Evaluating the Panthers at the 20-game mark

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography
Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

The Panthers are a quarter of the way through their 2015-16 campaign. Thanksgiving in the United States is recognized as an important point in the NHL season because teams that are in a playoff spot when the holiday arrives typically remain there come the end of the season. So in this article, we’ll take a look at how the Panthers have played over the course of their first 20 games (or 21 if you include last night’s against the Kings) of the season and discuss what it means for the rest of it. 

Overall Play

Simply put, the Panthers have looked just “ok.” The main issue for them through their first 20 games has been a lack of consistency. They’ve been plagued for years with consistency issues as evidenced by the fact that they’ve only had 2 three-game winning streaks since the beginning of the 2013-14 season, and if they want to be a legitimate playoff contender, they’ll need to be able to string wins together several times a year. The goal is to minimize the let downs that they have, and for the most part, they’ve done that. However, winning a game and losing the next one every two games isn’t going to get you into the playoffs. If the Panthers want to put wins together, they’ll need to look back at Opening Night against the Flyers, as well as their games against the Rangers, Hurricanes, Colorado, and their win against the Stars. In each of those games, the effort level was noticeably high, they were winning board battles, pucks were being put on net, the forecheck was alive and well, and everyone appeared to be in sync. However, these are the things the Panthers need to do night in and night out to be successful. They’re a young team and these are things they’ll need to learn to do as time goes on.

The Offense

So far, the Panthers have not been scoring at the clip they should or were expected to. They’re 19th in the league with 52 goals scored, and their offensive efforts have either been very good or not good enough. The Panthers are 1-8-3 when scoring 2 goals or less and 7-0-1 when scoring 3 or more goals, and in the games where they’ve scored 3 goals or more, they’ve held their opponent to 2 goals or less 5 out of 8 times. They’re are getting some of the scoring they expected, but certainly not all of it. Jonathan Huberdeau has scored just one goal in 20 games and Brandon Pirri has just 3 goals in the same span of time. We know that Pirri is capable of scoring as we saw last year, so we shouldn’t be questioning his ability. He had a really good game against the Rangers and he’s coming off an off-season back injury, so perhaps he just needed some time to settle in before he started to get going.

As expected, Aaron Ekblad is providing most of the offense on the backend with 4 goals and 5 assists, but the hope is that Brian Campbell and Dmitry Kulikov can contribute some more so as to take some of the pressure off of the bearded sophomore. As was somewhat expected, Jaromir Jagr leads the team with 8 goals, and Vincent Trocheck stepped up and provided some offense during the absence of top line center Aleksander Barkov, but has hit a lull over the past handful of games. Speaking of Barkov, he’s got 6 goals and 4 assists in 11 games this season and three goals in 4 games since returning from a hand injury, so that’s a huge positive considering the Panthers need their top center to be producing. Jussi Jokinen has been quietly racking up points just as he did last year, and he’s actually producing at a better pace than he has in past years which is good for the Panthers.

Something the Panthers have been doing over the past several games is trying to pass the puck instead of shooting it on the net for a scoring opportunity:

In the first clip, Brandon Pirri is alone in front of the net before and after he receives the puck. For some reason, he began skating the opposite way as the puck approached his stick and he therefore was forced to go on his backhand. Then, he decides to backhand a cross-ice pass through the slot even though he had Trocheck ready on the other side for a rebound.

In the second clip, Jussi Jokinen received the puck as he skated into the left face-off circle and had no obvious pass option, so the best play should’ve been to put the puck on net, especially when he was as close as he was. He made a back pass which luckily wasn’t turned over, but that moved the puck away from the net which isn’t what you want. Even if he was set on passing the puck, a drop pass to Trocheck might’ve been better. Those are just two examples, but when you look at how many shots the Panthers have had over the past couple of weeks, they had just 19 against the Kings on 11/7, 23 against the Lightning on 11/14, and 20 in the second game against the Lightning on 11/16. The Panthers are also allowing a lot of shots considering their opponents have racked up at least 30 shots in the past 4 games, and during the three games in California, they allowed over 30 shots in each as well.

There’s also the subject of where on the ice each forward line starts its shifts. When you look at the zone start percentages for the Panthers this season, you’ll notice that they seem to be opposite of what they should be. Guys like Shawn Thornton, Garrett Wilson, Derek MacKenzie, and Quinton Howden are all starting in the offensive zone at least 40% of the time while Barkov, Huberdeau, and Jagr are only starting in the offensive zone 20% of the time. The reasoning behind this isn’t really known, but perhaps Gerard Gallant doesn’t trust his bottom-6 forwards in the defensive zone as much as he does the top-6. However, when you look at face-off percentages in the defensive zone for the Panthers, Derek MacKenzie, the 4th line center, is actually winning 58 percent of his draws which is really good and should make you want to start him there because his odds of winning the draw and exiting the zone are high. Nick Bjugstad is winning 56.7 percent of his defensive zone face-offs so it’s not entirely bad that 76 percent of his zone starts are in the defensive zone, but the whole idea of starting your top forwards in the offensive zone is so that they can produce offensively.

When you start guys like Jagr and Barkov back in their own zone 80 percent of the time, they’re already behind the 8-ball. They’ve gotta first win the faceoff which is harder than it seems, then they have to break out of their zone and avoid forecheckers (since the opponent won’t let you off the hook so easily), and then they have to start up ice and try to get into the offensive zone to set up. If they start in the offensive zone, all they have to do is win the face-off and then cycle the puck (or win some board battles if they lose). Barkov, Bjugstad, and Trocheck are all 57 percent in offensive zone face-offs, so this should make the decision to have them start there a whole lot easier. Now obviously, starting your best offensive forwards in the offensive zone more often doesn’t mean you’ll instantly start scoring goals every time they go out their for a new shift, but it’s about putting your players in a position to succeed, and creating offense is what your top-6 is supposed to do. Offensive zone start percentages were a little better last season, but guys like Scottie Upshall, Shawn Thornton, and Derek MacKenzie were still starting in the offensive zone more often than Barkov and Huberdeau, and the thought of that is a little frustrating.

There was also the odd decision of scratching and then sending Connor Brickley back to the AHL despite adding a goal and two assists in 10 games. Brickley played a fast, hard-nosed brand of hockey and was a perfect fit on the 4th line with Quinton Howden and Derek MacKenzie, both of whom play fast, physical games like Brickley. He gave a complete effort every night he played with the Panthers but was scratched several times in favor of Shawn Thornton who is, to b completely honest, nothing more than a fighter, and it’s been easy to see that his enforcing ability has done nothing to spark the Panthers thus far. We can only hope that Brickley will make his way back to the Panthers’ lineup because he’s exactly the type of player they need.

Special Teams

On the power play, the Panthers have been pretty good as they’re ranked 5th in the league with a power play success rate of 22.1 percent. It seems as though that percentage is slightly inflated by the fact that they’ve had good special teams during several games and then went quiet for the rest. They’ve had just one power play goal streak from November 10th to the 14th when they scored three goals with the man advantage over three games, and they’ve yet to go more than two games without a power play goal which is a really good thing. For the Panthers, their power play works best when guys are moving their feet and not standing still, because otherwise, it makes it easier for the opponent to get in passing lanes or block shots. When the power play is on like it was on opening night and against the Avalanche (they scored 3 power play goals both nights), the Panthers aren’t struggling to enter the zone, guys are switching spots, making tape-to-tape passes, putting pucks towards the net, and battling for rebounds. Again though, despite the success, the Panthers’ power play hasn’t been dominant, although it has been reliable. Coach Gallant continues to use Dave Bolland on the power play (despite the fact that he’s been a non-factor offensively pretty much all season) over players like Grimaldi, Howden, or even Brickley when he was still with the team. In addition, he seems to cut the end of the power play short by putting out 4th line guys if there’s a face off with under 20 seconds left, although I’m not sure of the reasoning behind that.

On the penalty kill, the Panthers are ranked 25th in the league with a 76.5 percent success rate. Going by the eye-test alone, the Panthers haven’t looked all that bad on the penalty kill by any means. Especially over the past several games, they’ve been really aggressive and have been good at keeping their opponents to the perimeter of their own zone, and they’ve done a good job of neutralizing dangerous players like Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin. The Panthers seem to be taking lots of offensive zone penalties this year, and it’s certainly a tough way to lose a man for two minutes. Dave Bolland leads the team with 5 penalties taken while Jaromir Jagr and Vincent Trocheck are tied with 6 penalties drawn each. This year, the Panthers seem to be rushing the player with the puck more often and they’re being more aggressive which is leading to seams being open for passes by the opponent to get through.

The Defense

When it comes to the defensive side of things, the trend through the first 20 games is that Gerard Gallant has decided to use the pairing of Willie Mitchell and Erik Gudbranson as the team’s “shutdown” pair against the top lines of the opponent. Unfortunately, this hasn’t worked out very well because Mitchell and Gudbranson are averaging 40.92 and 39.65 shots against per 60 minutes respectively (at 5v5 even strength) and this is alarming considering they both play roughly 16 minutes at even strength every night. Brian Campbell actually averages more time on ice at even strength per game than both Mitchell and Gudbranson with nearly 17 minutes per night yet allows shots at a rate of just 28.60 per 60 minutes. Then there’s Aaron Ekblad who averages just under 16 and a half minutes per night (which is more than Mitchell) yet allows shots at a rate of 25.67 per 60 minutes.

Mitchell and Gudbranson also lead the way when it comes to allowing high-danger scoring chances (which are ones in close proximity to the net/crease) with 13.82 and 13.04 allowed per 60 respectively while Ekblad and Campbell allow 12.35 and 10.58 per 60 respectively, so clearly there’s an issue with the so-called “shutdown” pairing as they don’t seem to be shutting down much at all. When you watch the usage of the pairings throughout the game, the eye-test shows that Mitchell and Gudbranson are, for some reason, playing with the top offensive line of Huberdeau, Barkov, and Jagr. Barkov is the team’s best defensive forward, so when the defensive pairing is struggling and not defending the opponent well, that puts more pressure on him and the other forwards and can also limit their offensive production to some degree. Last season, Gallant used Ekblad and Campbell with the top line and gave them more time as well, and that made sense because they’re both two-way defensemen and can contribute alongside the forwards while defending the opponent reliably.

Over the past few weeks, the Ekblad-Campbell pairing has gotten more ice time, but they’re still not being used with the top line, and that’s worrying because we know from last season (especially near the end) that they’re more effective when playing with the top forwards. So, if the usage of the defensemen is corrected, it’s likely we’ll see better performances overall defensively as well as offensively and we’ll see the Panthers generate more shots on goal.. Ekblad has looked pretty good this season coming off a great rookie season after which he won the Calder Trophy:

Ekblad has been noticeably more physical this year and hasn’t shied away from throwing his body along the walls and in the corner, and he’s already got 5 goals, so that’s a huge plus for the Panthers. Dmitry Kulikov has been really steady and solid this year so far. He’s out with an injury right not, but prior to that, he’s been one of the best defensemen for the Panthers, and he’s even been jumping into the rush a lot lately to get some offense going. Paired up with him has been Alex Petrovic, and while he hasn’t been outstanding, he hasn’t been bad either. He’s had a few issues with gap control and staying on his man, but overall, he’s been fairly reliable. Petrovic has only played 65 games in the NHL so he’s still got a ways to go before he reaches that 300 game mark at which point defensemen are said to be more comfortable with the game and more developed.

When it comes to the defensive game of the forwards, we already know that Aleksander Barkov is the best on the team. Jonathan Huberdeau has been good despite his lack of goal-scoring, although he’ll want to continue to limit the number of times he attempts to force the puck over the offensive zone blue-line rather than just dumping in. He’s been noticeably good along the boards when engaged in a battle and can be found skating back to cover defensively a lot more than we’ve seen in the past, so there’s no doubt the offensive game will come. When it comes to Dave Bolland, a guy who’s being paid $5 million for the next 4 years (including this year), it’s tough to say that he’s playing how you want him to. Bolland can and will make great plays like this:

But then he does this and it just makes you wonder what he’s thinking:

Grimaldi, who was called up several weeks ago, hasn’t been bad by any means, but you can tell he still needs some work in the AHL. He’s certainly been working hard and has been doing his best to bring energy to the lineup, but he needs to work on his defensive game before he plays with the Panthers full-time. It would be better to see him get top-line minutes with the Pirates and produce than be getting small minutes in the NHL and not producing. He was averaging about 14 minutes a night through his first 7 games after being called up, however he has gotten under 10 minutes in the past two games against the Ducks and Rangers.

The Goaltending

On the goaltending side of things, the eye-test shows that both Luongo and Montoya have been solid for the Panthers and you don’t need any stats to tell you that. Luongo has kept the Panthers in pretty much every game and the team acknowledges that. Montoya had three really solid games to start the season before he had a dud by allowing 4 goals against the Sharks on 11/5, although to be fair, he barely got any offensive or defensive support. Luongo and Montoya will need to continue to play solid in order to make the playoffs as Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen did in 2012. There really isn’t anything to complain about when it comes to the Panthers goalies, because without them (or at least Luongo), they certainly would not be where the are right now.

Conclusion

The best thing we can say is that the Panthers aren’t out of the playoff race just yet, but if they’re going to be serious about getting in, they’ll need to start bringing a consistent effort every night. Consistency is this teams biggest issue, and good teams limit their lackluster efforts. After another semi-dud in their 21st game against the Kings following the good effort against the Rangers, the Panthers are 1-9-3 when scoring 2 goals or less and they’ve done that in 9 of their past 12 games, so it’s clear that this team must score to win rather than try to defend the entire game. In the end, some players are doing their part and others are not, and if the Panthers want to start heading in the right direction, everyone will need to contribute in a positive manner. Dale Tallon and the coaching staff took a risk by releasing David Booth and Martin Havlat from their tryout contracts, and that’s not to say they are what the Panthers are missing. However, those decisions forced the Panthers to ice a young team that’s bound to make mistakes. The teams the Panthers faced over the past several weeks are mostly all near the top of the league when it comes to puck possession, and that’s pretty obvious when you watch the games considering the Panthers are near the bottom with regards to those stats. However, they managed to stay afloat for the most part and certainly have a chance to get some wins when December rolls around as the schedule will get a bit lighter. There’s no denying that they’ll need to right their ship quickly if they wish to get back on track as the teams in their division and conference will leave them in the dust if they continue to slide.

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