Florida Panthers: Assessing the Cats Through 10 Games

The Florida Panthers are officially 10 games into the regular season and they’re already one of the most difficult teams in the NHL to figure out. The play has been scattered all over the ice and the results have really been a mixed bag. But all things considered, the Panthers have 12 points through 10 games which was good enough for third place in the Atlantic Division until the results of last night’s games around the league. As of the writing of this article, the Panthers currently sit tied for the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Their record of 4-2-4 might not be the prettiest, but this is not unexpected. So what exactly are the Panthers doing right and wrong? And can we expect them to get better or worse from here?

THe Bad

The Panthers’ defense is once again struggling. They’ve shown signs of individual improvement, but the unit as a whole needs to get better. Team defense wins games, and the Panthers still have a few too many mistakes per game which are leading to golden opportunities against. Sergei Bobrovsky has made some seriously stellar saves this season and has given the Cats a chance to win every night. But his individual numbers look horrendous at the moment because the defense is hanging him out to dry too often. Simply put, the Panthers defense can’t expect Bob to stop everything. You can only ask so much of your goalie, and Bob can’t win them all by himself. Oddly enough, the defense has performed far better for Sam Montembeault’s starts. Maybe they feel the need to protect their young goalie and help him out, but that should be the mentality every night no matter who is in net.

Another point of concern is the Panthers’ list of early season injuries to key players. Injuries are a part of the game and everyone deals with their fair share. But, the Panthers have been dealt different injuries to Sasha Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Mike Matheson, and Mackenzie Weegar this season at different points. Matheson is expected out another 7-10 days while Trocheck is hoping to play in the back half of their current road trip. The Panthers need to get healthy because they are playing with too many holes in their lineup at the moment. It’s tough to win that way.

The other major issue plaguing the Panthers to this point is the lack of goal scoring from the top of the lineup. Sasha Barkov has clearly been playing injured and while his 12 points (all assists) are good for a spot in the top 10 in NHL scoring, he has yet to score a goal which is worrying. This drought has gone on a bit longer than anyone would like, and if he doesn’t break the ice within the next couple games, you have to wonder if it’s more than just bad luck and if something is seriously wrong. To make things worse, Trocheck hasn’t scored a goal since the season opener in Tampa, so through 10 games, the Panthers have one combined goal from their top two centermen. That is going to have to turn around if this season is going to be a success. The silver lining here is the simple fact that players like Barkov and Trocheck are just too good to stay in a funk like this. They’re both all-star caliber players and will bounce back in all likelihood. When they turn it on, life gets easier for Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, Jonathan Huberdeau, etc.

THe good

The Panthers depth scoring is coming up big. Noel Acciari, Brett Connolly, Frank Vatrano, Denis Malgin, and Mackenzie Weegar have all picked up the scoring slack in key moments. If not for their timely goals and consistent depth offensively, the Panthers may not have been able to survive the lack of goal production from their star players. A weakness that has plagued the Panthers for years has now become a legitimate strength. Once the star players really get going, this is going to be a dangerous roster from top to bottom. Malgin and Weegar are perfect examples of guys who have taken big steps in their development and are handling much larger roles than many predicted. It’s the growth and development of late round draft picks that come from within the organization that can really push this team over the top, and that’s what we’re starting to see.

The Panthers defense and goaltending, while not yet where it needs to be, is improving from last year, and Coach Q has finally found some combinations within the lineup that are meshing well and beginning to produce. The transitional period for the new coaching staff and system has gone over smoothly enough that the Panthers are competing well while learning on the fly. The most important result of that is that Panthers have given themselves an identity. They are a possession-based team with high end skill at the top of the lineup and grit and toughness in the bottom of the lineup. That identity is going to be key moving forward because when teams face adversity, and the Panthers will, it’s the identity and culture of your team that ultimately be the backbone of your season. Q has done a good job so far establishing a culture which was the crucial first step.

The part of this season that has impressed me the most is the fact that the Panthers are finding ways to scrape out points from some of the games where they really don’t deserve any. They certainly have not always deserved points in the 8 of 10 games played this year based on how they have performed some nights, but that is what they’ve gotten. They have played a gauntlet of a schedule to this point with playoff teams almost every night so far, and have held their own. Sure, it’s disappointing to lose in overtime or in a shootout, but those OT losses will certainly even out over the course of the year. The Panthers are on course to reach 96-100 points on the year if they continue at their current rate. That almost guarantees a playoff berth, but that’s assuming they don’t improve at all. They haven’t played their best yet in my opinion. They’ve positioned themselves well with a decent start. They haven’t set the league on fire the way many hoped, but this looks like it will be a playoff team. So while the Panthers are “doing it ugly,” they are doing it, and getting necessary points. That’s what impresses me. The ability to grab a point or two on a night when you shouldn’t get any is something that great teams have. Great teams can take a bad game and salvage a point from it. The Panthers have displayed that early on, even if they are too heavily reliant on it.

I don’t see this team going anywhere but up from here. There’s a hall of fame coach behind the bench, star players who have yet to hit their superstar level of play, and a less difficult schedule ahead soon. This team is poised for a run. You don’t have to be flying out of the gates to win in this league. You just have to position yourself to have a good chance. That’s exactly what the Panthers have done.

Reminder: The Panthers drop the puck at 4 pm today against the Edmonton Oilers! You won’t want to miss it. Follow along @PantherParkway on Twitter to keep up with the commentary while you watch.

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