(Image property of Kim Smith)
After 20 games (1/4 of the season) the Florida Panthers find themselves in a familiar, yet precarious position in the standings. Last in the Eastern Conference, 8 points out of a Wild Card spot, and 29th overall in the NHL. Not where anyone, prognosticators included, thought they would be at this point in the season. Now we can list the excuses all we want such as schedule, travel, losing leads, not playing a full 60 minutes, injury to Roberto Luongo (again), etc. Once you get past that, you need to realize that there’s just too much talent for them to be in this position.
For the first time in forever there are an abundance of potential goal scorers with Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, and the recently injured Vincent Trocheck. All players capable of scoring 20 goals, and at least 3 capable of 30 or maybe more. On defence there’s the scoring ability of Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad. Secondary scoring was a concern going into the season, although that has been tempered with the recent success of free agent veteran Troy Brouwer, who now finds himself with 6 goals after 20 games, playing mostly on the 4th line. His recent reborn goal scoring touch has rightfully earned him a promotion to the third line. I say reborn only because Brouwer scored 6 goals all of last season with Calgary (76 games). Brouwer is no stranger to lighting the lamp, as he’s had a few 20 goal seasons, and is certainly capable of scoring 15 -20 if given the ice time.
There are some players that however haven’t been able to provide the needed offence. Nick Bjugstad is one, as he’s scored 4 times while getting top minutes. The Panthers need more from Nick and there’s no doubt he knows it. Denis Malgin has one goal in 15 games, and Jared McCann has 2 goals in 19 games. The problem that many of the forwards are having is execution. They get their chances, but they aren’t burying them. A 25 year issue in Florida, almost as though it’s a curse. When getting a chance at a breakaway, or a shot at a wide open net, or a goaltender is down and out in front of the crease….. kerflooey. Nothing.
Jonathan Huberdeau needs to shoot more. This has been an issue for his entire NHL career, and we all know he has good hands and is a skilled passer. But he has a very good shot and the Panthers really need him to get going. He has 4 goals and is a minus 10 already. He needs to find his scoring touch again, and become the player that he was last season.
The Panthers as a team are averaging 3.25 goals a game, which if you have a good defence and good goaltending should be enough to keep you above .500 in the NHL and hunting towards a playoff spot. Therein lies the issue. Roberto Luongo has missed significant time already and we’re only 20 games in. James Reimer has been inconsistent at best, and now that Luongo is hurt again, Reimer will be asked to step up. He has to if this team expects to get back into the playoff race. If he can’t, the Panthers need to find a goalie who can not only save games, but save the season. We don’t know as of this minute the extent of Luongo’s injury from Friday night, but we can’t wait to find out. We all love Lu to death, but apparently he’s having health issues, his body is slowly defeating him, and should he come back sooner rather than later, we don’t want him held together with duct tape. Did he come back too soon in Finland? We love his dedication, but had he not played that game, he would have had one more week to continue his recovery.
On the defence we are seeing many of the same mistakes that were made last season. Players are out of position, slow to react, taking bad or what are lazy penalties, and an overall lack of physicality. Now, if you have the puck more than the other team, and are good with possession, then you don’t need to be as physical because you have the puck. The Panthers have been neither. They aren’t able to use their speed, and are having trouble maintaining any offensive zone time because most of their offense is one and done. No rebounds to scoop up, and too many shots from the perimeter. And the defence “pinching” at the wrong time consistently finds themselves giving up odd man rushes. Additionally it seems at times that it’s a yard sale in front of the net with the inability to clear the puck, as well as umpteen passes trying to get out of the zone. They seem to be too quick to just chip it out, rather than maintain possession and play a more north and south game, rather than east west. Although, the forechecking from the opposition has created this nervousness in getting out of the zone, the Panthers have done nothing to counter this. Maybe notes should be taken on that. Carolina did a great job of this early in Friday’s game.
Lastly, there are many calling for the axe to be thrown at head coach Bob Boughner. Now I’m not here to argue this point, but what I am here to say is that if you do this now, you are letting the players off the hook number one. Number two, he took them on a successful and wild run in the second half of last season. With only a couple of new players added, and another full training camp to learn the system, the onus is on the players as they just aren’t executing. Stress, lacking confidence, poor decisions, out of shape, injuries? These are not reasons, as much as they are excuses. It’s not for lack of trying. These are professionals, but for some reason they have seemingly forgotten where their success came from last season, and they’ve not been able to translate that into this one. There’s no guarantee that a coaching change fixes this.
Fearful of another slow start is now staring them in the face. The Panthers are hopeful that this upcoming 8 game homestand which starts tonight against the struggling Chicago Blackhawks can get them back on track.
Hope is not a plan.
Thanks for reading.
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