It’s Time to Face Facts: The Panthers are Fatally Flawed

Photo Courtesy of Kim Smith

It is always something with the 2018-2019 Florida Panthers. Early in the season, the Panthers were continually doomed by disastrous 2nd periods. It was so bad that at one point they had given up 11 goals in a span of 3 second periods. That plague lasted until the Finland trip where the Panthers played two great second periods in a row. For 5 games, the Panthers seemed to have things figured out and were on their way to righting the ship.

Then they forgot how to hold on to third period leads. On December 12, they were 7-2-3 in games they had a lead going into the 3rd period. Which is not good at all. Because of those issues, the Panthers fell back out of the playoff race. However, since that date, the Panthers are 3-0 in games they being the 3rd with a lead and have climbed back into the playoff conversation.

But as you can expect, nothing gold can stay with this year’s Florida Panthers and the newest ill is starting every game down a goal or two within a few minutes of the opening face off. In each of their last 5 games, they have given up a goal within the first 6 minutes and have started games with multi goal deficits 3 times. The only reason they are 2-2 in that stretch is because the Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings are two of the worst teams in the NHL. However, on paper, the Panthers are much better then the two teams they lost to in the Montreal Canadiens and the Buffalo Sabres. Nevermind that both teams were missing their best player that night. There is no reason for the Panthers not to be on a 4 game winning streak and riding high right now.

Instead of being 3 points out of the final playoff spot, they are now sitting 9 points out of the final playoff spot. This is a dance that the Panthers have been playing all season and it’s time to face reality, this Panthers team is fatally flawed and it is time to start thinking long term instead of salvaging a doomed season.

The sad truth is, this team was fatally flawed last year as well. Winning 25 of 35 games to finish the season game us false hope, but the start this year is confirmation that what we saw to end last year was a mirage.

Look at some of the teams ahead of the Panthers in the standings. Would you trade rosters with any of the NY Rangers, Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens? There wasn’t an expert out there who picked any of those teams to be better then the Panthers and for good reason. Add in the Boston Bruins who have been crippled by injures this year have managed to pick up 50 points in 41 games. What makes this frustrating is that on paper, this is one of the 5 best teams in the conference, but somehow the whole is less then the sum of it’s parts. It defies all logic to see this team struggling along at an 85 point pace 39 games into the season. And yea, that includes dealing with an injury to Vincent Trocheck and Roberto Luongo. Once again, look at the injuries Boston has dealt with and then try to use injuries as an excuse for the Panthers.

Lets take a look at this year’s team and see if we can start to figure things out. The Panthers are 14th in the NHL in Goals For with 127, 27th in the NHL in Goals Against with 138, and 19th in differential at -11. These are thoroughly mediocre numbers across the board.

I was going to do a deep dive into the Panthers problems, but the reality is, if you are reading this, you know exactly what they are. The depth scoring isn’t good enough, the defense outside of Yandle and Ekblad is mediocre and the goaltending is terrible. Luckily there is a very handy chart from our good friends at Charting Hockey to illustrate in one image what would take me 5+ paragraphs to type out.

FLA for @PantherParkway
L1 = ~7.8 WAR (excellent)
L2 = ~3 WAR (good)
L3 = 3.27 WAR (very good for an L3)
L4 = 1.24 WAR (good for an L4)

D1 = 5.3 WAR (very good)
Bottom-four = replacement level
Lu’s on pace for 1.5 WAR. Reimer’s a slight negative. p— Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) January 3, 2019

The advanced stats say exactly what our eyes tell us, the Panthers are a mediocre team on pace for 85 points and missing the playoffs.

In my opinion, it’s time to take a top to bottom look at the organization and make substantial changes wherever necessary. There is no reason on earth why a team with 5 All Star Caliber players is so far out of the playoff hunt in a league where 1/2 the teams make the playoffs.

So what needs to change? Let’s start with the most glaring issue, goaltending. Through 39 games, it seems age has finally caught up to Roberto Luongo. The 39 year old has been injured twice and been very inconsistent when he is healthy. He is currently on pace to have the worst season of his career with a .896 sv% and a 3.24 GAA. If that stat line was attached to a goalie on a cheap contract, he would have been sent out the door like the recently traded Michael Hutchison.

If things don’t improve soon, it may be time to have a very difficult conversation with the Panther great about LTIRetirement. He certainly has had enough serious injuries over the past few years where he could say enough is enough without raising eyebrows. As a guy who wore a Pink Panther Luongo mask during his HS years, it’s not easy to type this paragraph, but all good things must come to an end and sadly this may be it.

As for James Reimer, it’s not better. This is year 3 of 5 for Reimer with the Panthers and it has been marred by inconsistency. This year, his numbers are very similar to Luongo’s. With two years and $3.4 million AAV left on his contract, there won’t be much the Panthers can do outside of pay somebody to eat his contract, but at this point, I think it is neccessary. The reality is that the Panthers goaltending has been nothing short of terrible this year. The recent game against the Sabres is one of many where it was obvious that goaltending let the team down.

The sad reality is that the Panthers have two high priced goalies giving them AHL quality goaltending. If you want somewhere to look as to why this season is in the tank through 39 games, here is where you should start.
I really don’t blame Dale Tallon for going into 2018-19 with Luongo and Reimer because both were playing solid hockey to finish last season. He even went out and got a solid #3 in Michael Hutchinson. Unfortunately it didn’t work out. Even if one of the Panthers’ goalies can find some consistency to finish this season, it’s time to find someone else to try and take over the #1 job. One of Luongo or Reimer need to be replaced. Yea, that hurt to type.

The next problem is the defense. The bottom two pairings haven’t been good enough. This was a problem going back to last season. It was one of the needs at last year’s deadline which is why the Panthers were rumored to be interested in Ryan McDonagh. Dale Tallon wasn’t able to pull the trigger on a deal, but the Tampa Bay Lightning were and McDonagh has been great for the Lightning this year. Instead Tallon signed Bogdan Kiselevich who has been fine in a bottom pairing role, but the Panthers needed (and still do need) a top 4 defenseman. He hasn’t been it.

Tallon needs to answer for not filling the most obvious hole on the roster. Instead, Tallon did what he’s been doing his entire tenure with the Panthers. He put all of his hopes on the development of the guys he drafted. Michael Matheson looks to have regressed, so once again, hoping his guys would get the job done, resulted in failure.

This has been a long running theme with Dale Tallon’s tenure. For the longest time, the Panthers couldn’t find a goal scorer. The theme would be, they are coming, they are in the system, and just have patience. Seven years of patience got the Panthers a league average offense. In that time, the goaltending got old and the defense fell off. Rebuilds need to be supplemented with aggressive moves in free agency and the trade market when the time is right. He did it in Chicago when he went out and signed Marian Hossa to a 12 year contract because he knew his young core was ready to be a cup contender. While he never saw the fruits of his labor with the Blackhawks, he was aggressive and is largely credited with creating the dynasty that was the Chicago Blackhawks. That aggressiveness didn’t make it to Sunrise and in 7 years the Panthers have 2 first round playoff exits to show for it. There was also that disastrous expansion draft thing.

As for Bob Boughner, it’s time to look at him as well. Last year the excuse for the slow start was that it took time to learn his system. Never-mind that it happened in a year in which an expansion franchise managed to put a brand new team together and gel enough to make the Stanley Cup Finals. There was also the extremely frustrating loyalty to below average players like Jamie McGinn, Derek MacKenzie, and Michael Haley. Everyone with a pulse could see that the 4th line was dragging the team down, yet nothing ever changed.

Then this year started and the Panthers got off to another slow start. The team is mostly unchanged from last year so the “need to learn the system” reasoning doesn’t work anymore. Injuries saved Boughner from himself when it comes to McGinn and MacKenzie, but Haley has played in 17 games despite providing absolutely nothing to the roster. He isn’t even doing his staged fight every game anymore. So what does he provide then? What’s even more frustrating is that even though Haley is in the lineup, Boughner clearly doesn’t trust him in late game situations. He’s averaging 7:42 of ice time per game. The lowest of any forward. His extra minutes usually go to the vastly overworked Aleksander Barkov. The Panthers have been doing the exact same thing again and again and getting the same results. Definition of insanity anybody?

The guys calling the shots aren’t the only ones who need to be looked at. Michael Matheson is currently having an awful season. Like I previously mentioned, he’s regressed in the defensive zone and become a turnover machine. He’s second in the NHL in giveaways with 62 and Aaron Ekblad is tied for fourth in the NHL with 58. (Keith Yandle is 44th in the NHL by the way). It’s almost a nightly basis where Matheson is trying to clear a puck down the ice and he completely fans. Maybe it’s time to adjust the lie of his stick or something because this keeps happening.

Matheson has all the talent in the world to be a top pairing defenseman, but he needs to work on his mental game because right now it is holding him back and hurting the Panthers. Like the wonderful chart posted earlier on in this article, the 2nd pairing has been replacement level at best this year and he’s been on it the entire season outside of his two game suspension.
The Panthers invested heavily in Mike Matheson. He’s on this team for the long hall for better or worse, so Jack Capuano or Bryan McCabe needs to start putting in the extra time with Matheson to get him back on track.

Both Frank Rekas and I have spent some time in the locker room after wins and losses. We see the same thing after losses. It is a defeated locker room that has no idea how to fix what is going wrong after losses and a relieved locker room that is just grateful to squeeze out two points after wins. The mentality is all wrong.

I touched on it earlier, but there always seems to be something plaguing the Panthers. Whether it be bad second periods, slow starts, or whatever. I think I could count on one hand the amount of games where the Panthers were comfortably controlling a game. The 5-0 win against the Bruins is the only one I can remember. It defies logic that a team this talented can’t string together a few good hockey games in a row. Even the win streaks come during games where it seems the Cats have to scratch and claw their way to a win. There isn’t one person who shoulders the blame for this. It’s on the players for not having pride in their game, it’s on Bob Boughner for not putting the players in a position to succeed, it’s even on Dale Tallon for allowing this kind of play to go without making some kind of move to change the mentality of the locker room, and it’s even on ownership for being satisfied with mediocre results. It’s time to hold people accountable, because it looks like year 3 of Aleksander Barkov’s 6 year steal of a contract is about to be over.

As always, follow me on Twitter @CF3234.