I’m sucking it up.
I’ve seen a lot of the Florida Panthers this season, mostly because they often start at a time before all the other games I’m usually a little more interested in. And they’ve impressed me.
After a summer of mocking Dale Tallon for signing every marginal second liner in the UFA class—Tomas Kopecky, Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Sean Bergenheim—to a four-year, multi-million dollar deal, plus Ed Jovanovski and Marcel Goc, the Florida Panthers have gotten off to a 9-5-3 start, and look every bit like a playoff contender.
While a couple of teams who have gotten off to hot starts: Edmonton and Dallas, notably, haven’t been doing so great thanks to high percentages, Florida has genuinely been playing good hockey.
I know. Weird, right?
Part of it is luck, of course. Jose Theodore is having his best statistical season since 2002, where he won the Hart and Vezina double (although the vote was controversial). He has a 6-3 record and a .921 save percentage (not including Thursday’s game against St. Louis) despite only breaking .920 once in his career.
But the other part of it is true team talent. I talked last week about score effects, and how teams tend to do better when playing from behind. This is why, to judge how truly good a team is, you have to look at how a team did when the score was tied.
And, according to Montreal Canadiens’ blog Habs Eyes on the Prize, who had a very good post summarizing how every team has played with the score tied at even strength, Florida is the 10th best team in the NHL at directing shots at the net.
Florida has trouble getting shots through but their possession is startlingly good, in spite of their strong start I didn’t expect that. They will probably regress a little bit, but they could be pushing for the playoffs if their possession numbers hold.
Point being, Florida has had surprisingly good possession numbers early in the season. Dale Tallon has liked to discuss a “culture change” in Florida, which is part of the reason he brought in Kevin Dineen. “”His performance as a player — he came and brought his lunch pail to work every night, he played, he competed, he got his nose dirty, he scored goals and earned his points,” Tallon told ‘The NHL Hour’ on Thursday.
Tallon will say that he’s brought the winning culture that he helped forge in Chicago to the Panthers, but he’s also gotten lucky on a couple of players he’s picked up.
Brian Campbell has turned out to be a tremendous pick-up, and while his salary cap hit is not worth his play, the Panthers aren’t a team that will have to worry about the salary cap anytime soon. It turns out he’s a pretty good hockey player, and with the score tied at even-strength, 64.4% of all shots taken have been on the opposition’s net.
His partner—Jason Garrison—is coming off a very good season with Mike Weaver, and that pairing had been called the best defensive defenseman pairing in hockey in some circles. They made just $1.575M between the two. Garrison, an undrafted signee out of University of Minnesota at Duluth, has also found his offensive niche this season and has already hit his career-high in goals a quarter of the way through the season. Garrison is an unrestricted free agent this season, and, safe to say, he will be able to move out of his parents’ basement and quit his newspaper route.
Erik Gudbranson and Ed Jovanovski, an unlikely pairing between a rookie defenseman who had a troubled season in junior alongside the 35-year old veteran who’s made his living as an offensive defenseman, are playing well. 54.5% of all shot attempts have been going in the right direction when Gudbranson is on the ice.
The forwards have contributed as well. It isn’t just the guys Tallon signed, but a couple he’s traded for as well. Jack Skille, who has just one goal so far after being traded for Michael Frolik in a deal featuring struggling prospects, is playing very well defensively and keeping the puck at the right end. Kris Versteeg, dealt to Florida for what was pretty much a bag of pucks, has led Florida regulars with a 58.7% score-tied Corsi percentage and also leads the team in goals with 9.
Meanwhile, Sean Bergenheim has become one of the NHL’s greater success stories. After a year in Tampa Bay with impressive underlying numbers, Bergenheim broke out in the playoffs offensively and got himself on Tallon’s radar. He’s produced so far at both ends despite just two goals: he has taken 30 shots at net.
Florida dropped a tough game in St. Louis last night, and questionably traded away David Booth after a year he struggled. The path isn’t complete and the team hasn’t convinced me that they’ll be good in the long haul, but this early season success, both on the standings chart and by looking at underlying numbers, the Panthers appear to be at least on track for playoff positioning.
There is a lot of work to go, but they’re on the way. It’s a positive for a team that has not made the playoffs since 2000 and have not won a playoff game since 1997. At the very least, with 15,215 people coming out to the Panthers last home game, it’s something to cheer about in South Florida. It’s been a long time since we’ve been able to say that.