When the season began, the Florida Panthers were coming off a disaster of a 2016-17 season. The front office shuffled, as well as the coaching staff, re-instating Dale Tallon as general manager and hiring Bob Boughner as head coach. Rather than blow up the roster after the down year, Tallon went young. He let soon-to-be Hockey Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr walk, and stated, “It’s time our core young guys take over this team”.
Florida Panthers Eliminated from 2018 Stanley Cup Playoff Contention
Unfortunately, the growing pains that usually come with this type of decision were felt for the first few months of 2017-18. While the young core definitely stepped up, the lack of depth after those few players quickly became apparent. Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov made for a dynamic duo providing points on a nightly basis. Second-line centre Vincent Trocheck found ways to chip in for a near point-per-game pace as well. After those three, the Panthers had little to no scoring aside from their young defence.
Speaking of their defence, six of the seven rostered blueliners used throughout the Panthers’ season began the year with less than 300 games of NHL experience. The lone veteran in the group was Keith Yandle. Once again, the growing pains shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise.
The Team Shows a Mid-Season Spark
Entering play against the Arizona Coyotes on December 19th, the Panthers were 12-16-5. This was good for 29th in the league, ahead of only the Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes. The team had been counted out already by nearly the entire league, and it appeared they were just too young and inexperienced to provide legit competition in the NHL on a regular basis. Then, they rattled off a five-game win streak to close out the 2017 calendar year. Since four of those wins came against other sub-.500 teams, though, it didn’t turn many heads. That being said, fans and critics who watched them regularly started to notice a change in the team. It started to look as though the team was grasping the systems and playing style new coach Bob Boughner pushed for.
Entering the all-star break, Florida held a 19-22-6 record. Although still near the bottom of the league, they at least won just over 50% of their games starting from that game against Arizona back in December. Not a huge improvement, but an improvement nonetheless. Honestly, this was about all people expected from the Panthers; they’d adjust to the coaching systems, but still weren’t good or experienced enough to be a playoff team.
Florida Finishes Hotter than the Rest
Entering play on April 7th, only nine teams remained in contention for the NHL playoffs in the Eastern Conference. To everyone’s surprise, that ninth team staying alive happened to be the Florida Panthers, who cranked out a 23-8-2 run to reach 92 points with two games left in their season. They had only 44 points through 47 games, and then picked up 48 games in their next 33 games. This difference is absolutely astounding: the team of the first 47 games was on pace for 77 points this season, but the team of the next 33 played at a 119 point pace.
For Florida Panthers fans, this has been an incredibly bittersweet turnaround. The team has shown immense promise for the future, and can further impress in their final two games. However, the resurgence will fall just short, as the final team they could catch, the Philadelphia Flyers, won handily over the New York Rangers in their finale. This gave them 98 points, six ahead of Florida’s 92; with two games left, the best Florida can do is finish with 96.
Find Motivation to Finish, Regardless of the Implications
Now that they’ll fail to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Florida Panthers must find motivation for their season finales. As I write, the Panthers prepare to face the Buffalo Sabres and will turn around to travel north for a make-up game against the Boston Bruins tomorrow. At this point, they are playing for pride.
It is a disappointing end, but it is imperative to remember where the team was five, four, three and even two months ago. Not often can a team climb out of a hole that deep to finish with over 90 points. They can and should be proud of that improvement. Unfortunately, if they’d just started their run a week or two sooner, they would undoubtedly be in the playoffs. Ultimately the biggest disappointment is that they’ve been playing better than almost the whole league over the past two months. Again, their pace over the last 33 games would result in 119 points over a full season. In comparison, the President’s Trophy-winning Nashville Predators have 115 points with one game left. That is elite-level performance.
It feels like a lot is being left on the table, and the team absolutely will feel the same way. This young group is learning the importance of every single game in the NHL season. As good as they have been, they’re learning that slow starts are near impossible to overcome. They’ll have half a year to mull that over, and hopefully, come out more inspired and prepared for a full 82 games next season. Expect a stronger, more consistent Florida Panthers team next year, primed to become regular qualifiers for the postseason.
SAN JOSE, CA – NOVEMBER 16: Evgenii Dadonov #63 of the Florida Panthers looks on during the game against the San Jose Sharks at SAP Center on November 16, 2017 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images)