We’re almost at the midpoint of the NHL season and surprise, surprise the Florida Panthers are leading the Atlantic Division with a 23-12-4 record. Playing in a garbage division aside, the Panthers seem to be a much-improved squad from the 2014-15 version which won 38 games, missing the playoffs.
Florida ownership has so much confidence in what the team is doing they signed general manager Dale Tallon to a three-year extension, and inked second-year head coach Gerard Gallant to a two-year pact of his own. The Panthers have generated positive buzz this season, and the people in charge clearly believe this team is on the verge of breaking out or that they have already done so. But the big question remains: Are they for real?
The Panthers success is most likely a mirage.
They’ve put a 101.6 PDO which suggests they’re playing below their record. That number is inflated due to Florida’s goaltenders putting up absurd numbers. Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya have combined to put up a .942 even strength save percentage, best in the NHL, with their individual percentages sitting nearly identical. Luongo is an elite goaltender, but it’s unlikely – not impossible – he can keep it that high over a full season. Montoya on the other hand has little to no chance of doing so. He posted an .896 even strength save percentage in 2014-15, and a .924 rate in 2013-14. He’s benefited from playing well in a small eight-game sample size, but it would be stunning to see him play at that level all season.
The other thing that’s killing the Panthers is getting consistently outshot. They’ve posted a -2.3 shot differential in 2015-16, with a 47.7 Corsi for percentage. It’s hard to continue to win games when you’re getting out-shot night in and night out. That’s what happens when you pair Erik Gudbranson and Willie Mitchell together for almost 20 minutes per night as your shutdown defensive pair.
Florida has rattled off nine straight wins to catapult themselves to the top of the Atlantic Division. During the streak they’ve hit all the unsustainable checkmarks including a ridiculous .963 even strength save percentage and a 10.3 even strength shooting percentage. The Panthers 49.8 Corsi for percentage isn’t great for a streak of that length, but it’s an improvement over their season mark.
The Panthers have some promising players on their roster, and Tallon gets the lion-share of the credit, but for every good move he’s made it seems a bad one has cancelled it out. Drafting Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad were no-brainers, and he’s done an excellent job acquiring unwanted players off the trash heap, but Tallon also gave Dave Bolland a five-year, $27.5 million contract, which is among the worst contracts in the league, and has made some questionable moves like giving a two-year guarantee to Shawn Thronton. The team would be even better if he invested resources into good players, opposed to completely wasting it on players like Bolland and Thornton. Gallant is working with what he’s got, but he’s coaching a team which is routinely getting outshot, so it’s tough to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I don’t think it’s fair to say the Panthers are bad. They’ve got a good mix of young talent and a top-10 goaltender in the league, but they’re not as good as their record indicates. The same things were being said about Calgary last year, and Colorado the year before. This isn’t a first-place team, and if that’s the output you’re expecting from this point forward, you’ll be gravely disappointed.