Revisiting the biggest storylines of the Panthers’ 2016-17 season

Image courtesy of @turbuL3NT2 / COTP Photography

With the off-season almost in full swing, it’s time to revisit the Panthers’ biggest storylines from the 2016-17 campaign: the revamped defense, the analytics movement, the bottom-6, and the offense. 

The new-look blue-line

The Panthers’ revamped defensive core was bound to be a talking point heading into the 2016-17 season.

Three of the Panthers’ seven Opening Night defensemen – Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, and Mark Pysyk – were acquired during the off-season while another, Mike Matheson, had just 8 games of NHL experience.

Three regular defensemen from last season – Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, and Brian Campbell – were gone, as well as Willie Mitchell who played in 46 games.

Unsurprisingly, it took time for the Panthers’ relatively young blue-liners to find chemistry.

There were some growing pains to start as the Panthers routinely allowed early goals and blew late leads. They went on to allow the fourth-most 1st period goals in the league after finishing with the fourth-fewest a year ago.

Ultimately, the decision was made to fire head coach Gerard Gallant, who, by all accounts, was not onboard with most of the off-season roster changes.

When Tom Rowe stepped in as the interim head coach, it didn’t take long for him to acknowledge and attempt to fix the team’s defensive zone struggles.

“The immediate impact is going to be in the defensive zone,” said Rowe as discussed how the coaching change would affect the on-ice product.

“We’re going to tighten up in that area and then we’re going to need to go into more of an area coverage. “It’s a little easier to sort out [responsibilities] when you’re going into an area coverage.”

Area coverage, also known as zone defense, is a basic defensive zone strategy where each player is responsible for defending a certain part of the ice rather than a specific player.

When the play moves into a different area of the defensive zone, a different player will take over to defend it.

It’s a system that’s typically employed when players aren’t capable of keeping up with the opponent by making it easier to defend.

However, that shouldn’t be the case considering the Panthers have made it a point to add skill and speed to their roster over the past several years.

Nonetheless, the Panthers went with it.

The most noticeable difference was a drop in odd-man rushes, but that was where the good news ended.

Mental mistakes crept in and players often missed their assignments or were caught confused on where exactly they should be positioned as part of the area coverage.

At other times, the Panthers were too puck-focused and weren’t aware of opposing players left alone.

The forwards, who play a huge role defensively, consistently collapsed too deep into the defensive zone when the opposing team entered on a rush, leaving the points wide open for shot attempts that led to rebounds the Panthers weren’t physical enough to recover.

The Panthers were generally better at retrieving and moving the puck up the ice to the forwards, except they had trouble defending high-danger areas.

Relative to the league average, the Panthers allowed a higher volume of shots from the slot and the area surrounding it. With no real physical presences – at least not on a consistent basis – loose pucks around the crease were left for the taking.

The team heat map also shows a high volume of shots allowed from the points which matches up with the collapsing issue. The Panthers were significantly worse at preventing shot attempts from the lower half of the defensive zone than last season.

Individual performances were also mixed.

Aaron Ekblad didn’t have the year that anyone expected or hoped for.

A pre-season neck injury suffered at the World Cup of Hockey and no Brian Campbell to lean on led to the 21-year old having a tough first half.

He rebounded towards the end of January but suffered a concussion in March which effectively ended his season.

Another full off-season of training should benefit Ekblad and hopefully allow him to get off on the right foot next year.

Mark Pysyk on the other hand was arguably one of the Panthers’ best defensemen. He performed well despite switching between partners and pairings often and fared well against tougher competition.

Mike Matheson had his share of mistakes, but performed surprisingly well in his first full NHL season. He certainly showed top-4 potential with his skating ability and smarts and earned more ice time as the year went on.

Keith Yandle hit the 40-point mark for the 7th time in the last 8 years and recorded 18 power play points, tying him for the team lead.

He wasn’t acquired for his defensive abilities and that showed often, so it will be important for the Panthers to pair him with the right partner to get the most out of him.

Alex Petrovic missed time with a broken ankle early in the season although he continued to emerge as a reliable, physical presence on the Panthers’ bottom pair upon returning to the lineup.

He even managed to put up some decent offensive numbers while logging the highest average ice-time per game of his career.

Then there’s Jason Demers.

He certainly brought the offense the Panthers were hoping for, tallying 28 points – the second-best total of his career – and a career-high 9 goals.

But outside of his time on the penalty kill, Demers was not his usual shot-suppressing self and had a down year defensively.

It’s not unreasonable to think that the Panthers went a bit too deep into the free-agent pool when they signed the 28-year old to a 5-year, $22.5 million deal a day after the market opened in July.

Even though they probably didn’t expect him to be as inconsistent as he was, it leaves them in a precarious position.

They’ve worked quickly over the past year or so to improve their cap situation and they made several smart moves to do that.

Demers’ contract doesn’t ruin the Panthers’ books by any means but it’s interesting that they gave term and money to a defenseman that ended up spending most of the season on the second and third pairings while averaging the second-lowest average ice time per game.

To be clear, Demers isn’t a bad defenseman. He’s been pretty good for the past several seasons and fits in with the direction the Panthers are headed in.

The bottom line is he just seems to have had an off year, and odds are he can bounce back.

However, the Panthers knew they had at least two defensemen coming in the system (read: Mackenzie Weegar and Ian McCoshen) and had already penciled three new puck-movers into their lineup and decided to commit to Demers anyway.

Again, it’s an interesting situation, and I can’t help but feel it’s one they’re not totally satisfied with.

That leads us to some final numbers: the Panthers allowed a total of 231 goals against, 31 more than last year, and at 5-on-5, they went from 126 goals against to 160 allowed this season.

Save percentages fluctuate all the time, so it was no surprise that last season’s mark of 0.933 dipped to 0.922 this year.

Therefore, a slight increase in goals allowed was to be expected. In a hypothetical situation, if the Panthers had last year’s 5-on-5 save percentage this year, they would’ve allowed 23 fewer goals.

The Panthers also allowed the 8th-most shots per game and 11th-most goals per game in the league, and that was largely due to individual struggles combined with roster and structural deficiencies.

With a full season together under their belt and a new coaching staff set to take over, there’s a good chance the Panthers’ defense will improve.

There will need to be more accountability and a system in place where each player knows their role.

Four of the Panthers’ defensemen have yet to hit the 300-game mark, so there will also need to be a lot of teaching to get them to play the right way on a more consistent basis.

It’s not an impossible task, but it’s part of why Dale Tallon and the rest of the Panthers’ front office are pouring so much effort into finding the right head coach.

For more on each individual defenseman’s season, check out our season review here.

Analytics & questionable roster decisions

Some believe the Panthers took a huge risk when they decided to join the analytics movement.

They sent the fanbase into a frenzy when they shipped Erik Gudbranson off to the Vancouver Canucks last May in exchange for Jared McCann.

Because Gudbranson wasn’t exactly favorable in the eyes of the analytics community, the move immediately turned into a debate over whether the Panthers were actually improving the roster or hedging their bets on data from an Excel spreadsheet.

McCann only managed 7 points in 29 NHL games this season while spending most of his time in the AHL, and this angered many fans.

In reality, the expectation wasn’t really for him to step in and rack up points right away.

His potential is that of top-6 offensive producer, something the Panthers felt was more worthy of their investment – especially considering the franchise’s long-standing scoring woes – so they were willing to allow him the time to develop properly.

And as we already know, they acquired Mark Pysyk from Buffalo at the 2015 Draft and signed Jason Demers, two analytics darlings.

Assistant general manager Eric Joyce said Pysyk “was a rock for [the Panthers] all season,” and I already talked at length about Demers who, contract and one inconsistent season aside, is actually a capable defenseman.

They also saw value in Jonathan Marchessault – a name hardly anyone recognized when he was signed out of free agency last July – and he went on to score 30 goals in his first season with the team.

Colton Sceviour had solid underlying numbers too.

He was signed for peanuts and played a huge role on the Panthers’ second-ranked penalty kill, logging the second-most average shorthanded ice time per game among the teams’ forwards.

Then there’s James Reimer, trading Jimmy Hayes for Reilly Smith, and acquiring Jaromir Jagr. The Panthers used analytics each time to help make better, more informed decisions.

The fact is there’s really not much to complain about when it comes to those players, at least individually.

It seemed like more of the problems the Panthers suffered from this season were how things came together and the execution as a team on the ice.

Obviously, it’s easy to look at last year’s results, go down the list of on- and off-ice changes made in the summer, and say, “that’s why the Panthers finished as the 8th-worst team in the league.”

In a season where there were so many other things fundamentally wrong with the product on the ice, it just doesn’t make sense to blame the new direction.

Fans should embrace the fact that management wants to do everything they can to change the Panthers’ losing culture to a winning one.

Their hope is that by incorporating more data into their decision-making process, they’ll be able to make better and more informed decisions, and so far, that’s mostly been the case.

It’s easier said than done and they know that. Not everything will work out, and that’s fine, so the goal is to minimize what doesn’t.

But if that’s truly the case, it leads us to wonder why so many questionable decisions were still made.

Take Shawn Thornton for example.

Despite the fact that the Panthers were struggling to score goals on a consistent basis and were allowing them at a higher rate than last year, they insisted on keeping the now retired 39-year old tough guy in the lineup.

He went on to play in 50 games and record just 4 points while – once again – finishing as arguably one of the worst analytics performers and one of the most ineffective players in all three zones.

And it wasn’t just that Thornton played in 50 games.

It was that when he did play, he was taking a lineup spot from players capable of playing more minutes and more likely to make an impact (read: Denis Malgin and Jared McCann, among many others).

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Panthers were far better at suppressing shot attempts in their own zone and generating them in the offensive zone when Thornton wasn’t on the ice.

Every player on the team performed better statistically when they weren’t on the ice with him compared to when they were.

The old-school types will argue that Thornton brought toughness and other intangibles to the lineup, but are those really worth having when the team is consistently getting out-shot and out-chanced when he’s on the ice?

It’s unclear where exactly in the organization the decision to allow Thornton to play so often was made.

With the Panthers’ front office widely known to be one of the more analytically-inclined teams in the league, it’d be surprising if it was something that everyone actually agreed on.

That leads us back to Denis Malgin and yet another odd scenario.

The 19-year old started the season with the Panthers after Nick Bjugstad suffered a broken wrist during the pre-season.

Malgin played in 28 straight games before being scratched 8 times over the next month and change prior to being sent down to the AHL in late-January.

“We really wanted to get him some playing time,” said Tom Rowe. “He wasn’t gonna be getting into the lineup any time soon and it wasn’t gonna do him any good for his development sitting here and not playing enough so we moved him down.”

He hit a wall offensively, was hardly getting any minutes when he did play, and was clearly still learning the pro North American game, so this was a great decision (and probably one that should’ve been made a bit earlier).

Malgin recorded 12 points in 15 AHL games before the Panthers opted to bring him back up, only for him to play in 8 of the final 18 games of the season that he was healthy for.

The Panthers made the decision to let Jared McCann finish out the year in the AHL after he was sent down on January 31st.

In Malgin’s case, they felt it was better for him to sit on the bench and in the press box rather than get as much playing time as possible despite it being his first season in a new country.

It wasn’t just Malgin either.

Mackenzie Weegar was recalled when Aaron Ekblad suffered a concussion – which was at least his 3rd in the last 3 years – on March 11th.

The Panthers were just about out of playoff contention at that point, but Weegar too sat in the press box for four games while Jakub Kindl got playing time.

Ekblad returned to the lineup 10 days later March 21st, but complained of a sore neck following the game, leading the Panthers to shut him down for the rest of the season.

Rowe had this to say when asked if he regretted playing Ekblad that night: “I’m not going to lie, I wish we didn’t. That’s on me. The doctors cleared him, our medical staff cleared him but I had some reservations and I wish I stayed with my gut. That’s no one’s fault but my own.”

So, again, there was just a lot of weird, unexplainable stuff going at different times throughout the year that really makes one question the Panthers’ decision-making process.

Smart decisions have been made, but that doesn’t mean the other ones should be glossed over. If the Panthers wish to get back on track, they’ll need to iron these things out moving forward, and I’m fairly confident that they will, if only because there’s a will to succeed up and down the organization.

With Dale Tallon back at the helm and a new coaching staff on its way in, there’s no reason why the Panthers can’t turn their ship around quickly.

The bottom-6

When the Panthers won the Atlantic Division last season, they were basically a two-line team.

The top line of Huberdeau, Barkov, and Jagr and the 2nd line of Jokinen, Trocheck, and Smith ran the show offensively while the bottom-6 was merely along for the ride.

Despite the fact that the Panthers knew they needed to improve the bottom half of their lineup in the off-season, it remained an issue.

Early on, the plan was to have Nick Bjugstad center Jonathan Marchessault and Colton Sceviour on the 3rd line, and Derek MacKenzie was likely going to be with whoever had the best training camp, the latter of which isn’t exactly the best approach.

Denis Malgin was playing in North America for the first time, and the Panthers probably didn’t want a repeat of Jared McCann centering the 4th line, which is what he did in Vancouver, so that essentially ruled them out of making the team.

Once Bjugstad broke his wrist, the door opened for Malgin to step in as the team’s 3rd-line center, while Huberdeau’s Achilles’ injury moved Marchessault up to the top line and McCann onto the 3rd line wing.

When the regular season started, Greg McKegg and Shane Harper were on the 4th-line wings, and that combination lasted for weeks until both were sent back to the AHL.

Bjugstad’s return didn’t do much for the Panthers as he went on to record a career-low 14 points in 54 games while being a non-factor on most nights, adding to the bottom-6’s struggles.

By the end of the season, the players that made an impact offensively for the Panthers could be counted on one hand. Again.

McKegg, Harper, and Shawn Thornton are not NHL-caliber players, yet all three of them earned spots on the team and played 31, 14, and 50 games respectively.

When Barkov went down later on in the year, Michael Sgarbossa was recalled. Once again, he slid into the bottom of the lineup, averaging nearly 12 minutes a night for 29 games.

Even Kyle Rau spent 23 games with the Panthers and recorded just 3 points.

If the aforementioned players are needed for a game or two in a pinch, that’s fine. But for the number of games that they played, it proved to be way too much.

The Panthers’ bottom-6 has been a giant revolving door for what feels like forever, and this season was no different. Not drafting quality role-players or locating talent in the free-agent market has hurt the Panthers’ ability to ice a more complete and effective lineup.

It’s not reasonable to have four first lines, but ideally, there should not be a massive drop off from one line to the next.

They suffered from several injuries this year, but that happens all the time and they should’ve been better accounted for, at least to some degree.

Depending on the player, it’s not always possible to entirely replace what’s missing, but it just doesn’t seem like the Panthers put their best foot forward in each case.

Look no further than the 2017 Playoffs for examples of teams that have lost some of their most important players to injuries but were able to move forward thanks to their depth.

The Predators, who are without Ryan Johansen, Mike Fisher, and Kevin Fiala, have gotten contributions from all over their lineup, including players that have hardly played in the NHL.

Time and time again, Nashville’s former draft picks came through for them while also being relied upon in key situations.

Colton Sisson went from the 4th line to the top line when Johansen and Fisher went down and was forced to take on Ryan Getzlaf in game 6 of the Western Conference Finals.

Sissons finished with a hat-trick, a plus-5 rating, and over 16 minutes of ice time while Getzlaf had just one assist and a minus-2 rating.

Anaheim was missing an important veteran in Patrick Eaves as well as Rickard Rakell, who led the team in scoring during the regular season with 33 goals.

Starting goaltender John Gibson was out for basically the entire final two games of the Conference Finals, yet Anaheim was in both of them until the end.

Depth players won’t necessarily be expected to come in and fill up the scoresheet, but being able to trust them with more than 8 or 9 minutes a night is important, and the Panthers haven’t been able to do that.

The fact that they didn’t have players better than McKegg and Harper – or did but chose not to play them – speaks not only to the team’s decision-making process but also their drafting and scouting abilities, something we’ve covered before.

Just about every playoff team has solid depth and a ‘next man up’ mentality; both of those things are part of what it takes to get from one difficult round to the next.

The Panthers have defensive prospects coming and their off-season moves gave them more skill on each pairing, so depth isn’t really an issue there.

But up front, the Panthers’ depth chart has no compelling options.

It’s something that must be addressed if they wish to be competitive and reach the postseason; the types of players the Panthers used this year as fill-ins for the bottom-6 won’t cut it.

The offense

Last season proved to be a tough act to follow offensively.

Reminiscent of the 2011-12 season, the Panthers had 5 players with 20 goals, four of which had 25 or more.

Six players had over 50 points and two had at least 60.

It came at a price, however, because the Panthers’ 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 8.8 percent was the second-highest in the league, sitting just behind the Rangers’ mark of 9.0.

Shooting percentages, like save percentages, are typically unsustainable when they’re extremely high or low.

The Panthers were bound to see regression to some degree, especially up front, and that’s likely why they went the route of adding some offensively-capable defensemen.

That plan sort of worked in the end since they got 144 points and 37 goals from the defense compared to 124 points and 27 goals a season ago.

They finished with just three 20-goal scorers and 3 players with at least 50 points as part of a noticeable drop off in offensive production.

More offense from the defense was a plus, but the Panthers seemed to force a lot of their offensive zone play back to the point rather than taking their chances from high-danger areas, taking away some potential production from the forwards.

The Panthers had the 5th-worst 5-on-5 shooting percentage this season at 6.6 percent and scored 27 fewer 5-on-5 goals despite taking 184 more shots.

If they shot at last year’s shooting percentage, they would’ve had 44 more 5-on-5 goals and the 5th-most in the league.

A lot of that had to do with where in the offensive zone they were shooting from.

Upon looking at the Panthers’ 5-on-5 offensive zone heat map, one of their main problems becomes immediately clear.

Relative to the league average, the Panthers had a significantly lower volume of shots from areas around and directly in front of the net as well as a higher volume from the perimeter and points.

The Panthers’ average shot length also went up from 34.3 last season to 37.0 this season. Usually, the farther out a shot is taken from, the less likely it is to go in.

The Panthers lacked a willingness to go to the front of the net for rebounds and deflections, and it’s been the case for years.

Their forward group doesn’t have the same level of tenacity and bite as most teams, so unless that’s addressed through roster additions, it will take some effort to make that willingness part of their playing style.

And it’s not only a product of their systems because there’s also a mental aspect to it.

It’s something that needs to be part of the plan from day 1 and all players need to be held accountable until it becomes second nature.

Like with everything else, it’s on management, the incoming coaching staff, and ultimately the players to not only put in place the proper systems but also to go out and execute.

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3 thoughts on “Revisiting the biggest storylines of the Panthers’ 2016-17 season

  1. Near the end you said the Panthers were basically not tough enough. Probably a reason Thornton saw more ice time. Attended over a dozen games last year and that was the overriding takeaway, just missing physicallity. We never recovered from the loses of Gudbranson, Kulikov and Campbell. Throw in the multiple injuries and that ended the season. This of course doesn’t even cover the worst coaching change that many had ever seen. All of us out here are just holding our breath that now that Tallon is back in charge that things will go in better direction. Will always be a Panthers fan but last year was tough. All eyes on the coaching choice, let’s stay healthy, getting ready for next year

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    1. Yes, but there is a clear difference between plain old toughness and functional toughness. Having 100 Thorntons out there every night would not have made the season turn out any better. We need players that will do the dirty work AND that can play, and in a way, it goes back to the fact that we haven’t even been able to draft guys capable of doing that at the very least.

      And I don’t subscribe to the notion that having Gudbranson and Kulikov would’ve made us a more successful team. Sure, I understand that it sucked losing them from a fan perspective, but you have to see the business side of it as well. Both wanted more money than they were worth, and holding onto them would’ve given us major cap troubles when it was time to resign our actual core. Not signing them but keeping them would’ve meant losing them for nothing, and that’s even worse.

      I understand the concerns, and they’re valid ones, but you have to look at the whole picture. I don’t think it’s right to say our season was ruined because we lost a 3rd-pair stay-at-home defenseman and overpaid 4th/5th guy. Odds are they would’ve been no better than any one else this year.

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