No team goes through more change on a consistent basis than the Florida Panthers.
Every two years or so there is a shift in direction, a management change, a coaching change, and countless changes to the roster all in an effort to bring the team to some sort of relevance. While the names and faces keep changing, the mediocre results keep staying the same.
Maybe that is starting to change this season.
Thanks to their 2-1 win over the Nashville Predators on Friday night, the Panthers are very quietly off to one of the best starts in the league with a 6-0-2 record through their first eight games. That start is a major change from previous years where they consistently stumbled out of the gate and put themselves in a deep hole that even a late season surge could not dig them out of.
What is driving this quick start, and how much should we believe in their early results? Let’s dig in.
Barkov and Huberdeau get some help
Both are among the league’s most productive and best offensive players, and they are both off to great starts this season once again. But two players are never enough to carry a team and there has to be a strong supporting cast around them. That is where the Panthers keep shuffling the roster, and this past offseason was no different as they acquired Patric Hornqvist, Carter Verhaeghe, Anthony Duclair, Radko Gudas, Markus Nutivaara, and Alexander Wennberg.
So far, they are getting very promising returns on some of those investments.
Hornqvist in particular has been white hot as he has been his usual cage-rattling self in front of the net and on the power play, already scoring three goals with the man advantage (and five goals overall) to help improve a power play that was already a top-10 unit a year ago.
Verhaeghe and Duclair are the really interesting ones because they got them for so cheap when their former teams did not give them qualifying offers as free agents.
Tampa Bay’s decision to let Verhaeghe go was strictly salary cap related.
Ottawa’s decision with Duclair is a little harder to figure out, other than to say it was a bad (and needless) decision.
The Panthers have been the ones to benefit. They signed both players for a combined salary cap hit of just $2.7 million (and Verhaeghe’s contract runs through next season) with both players getting off to fantastic starts. Verhaeghe has already scored six goals and nine points in eight games while bringing a strong defensive and possession driving presence to the forward group. Duclair does not yet have a goal, but he has looked great with six assists (all at even-strength) and already more than 20 shots on goal. It is only a matter of time until some start finding the back of the net.
What are the concerns?
Let’s start with the elephant in the room that is Sergei Bobrovsky.
After signing a massive seven-year, $70 million contract in free agency his debut season with the Panther was the worst full season performance of his NHL career, and created some doubt as to what his long-term outlook with the team is going to look like.
It is still early, but his first four starts this season are not doing much to inspire confidence that he is going to get back on track. He has recorded a save percentage higher than .890 in just one of those starts, and has already allowed 15 goals in his four starts. Chris Driedger has badly outplayed him so far, and while that is a promising development for the Panthers you have to assume that Driedger’s current .940 save percentage is going to regress at some point. When that happens they are going to need a lot more from Bobrovsky.
The other big concern is the fact that they have relied almost entirely on one-goal games, with most of them requiring overtime or a shootout. Of their first eight games, seven of them have been decided by just a single goal while five of them have gone beyond regulation. Winning a lot of one-goal games is not always the sign of a tough, gritty team that just figure out how to win. Sometimes it is the result of a lucky team, because eventually some of those plays that go your way in a one-goal game or going to bounce in the other direction. That is especially true when so many games get to 3-on-3 or a shootout.
They also have not yet hit the meaty part of their schedule yet, having only played Columbus, Nashville, Detroit, and Chicago. Only one of those teams (Columbus) finished the 2019-20 season in the top half of the league standings (and they were 14th). Obviously you can only play who the schedule says you play, and there is something to be said for beating the teams you are supposed to beat. Even if you are just sneaking by. With their next two games against Detroit there is an even greater chance to keep piling up points.
But then things get dramatically tougher over the next few weeks. After their upcoming two-game series with Detroit, 10 of their following 14 games are against Tampa Bay, Dallas, and Carolina. That is when we might really start to find out if this Panthers team is for real.
What to watch for
The two main things to watch for in determining what this team can do are whether or not Bobrovsky can bounce back, and what happens when the schedule starts getting tougher.
After starting recent seasons terribly and trying to play catch up the rest of the way, nobody in Florida is going to be disappointed with a 6-0-2 start, no matter what the wins look like or which teams they came against. Those points count, and they already banked a lot of them in the standings. They beat the teams they were supposed to beat, and that is only a good thing. But with three Stanley Cup contenders at the top of the division (Tampa Bay, Dallas, Carolina) and total wild cards in Columbus and Nashville competing with Florida for that fourth playoff spot there is still a lot of work ahead.