upon rows of empty seats at BB&T Center that even a clever bit of camera work can’t fix.

The Panthers had the second-worst attendance in the NHL last season, averaging roughly 13,500 fans per game. On most occasions, that number looked optimistic at best. Consider, too, that the arena is the sixth-largest in the world for hockey events, sporting a capacity of 19,250 on game days.

It’s hard to fault even the most diehard fans after years upon years of losing. The Panthers have made the postseason just twice in the past 18 years.

But that appears to be changing this season. The team is vastly improved and they have a solid farm system to keep the good times rolling once they start, well, rolling.

Will they come?

In a market saturated with big-name sports teams, the Panthers need to win to standout. A decade ago, Tampa Bay was in the bottom third in attendance. Ten years later and having a juggernaut for a team, they’ve been in the top 10 since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season.

They say if you build it, they will come. We’re about to find out.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck