As we get closer to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 2020-21 season we are taking a closer at some teams that are right on the line between being a Stanley Cup contender or a Stanley Cup pretender. Today we examine the Florida Panthers.
The Florida Panthers have been in existence for 27 years and have mostly known just one thing in that time.
They have just six playoff appearances in franchise history and have only won three playoff series, all of them coming during one miracle run during the 1995-96 season when they reached the Stanley Cup Final in their third year of existence. They have won just seven playoff games (total!) since then The next lowest total during that stretch is the 15 playoff wins that belong to the Atlanta Thrasheers/Winnipeg Jets, an organization that did not come into existence until 1999.
But this season looks different. They have a Hall of Fame coach, they have much improved depth around their two All-Stars (Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau), and they have been really good defensively. There is reason for optimism here, and reason to believe they might finally be able to do something significant in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The best Panthers team ever?
For most organizations that sort of statement after 45 games might be a bit of an overreaction or some wild exaggeration. But it might really apply here. It also might not be even really be close.
The only Panthers team that had any sort of postseason success was a third-year expansion team that had haphazardly thrown together roster that rode hot goaltending and clutch-and-grab hockey on a miracle run. It was not a particularly strong team. At the moment their .678 points percentage this season is by far the highest mark in the history of the franchise. It would be a 111-point pace over 82 games. Before this season the best finish in franchise history was a 103-point season in 2015-16, which was the only time the team ever finished with a points percentage over .600 (they finished at .628 for the season). They have only had three other seasons over .570.
Based on that alone, this Panthers team is having way more success. It may be happening in a shortened season with an unbalanced schedule, but they have beaten the teams they are supposed to beat and mostly held their own against the top teams.
The two stars have some support
The Panthers have had what should have been an enormous advantage for the past few years in the duo of Barkov and Huberdeau.
Not only are both players outstanding and among the most productive forwards in the league, they are also signed to incredibly team-friendly contracts under the salary cap that give them more flexibility than most contending teams. If you have players this good and have them signed as cheaply as the Panthers do, it opens all sorts of possibilities.
Florida was very active again this offseason, and finally seem to have found the right mix of complementary pieces to go along with their two-headed monster at the top.
Patric Hornqvist has found the fountain of youth after coming over in a trade from Pittsburgh, while Carter Verhaeghe has been one of the best free agent signings of the year. Add in under-the-radar pieces like Anthony Duclair, Alexander Wennberg, and a vastly improved team-wide defensive performance and they finally have a team worthy of their two stars.
But there is just one key aspect that could make-or-break what happens with this team come playoff time.
Specifically, Sergei Bobrovsky.
Goaltending is the most important position come playoff time because of the way it can completely flip a series, both positively and negatively, for a team.
Bobrovsky is going to be the player in that spotlight for Florida. He is in the second year of a massive seven-year, $70 million contract that he signed a year ago to be the solution in net. It has not really worked out as anybody planned. In his first 75 games with the team over the past two seasons he has managed only a .902 save percentage, a mark that places him 38th out of the 47 goalies that have appeared in at least 40 games during that stretch.
It is a small sampling, yes, but he has been badly outplayed by Chris Driedger (.938 in 32 games) during that same stretch.
The Panthers have used what is basically a 55-45 split this season in terms of playing time, with Bobrovsky getting the slight edge. He is clearly the player they want to lean on. While he has played better over the past month-and-a-half, it is still not quite at a $10 million per year level.
Bobrovsky has played at that level throughout his career, but we have not seen it for three years now. Can he get back to that level through the playoffs? And how long of a leash will the Panthers give in the playoffs if he can not?
It is telling that the Panthers held on to Driedger, an unrestricted free agent after this season, at the trade deadline given their financial commitment to Bobrovsky and the presence of top prospect Spencer Knight. He may not be a long-term option for the franchise beyond this season, but they clearly see value in him in the short-term and have given him more playing time over the past couple of weeks.
Contender or Pretender
There are a lot of reasons to want to believe in this team.
They have the star power at the top that every contending team needs. They do a really good job limiting chances and shot attempts during 5-on-5 play, indicating that they can defend the most important areas.
But they need the goaltending to come through. Bobrovsky has not yet shown them he can be the player to do that, while Driedger is still a small sample size goalie at this point that has not been asked to carry a team through a Stanley Cup playoff run. That, combined with the fact they would probably have to get through Carolina and Tampa Bay (teams they are 4-5-3 against this season) might leave them just barely on the pretender side of the question.
That can change if the goaltending comes through.