Revisiting the Panthers’ 2015-16 pre-season storylines

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

In our 2015-16 season preview, we discussed several storylines that would be important for the Panthers to fulfill if they wished to have a successful campaign. With the season now over, it’s time to look back on those storylines and see how the Panthers fared in comparison to our pre-season thoughts.

Storyline #1: “The 1st line + will the young guns take the next step?”

After the Panthers acquired Jaromir Jagr at the 2015 Trade Deadline, the first line was dominant and carried most of the team’s offensive burden. And for the most part, the top line of Huberdeau, Barkov, and Jagr did that once again this season. There were a couple of rough patches including when Barkov went down with injuries on two separate occasions (broken hand and a concussion), when Huberdeau had difficulties putting the puck in the net at the start of the season and then again when he was forced to sit out with a concussion in the second half. When Barkov missed time, Nick Bjugstad was thrusted into the top center role while Jussi Jokinen filled in most of the time for Huberdeau during his injury.

However, the trio did play most of the season together and combined for 43 goals, 62 assists, and 105 points when on the ice as a line combination, and that production was fueled by Barkov and Huberdeau reaching career-highs in several categories while Jagr passed the 25-goal mark for the first time since the 2006-07 season. The line was very good at producing offensively at 5v5 as they averaged 3.56 goals per 60 minutes while allowing just 1.69. They weren’t as dominant possession-wise as they were when put together last season considering their average Corsi For % of 50.61, but they were still able to out-shoot their opponents and produce at the same time which was a good thing for the Panthers.

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

Fortunately enough for the top line, it didn’t have to be dominant in every game of the season for the Panthers to have the success they did, because the second line of Jokinen, Trocheck, and Smith was just as good, if not better. Jokinen set a career-high in assists while just missing the 20-goal mark, Trocheck obliterated his stats from last season by posting 25 goals and 28 assists, and Smith scored 25 goals for the first time in his career while missing tying his career-high in points by 1. The line was pretty dynamic and at times dominated the opposition more than the Panthers’ top line did; the chemistry was perfect between the 3 and their production was consistent. Among line combinations that had at least 350 minutes of ice time together at 5v5 this season, the Panthers’ second line had the 6th-best Corsi For % in the league at 57.00 and Goals For per 60 rate at 3.45 while also having the NHL’s lowest Goals Against per 60 rate at 1.33. We did some articles on the second line during the season which you can check out here, here, and here for further reading.

When it comes to youth, the Panthers could hardly have had a better year than they did as the kids were firing on all cylinders. As we alluded to earlier, Trocheck, Smith, Barkov, and Huberdeau all reached career-highs in several categories as well as Aaron Ekblad and Alex Petrovic. In addition to the career-highs, pretty much all of the Panthers’ young players performed better overall compared to last season, and it all came together to help the team make the playoffs. As a result of an inordinate amount of injuries to some key players, the Panthers were forced to make full use of their depth as they recalled a total of 11 players over the course of the season – and some more than once – for a variety of reasons. For the most part, the call-ups played fairly well, especially considering the circumstances, and it was their effort and strong play that made it possible for the Panthers to continue on and not fall back in the standings.

Storyline #2: Nick Bjugstad post- back surgery”

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

One of the big questions – literally and figuratively – entering this season was whether or not Nick Bjugstad would be able to build off of last year’s offensive success despite having season-ending back surgery about 14 months ago. Truth be told, Bjugstad didn’t appear to be affected by the operation one bit as not only was he ready for training camp and the pre-season, but he also had a decent start to the regular season, tallying 6 goals and 6 assists in his first 20 games while playing anywhere from 15 to 21 minutes a night.

Bjugstad ended up missing all of December with mysterious migraines which would then have an impact on his performance as he tried to get back into a grove after returning. He finally scored in his 7th game back from the migraines and was fairly solid from there on out, and as we wrote about before the end of the Panthers’ first-round playoff series against the Islanders, Bjugstad was really solid in the absence of an injured Vincent Trocheck. In the 9 games Trocheck missed at the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, Bjugstad tallied 4 goals and 4 assists while playing with Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith before his season ended with a nasty fall into the boards during game 5’s double OT period.

Storyline #3: “Aaron Ekblad + more offense from the defense?”

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

Last season, about 23% of the Panthers’ offense came from the players patrolling the blue-line, and that production was fueled mostly by Aaron Ekblad’s stellar rookie season. This season however, the production of the Panthers’ defensemen stayed largely the same at 124 total points (1 fewer point) while the forward production went way up, giving the blue-line a 20% share of the offense. There are a couple of ways to look at this, and one is the fact that the defense remained fairly consistent and didn’t see a decline in production at all. The Panthers’ defensemen also missed some time throughout the season so it’s very possible that they contribute a bit more if there’s more consistency in the pairings and health, although it’s not really something that can be controlled.

The other way to look at it is that the defensemen couldn’t keep up with the forwards. Ekblad and Campbell were the only Panthers defensemen to tally over 17 points, and if we’re honest, that’s a bit worrying. On the bright side, Alex Petrovic made big strides this season and was able to tally 17 points, a big jump from his 3 points in 33 games last year. The thought going into the season was that if the defensemen didn’t produce at or above the mark they did last year, there could be some issues with some uncertainty in how much offense the Panthers would get from their young players and couple of new faces. However, not only did the Panthers get a ton of offense this year from almost everyone, but the defense produced at essentially the same level it did last year.

If you were looking for consistency at the very least, you got that, but if you wanted to see more out of the defense offensively, you’ll probably want to just look ahead to the years to come as guys like Mike Matheson and Linus Hultstrom will hopefully bring more scoring to the backend.

Storyline #4: “Backup goaltending”

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

After a tough season for the Panthers last year, Al Montoya came through this year and was pretty dominant as the backup goaltender. The 31-year old pending UFA won 7 of his first 9 starts this season, allowed 2 or fewer goals in 8 of them and 1 goal in 6 of those starts. Montoya was run into late in the season in a game against the Minnesota Wild forcing the Panthers to recall Mike McKenna from the AHL on an emergency basis, however he didn’t see any action before being shipped back. The Panthers had a ton of confidence in Montoya all year long as he played noticeably better and more consistent than last year, so they had no problem turning to him when they wanted to give Luongo a game off.

The Panthers also played better in front of Montoya for the most part, as one of the problems last season was that the defense in front of him often left him out to dry. Now of course, Montoya wasn’t perfect as he allowed 4 goals twice and 5 goals once, but when you can get your backup to give you a good outing in 75% of his starts or more, you have to be pretty happy with that. When all was said an done, he finished with a goals-against average of 2.18, the best of mark his career aside from 2008-09 when he only had 4 starts.

Storyline #4: “Brandon Pirri’s torrent goal-scoring pace + how many goals will be enough?”

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

Even though the Panthers traded Brandon Pirri at the trade deadline, we’ll address this one anyway. Last year, Pirri was one of the Panthers’ hottest players offensively, but this season, the 25-year old was admittedly due for regression to some degree. The big question on everyone’s mind was would Pirri be able to continue his goal-scoring pace or would he regress to the pace of a 15- to-20-goal scorer?

After scoring 22 goals in 49 games last season for the Panthers, Pirri’s shooting percentage dropped significantly from 15.4 percent to 9.9 percent this season, and he finished with just half the amount of goals (11) in 3 more games played. It didn’t have to be a big enough issue to trade him away, however, but when he wasn’t scoring, he wasn’t doing much else on the ice. His skating ability overall is a bit below average for a player of his size and his man-to-man coverage isn’t the best either so the Panthers opted to move him and his pending RFA status to the Ducks for a draft pick. The Panthers definitely could’ve used him when they lost Vincent Trocheck down the stretch and in the playoffs, but of course, hindsight is always 20/20. Now, the Panthers have guys like Jayce Hawryluk, Dryden Hunt, and Lawson Crouse coming in the system, so the hope is that Pirri’s shootout prowess and goal-scoring potential aren’t missed too much.

When it comes to how many goals would be enough, well, the Panthers seemed to answer that question fairly easily. For the first time in franchise history, the team had 6 players with 50 points or more and 5 players with at least 25 goals. Included in those numbers are Jagr and Jokinen who had 66 and 60 points respectively and Huberdeau and Barkov who both had 59 points. The Panthers finished 6th in the league with 239 goals for and 4th in goal differential at +36, so there’s really no question that they were a capable offensive team this season. Some other fun goal-scoring stats include the Panthers going 37-3-2 when scoring 3 or more goals in regulation and winning 36 of their 47 games when scoring first.

Storyline #5: “The power play”

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

Unfortunately for the Panthers, the power play just wasn’t consistent enough this season despite its performance at the end of last season giving us some hope that it would be. While the Panthers’ lack of finish on the power play during the regular season hardly hurt them, it came back to bite them in the playoffs as they had just 2 goals on 15 opportunities with the man-advantage, and with it being a low-scoring series for the most part, games could’ve ended differently had they converted at a better clip. There were a few different variations of the power play over the course of the season although they were set up pretty similar and mostly didn’t work due to players being stationary, forcing passes, and overall making it easy for the opposition to defend against. Zone entries were a bit sketchy as well, and when those weren’t working, the Panthers were getting all mixed up in the neutral zone, forcing them to dump the puck in and chase after it which often ended in it being cleared out shortly after.

When things were working for the power play, the Panthers had speed through the neutral zone and kept their feet moving when set up in the offensive zone. At times, the puck movement was really good and shots were getting on net which created havoc around the crease. The Panthers were the 6th-worst team in the league in shot attempts per 60 minutes with a 5v4 advantage, and that’s definitely something that may have contributed to their power play woes. The Panthers have the players capable of scoring with guys like Barkov, Ekblad, Bjugstad, Jagr, Huberdeau, Trocheck, and Smith, so theoretically, it shouldn’t be a question of talent but rather the systems being employed and executed.

Storyline #6: “Contract years aplenty”

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

The Panthers had a ton of players up for new contracts at the season’s end, and the hope was that they’d be motivated to play their best hockey, not just because that’s always the goal, but because of the possibility of a bigger paycheck. For guys like Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck, many could see breakout seasons on the horizon, but for others like Erik Gudbranson and RFAs still hoping to make the big-league roster, some proof was still needed that they are worthy of a new contract. Brian Campbell, a pending UFA, continued his reliable play by finishing 3rd in the league with a plus-minus rating of +31, Jaromir Jagr became the oldest player in NHL history to reach 50 points in a season, and Barkov and Trocheck reached seemingly countless career-highs while playing their best hockey thus far. Jagr, Barkov, and Gudbranson were all rewarded with contracts while Trocheck and Campbell almost certainly have offers waiting for them.

As mentioned before, Al Montoya, who’s a pending UFA, turned in a solid year as the Panthers’ backup goaltender, and that’s something he’s done in past contract years as well throughout his career. During the 2013-14 season as Winnipeg’s backup, Montoya finished the season with a .920 save percentage and a goals-against average of 2.30 in 28 games before signing with the Panthers that off-season, and he posted nearly identical numbers for the Islanders during the 2010-11 season before signing with them again for another season.

At the trade deadline, the Panthers also picked up two pending UFAs in Jiri Hudler and Teddy Purcell, and for the most part, they were inconsistent, underwhelming considering their decent pedigrees, and mostly non-factors in the playoffs. Only one is likely to return next season – if at all – and out of the two, it would probably be Purcell, but that’s neither here nor there just yet. Garrett Wilson, who’s time in the AHL has forced him into being eligible for unrestricted free-agency, was a reliable, physical presence on the 4th line for a big chunk of games down the stretch, and although he didn’t registered a point through 29 regular season games, he did come painfully close many times.

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