The coroner is in. Let us lament the end of the Florida Panthers.
The skinny: All of that promise, and this is the reward. The Panthers were coming into the playoffs white-hot, winning eleven of their last fourteen and surviving a huge loss to their top defenseman in Aaron Ekblad. Mackenzie Weegar was stepping up in a big way, Spencer Knight was as advertised in his first NHL action fresh out of Boston College, and trade deadline acquisitions like Sam Bennett and Nikita Gusev following the lead of the pieces added in the offseason. Their success was met with a first-round matchup against their in-state rival and defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning.
It was always going to be a tough series, but optimism made many (myself being one) believe this was the year that the Panthers wouldn’t just win their playoff series since 1996, but repeat the magic of that season with a deep playoff run. Alas, it was not to be, as the defending champions showed just how powerful they are when healthy. So what ultimately ended the Panthers’ best season in five years? Let’s break it down…
Goaltending: The Panthers used a revolving door of goaltenders against the Lightning, with three different netminders suiting up in the first round. Knight stepped up, stealing Game 5 for the Panthers and putting up some quality numbers (2.06 GAA and .933 save percentage) to cement his place in the NHL. Unfortunately, he and the rest of the team were let down by the two veterans that also manned the crease. Chris Driedger had a rough go with a .871 save percentage and 3.7 GAA, but the real culprit? $10 million man Sergei Bobrovsky, who put up an abysmal .841 save percentage and 5.33 GAA (both marks by far the worst among goaltenders in the playoffs). With Driedger having the better regular season numbers and Knight shining in limited action, Bobrovsky’s starting job security has never been lower, and his contract can safely be considered one of, if not, the worst contract in the NHL today.
Missed opportunities: Whether he wins the Vezina or not this season, it’s hard to debate Andrei Vasilevskiy’s spot as the best goaltender in the world with performances like his in this series. In Game 2, the Panthers pushed within a goal, but Vasilevskiy held strong and the Lightning killed three straight penalties to keep their lead intact. In Game 4, the Panthers held a 15-7 lead in shots on goal after the first period, but somehow headed back to the locker room with a 3-1 deficit. They also got five consecutive power play opportunities and landed 17 shots with the man advantage, but could only score once. In Game 5, the Panthers landed 15 shots (seven on the power play) in a fast and furious first period, but failed to score. Had one of these situations gone differently and the Panthers solved Vasilevskiy with more regularity during these sequences, it could have shifted one or more of these games in the Panthers’ favor. Instead, it gave the Lightning the momentum necessary to hold their leads.
Penalty kill: There are two telling stats that determine just how porous the Florida Panthers’ penalty kill was this series. First, out of the 24 goals that the Lightning scored across the six games, eight of them came on the power play (if you’re not interested in doing the math, that’s one in every three Lightning goals coming on the man advantage). Secondly, and even more damaging for the Panthers, is that they put up a 60% penalty kill percentage, good for second-worst in the playoffs behind St. Louis. Once again, when you put that math in perspective, every five penalties the Panthers committed resulted in two Lightning goals. For a series that got dirty and physical quickly (including Ryan Lomberg picking up 30 penalty minutes), such poor numbers spelled disaster for the Panthers.
The crystal ball: For the first time in a while, the Panthers seem to have a stable vision of the future, as well as key players looking like long-term fixtures. Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Mackenzie Weegar are all still on reasonable contracts, at least for the next season before Barkov signs his first long-term contract. Carter Verhaeghe was the NHL’s biggest bargain last season, and he’ll spend on another year making $1 million in the hopes of a lucrative deal. Impact players like Sam Bennett and Anthony Duclair will be restricted free agents, while the likes of Nikita Gusev likely won’t command a large deal. Driedger is likely being circled as an option for Seattle in the Expansion Draft, but Knight’s arrival softens the blow on that. They could perform some minor housecleaning like buying out the final year of Anton Stralman’s contract, but the Panthers can largely focus on making improvements for next season.
So the question with GM Bill Zito is how can he repeat last year. The gamble on taking Patric Hornqvist’s contract in exchange for Mike Matheson’s worked well, low-risk moves for Verhaeghe and Duclair paid off in spades, and the trade deadline worked well with Bennett, Gusev, and Brandon Montour all performing well after coming to Sunrise. This offseason could establish Zito as a shrewd GM who knows what players fit his vision and how to implement them in the lineup. Could we see Stralman be replaced by a cheaper option like Mike Reilly, Jamie Oleksiak, or Derek Forbort? Steal another ex-Lightning player in Blake Coleman? Pick up a reliable two-way option such as Mattias Janmark or Joel Armia? The possibilities are endless but, for the first time in a while, reasonable faith can be placed in the Panthers’ decisions.