Jonathan Huberdeau will make his season debut and Aleksander Barkov will return from a month-long absence Friday. It's just what the Panthers need, too, as they seek a spark to ignite a playoff push.
Zero. That’s the number of games the Panthers have played this season with their optimal lineup. Before the campaign could even begin, Florida was dealt about the biggest blow possible when Jonathan Huberdeau hit the shelf with an Achilles injury, and for the entire season since they’ve dealt with ailment after ailment, struggling to get healthy and battling to stay in the playoff hunt.
And things got that much worse when Aleksander Barkov hit the shelf.
Losing Huberdeau, 23, meant losing one of the team’s offensive leaders and a young player who was starting to show significant growth, coming off of a career-best 20-goal, 59-point season. And being without Barkov, 21, meant the Panthers were down their standout top-line, two-way center in the middle of what was looking like it could be the best offensive season of his young career. He had nine goals and 27 points in his first 36 games when he hit the shelf on Dec. 29, and it’s been more than a month since he’s suited up for the Panthers.
Florida has actually remained above .500 during Barkov’s absence from the lineup, but the impact of missing a player of his talent has started to take its toll in recent games. Before the all-star break, the Panthers dropped five of seven, and though they’ve won two straight games, those victories were far from convincing. Florida needed overtime to escape with a win against a struggling Tampa Bay Lightning club, and the 6-5, last-goal-wins affair against the Ottawa Senators wasn’t an inspiring defensive performance for a Panthers team with post-season aspirations.
But Friday night in Florida could be the night Panthers fans look back on at season’s end as the game where things turned around. Because for the first time all season, the Panthers will finally be able to ice the roster they had hoped for all season. After nearly five months on the injured list, Huberdeau has been given the green light to get back into action and Barkov, who has missed time with a back injury, is likewise ready to return to the Panthers’ lineup. In a sense, it’s as if the Panthers just loaded up a month ahead of the trade deadline.
Heading into play against the Anaheim Ducks, the Panthers sit right in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference playoff race. With 51 games played, they’ve registered 54 points, four back of the Philadelphia Flyers for the final wild-card spot and four behind the Boston Bruins for the final divisional seed in the Atlantic. So having Huberdeau and Barkov return to the lineup is massive news for Florida, especially with all eyes turning to the post-season with the all-star break in the rearview. The area it stands to help the Panthers most is offensively, where the team has been absolutely dreadful this season.
The Panthers’ offense currently ranks 26th in the league, with Florida’s 2.33 goals per game rate similar to that of the Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils. At 5-on-5, the Panthers have an abysmal 6.12 shooting percentage, and few teams have a power play that has been as fruitless as Florida’s 25th-ranked unit. That’s a far cry from the Panthers’ chase for the Atlantic Division title in 2015-16 when one of the most impressive aspects of their game was their scoring ability. Florida netted 232 goals and had the eighth-most productive offense in the NHL.
It’s hard to overlook how much Huberdeau and Barkov played into the effectiveness of the offense, too. The two combined for nearly 50 goals in 2015-16 — close to 21 percent of the Panthers’ total offense — and both were dynamos on the power play. Barkov, for instance, had nine goals and 16 points with the extra man, while Huberdeau’s four goals and 13 points was one of the higher totals on the club. But Huberdeau and Barkov also helped get the most out of aging veteran Jaromir Jagr, and that could be indicative of what’s to come when the duo returns.
At 43, Jagr was the third man on the Panthers’ top line alongside Huberdeau and Barkov, and Jagr was astoundingly effective for his age. He scored 27 goals for the Cats in 2015-16, and led the team with 66 points. Most incredibly, the bulk of his points — 49, to be exact — came at 5-on-5 and nearly 70 percent of those points, 34 of the 49, came when skating alongside at least one of Huberdeau or Barkov. The next best production Jagr had with any other player was Nick Bjugstad, but that pairing resulted in only eight points for the ageless wonder.
The impact of Jagr being without Barkov for the past month has been clear as Jagr has only registered three goals and eight points without his center, and the effect of Huberdeau being out of the lineup has been present all season. The best production Jagr has with any player at 5-on-5 remains Barkov, who has been on ice for 11 of Jagr’s 20 points at five a side, but the next most effective forward has only helped Jagr notch seven points. If Huberdeau and Barkov’s presence can boost the scoring of Jagr, maybe the duo’s effectiveness can translate to the rest of the club as well.
The impact an increase in offense could have in Florida can’t be overlooked. While he hasn’t been quite as lights-out as he was in 2015-16, Roberto Luongo is turning in another strong year, and the Panthers’ save percentage at 5-on-5 is only narrowly outside the top 10 marks in the league. Florida’s also a top 10 club in terms of possession, boasting a 51 percent Corsi For percentage, and only five teams have managed to start more shifts in the offensive zone. The biggest area of struggle for the Panthers has been their ability to generate any danger — only the Colorado Avalanche and St. Louis Blues have produced fewer scoring chances — and that’s exactly where two shifty, skilled scorers have the ability to turn things around.
Over the past three seasons, Huberdeau and Barkov have been exceptionally skilled at generating the opportunities that Florida has been so sorely lacking throughout this campaign. Huberdeau, for instance, has generated nearly 8.4 scoring chances per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play over the past three seasons. That’s a better rate than all but Jagr over that same span, and if Huberdeau was to maintain that rate upon his return, he’d be tops on the Panthers, surpassing Barkov, who led the team with 8.1 chances per 60 minutes before falling injured.
Few would suggest that any team sitting more than a few points outside the post-season with only 31 games remaining is in a great position, but the Panthers aren’t exactly too far gone when it comes to making something of the remainder of their campaign. Florida has three games in hand on the Bruins, one game in hand on the Flyers and a roster that was assembled to be able to do some damage.
To this point in the season, the Panthers haven’t been able to operate at their full capability, and it has shown in the way the offense has faltered and the points have been tough to come by. But with Barkov back from his one-month absence and Huberdeau set to make his season debut, the Panthers will be a team to watch down the stretch and a club that could be in prime position for a late-season surge.
(All advanced statistics via Corsica)
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