The Florida Panthers celebrate a win (Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Florida Panthers have gotten off to a quick start this season and could find their way back to the post-season thanks to an improved offense and steady goaltending from veteran Roberto Luongo.
No one considered the Florida Panthers a playoff threat in 2014-15, yet the Cats managed to make it a race to the finish and ended just eight points out of a playoff spot.
Last season, the Panthers relied heavily on overtime and the shootout to pick up points and made due with what was the sixth-worst offense in the entire NHL. Florida played in 18 shootouts last season and earned an extra eight points via shootout wins. Of all teams even within a sniff of the post-season in 2014-15, none had fewer regulation and overtime wins than the Panthers’ 30.
There was reason to believe the NHL’s change in overtime rules for the 2015-16 would have an impact on Florida this season. With the move to 3-on-3, the Panthers wouldn’t be able to rely on the shootout to pick up the extra point. And there was concern that with their meager offensive production — Florida scored just 206 goals in 2014-15 — the Panthers wouldn’t be able to win enough games in regulation to keep pace in the Eastern Conference.
Well, that certainly hasn’t been the case.
Through eight games, the Panthers offense hasn’t been mediocre, bad or worse. Instead, they’ve found the back of the net 26 times and are scoring 3.25 goals per game, a significant step up from 2014-15’s 2.41. While it’s still incredibly early in the season and the Panthers are due to go through the natural ebbs and flows offensively, things are looking promising in Florida.
However, there are still some concerns. As it stands, only two teams in the league, the Washington Capitals and Arizona Coyotes, have had a more favorable shooting percentage at even strength. Of every 10 shots the Panthers have taken this season, at least one has been finding the back of the net. Compare that to 2014-15 when the Panthers shot 7.3 percent and there’s reason to believe that at some point, this Cats offense is going to hit a stumbling block.
Following Saturday’s action, the team’s leading scorer was ageless-wonder Jaromir Jagr with six goals and 10 points in eight games. Behind Jagr are youngsters Nick Bjugstad (three goals, six points), Vincent Trocheck (two goals, six points) and the now-injured Aleksander Barkov (three goals, six points). With Barkov sidelined with what has been reported as a broken bone in his hand, Florida will need to start getting more production out of Jonathan Huberdeau, who has four assists in eight games this year. It's coming, too, as he picked up a pair of assists Saturday.
If there is a decline in offense, though, it doesn’t have to be a death knell for the Panthers’ playoff chase.
What veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo has accomplished this young season could bode well for the Panthers’ playoff hopes. Luongo, who is 2-3-1 in six games, has a 2.17 goals-against average and .934 save percentage. But among the 27 netminders who have played 200 minutes this season at 5-on-5, Luongo’s save percentage is the third-best behind only Montreal’s Carey Price and Arizona’s Mike Smith.
Luongo has never posted a season with a 5-on-5 SP above .938 and has been in the range of .927 to .934 for much of the past decade. For him to maintain the .960 SP is incredibly unlikely, but if he can turn in another campaign like his 2014-15 season the Panthers are in good shape. That's to mention the play of backup Al Montoya, who has been great in two outings this season.
Though they’re sitting pretty in the Atlantic Division right now, Florida isn’t built to be a top-tier contender. Not yet, at least. The Panthers are a sneaky pick — a team that will scratch and claw, if you will — for the post-season. A hot offense has propelled Florida to a quick start. Good thing for the Panthers, though, even if the offense slows down, stellar defense and good goaltending could put them back into the post-season after a three-year absence.
(All advanced statistics via War-On-Ice.)