For the Panthers, Later Might as Well be Never
In their heart of hearts the Panthers didn’t really fail to make the playoffs a year ago, only ran out of time. They went 25-8-2 down the stretch, a closing 35-game run better than every team in the NHL.
Unfortunately, it’s been since 1924-25 that the NHL played a schedule that short. Florida’s 10-13-4 start ended up trumping that 25-8-2 and the Panthers missed the playoffs by a point. Their 96 tied with the 2014-15 Bruins for the second most ever by a non-playoff team and earned Florida . . . . well, .. . it would appear not much.
Self-esteem? The Panthers have started this season 0-2-2 and have blown leads in every game. So all the confidence built in March seems to have held up strong only through June. Renewed enthusiasm from one of the most abused fan bases in sports? Through two home games, neither of which the Panthers won, they have averaged 13,174 per game, down from the sad 13,831 average of a year ago.
Yeah, we know. It’s football season. Problem is, it’s been football season in South Florida since 1996, the last time the Panthers won a playoff round—three in fact in the year of the rats. So pardon the fans if they smell a rat from a hot February and March, when generally they are preoccupied by who signed with the Gators and Seminoles anyway.
After an initial burst of success–just a year ago downgraded by the Golden Knights success from miraculous to semi-miraculous–the Panthers have been building for 22 years through four ownerships, 12 GMs, 15 coaches and Len Barrie twice. Maybe it’s the shades everybody wears down there that mitigates against rosy outlooks. Or perhaps it is too many years of the team not getting anywhere in a market tougher than even Peter Worrell, and harder to motivate than Vaclav Nedorost. When it’s always warm, who gets excited by a false spring? Can’t blame the people for wanting to see a real one.
And the chances of that anytime soon? Like everybody in the league, the Panthers have a few very good players, and also like almost everyone in the league, they don’t have enough of them. Alexander Barkov is the best keep secret in the NHL-its easy to keep hockey secrets in South Florida–a guy who plays both ends of the ice probably already better than anyone. Evgeni Dadonov has come back, all forgiven now, from the KHL, to be a breakaway threat. Nick Bjugstad is a good anchor on a legitimate No. 1 line.
Aaron Ekblad, a first overall pick, is a top 15 defenseman in the league, on his way to being a top 10. Vincent Trocheck is pretty good when he is in the mood, and the second line has been strengthened by once-and-again GM Dale Tallon with a low cost trade for Mike Hoffman.
The Panthers generated the most shots per game in the league last season, whatever that gets you. When Ekblad isn’t out there, and sometimes even when he is, Florida in its own end is a day at the beach, which means a lot of work for Roberto Luongo, who is 39 years old. If he gets healthy and stays that way, this is a playoff team, absolutely, probably, maybe.
Certainly, the Panthers don’t look too good right now, the three goal rally to a shootout loss in Philadelphia Monday being a gift from Brian Elliott, who stopped nothing, and a mindless misconduct penalty by Wayne Simmonds with the Flyers up three goals in the second period. The Panthers, up 1-0, fell behind with a ghastly 5-goal Philadelphia second period, rallied and fell short in the end. Sounds like these guys M.O.
“I feel like it’s a broken record,” said Coach Bob Boughner, meaning specifically the sloppiness. “We had a giveaway and we let guys behind us once again. We’ve got some things we need to clean up.”
It’s early, of course. It’s already too late for substandard Ottawa, Detroit, Montreal and Buffalo teams in the Atlantic Division, leaving only Carolina for Florida to beat out for the last of the three guaranteed berths. This is key, because it’s hard to argue that the Panthers are better than any of the eight teams that got into the playoffs a year ago.
The Caps won the Stanley Cup. The last team to do that and miss the following year was the 1995 Devils, in a shortened season. The Bruins? They are loaded. Lightning? They got it all. The Leafs are not a Cup threat until they get some serious D, but they are deeper in firepower than Florida.
The Penguins? On the slippage watch for sure, and Justin Schultz is a big loss. But Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on the outside come April? We’re just not feeling it. Ditto about a typically hard-working John Tortorella team, even if it might be taking its last run with Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Flyers aren’t looking too good so far either, but added a big-time scorer in James van Riemsdyk and, as long as a young defense progresses as expected, should be off the bubble. The Devils? Ultra reliable in their efforts, more than the Panthers can say at this point. Closing with a rush may only have succeeded in setting them up for another fall.
Remember that Florida was a playoff team in 2016 with eight of these current team members and still dropped 22 points the next year. So it is a team on the rise only when it is not a team on the fall. Wake us up when they put two good years together please and don’t have to play out of their minds down a stretch just to fall a point short.
We went to Hockeyreference.com and to Bob Waterman of the Elias Sports Bureau to look for precedents for these failed late-season rushes and search for their true meaning.
Eureka! We found. . .
Since the lockout—you really can’t go back beyond that because its only been since then that every game guarantees two points for one of the teams–only five clubs have run up a .650-or-above winning percentage from February 1 on and not made the post-season
One was the 2011-12 Sabres, who not only didn’t make the playoffs the following year but haven’t made them since. The 2005-06 Thrashers got in the following year but then not for another eight, when they had become the Jets. A 22-9-2 close by the 2010-11 Devils indeed was a precursor to a Stanley Cup finalist the next year but hardly the first sign of a consistent contender. New Jersey did not qualify for the post-season again until last year.
The 2016-17 Lightning, racked by injuries, closed with a too-little-too-late 20-7-4, and got to the 2017-18 conference final. But off a final and a conference final in the springs of 2015 and 2016, there is no credible perspective of that Tampa Bay team as a comer, only one that got knocked back for a year by bad injury luck.
When the last four Cup winners—Caps, Blackhawks, Penguins, and Kings --had their breakthrough years announcing themselves as growing powers, all had finished poorly, well under .500 from February on, the previous season.
Sure you want to be playing at your best going into the playoffs. But you have to make them. Games in October count for up to three points, same as the ones in April. The best we will say for the never-say-die-until-they-did 2017-18 Panthers is they now have a whole season to prove that a fast finish on the Gold Coast wasn’t fool’s gold.