Had you told me back in October that the Florida Panthers would make the NHL playoffs, I’d have called you crazy and rattled off a lengthy critique about how poorly Dale Tallon managed his franchise in the offseason.
Tallon spent frivolously in the summer, enticing unrestricted free agents to sign in Florida with promises of four-year contracts, no matter how poor the situation or the player. Tomas Fleischmann, a solid second line forward, albeit with circulation problems? Four-year contract. Scottie Upshall, another second liner? Four-year contract. Sean Bergenheim, a possession two-way forward that Tallon felt was worth gambling $11M on because, as said in a radio interview on the Fan 590 in the summer, “he’s good in the playoffs”? Four-year contract. Ed Jovanovski, a defensive liability waiting to happen despite a strong offensive track record? Four-year contract, also a 35+ contract, which means even if Jovanovski retires, Florida are still on the hook.
He also signed Marcel Goc and traded for salary cap anchor Brian Campbell, before putting his hopes between the pipes onto Jose Theodore, a 35-year old journeyman with a career .908 save percentage, and that’s including his two best years, which came pre-lockout.
Good lord, why hadn’t I written anything about the way this team was put together? This isn’t a hockey team so much as it is a collection of spare parts. No method influenced a cohesive group here, Tallon had X amount of dollars to spend and spent X on the button, with no sense for creativity or process.
Then the team started winning hockey games. At first it was cute, and then tiresome, and then infuriating, to see Tallon achieve any kind of success with this rag-tag group. But then you begin to pick apart at the numbers, and think “well, gee, this team isn’t actually any good. Maybe they made the playoffs as the beneficiaries of some good circumstances and are about to be crushed.”
Last year, no team with a negative goal differential made the NHL playoffs. In 2010, the -13 Ottawa Senators and the -6 Montreal Canadiens did, and the Nashville Predators hit it with an even marker. Since the NHL lockout, just eight teams have reached the playoffs having given up more goals than they’ve allowed, with the 2010 Sens being the lowest.
When Florida hit the ice for the first game of the playoffs against New Jersey, Boston, or the New York Rangers, depending on how everything shakes out, there is a 100% chance that they will do so as the worst post-lockout team to make the playoffs, and probably one of the worst since the league expanded to 30 teams.
Not only does their -27 goal differential (as it stands now) pale to make them look any better than last year’s squad (or the friggin’ Edmonton Oilers, who are a -24 on the year), but they’ve also won 37 games. You know who won 37 games last season? The Toronto Maple Leafs, a team that didn’t have the benefit of 18 overtime or shootout losses, providing a wealth of Bettman points, to help them make the playoffs.
This isn’t just a team that angers logic, it’s a team that sits next to logic in a movie theatre and making obnoxious fart noises during key plot points.
Goal differential is often good at predicting the records of sports teams, and it isn’t too far off with Florida here. After 81 games, scoring 199 goals and allowing 226 should net your team 35.4 victories. The Panthers have 37. They have accomplished this thanks to being 17-5-18 in games decided by a goal. 17-5-18. They manage to be on an 85-point pace in games decided by a goal and six games below .500 simultaneously. As far as “clear victories” go, games decided by two or more goals, empty-netters excluded, Florida are 13-18, 13th in the Eastern Conference and behind every team in the NHL save Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Columbus, the New York Islanders and Calgary.
Florida will make the NHL playoffs for the first time since 2000. Columbus and Minnesota hadn’t joined the NHL yet, and the New York Islanders would take a young goaltender named Rick DiPietro first in the Draft that spring. Sure, it’s an achievement because the team has been out of the hunt for forever, but this team still isn’t very good. If they were any good, they wouldn’t have had to rely on Bettman points and a disproportionate record in one-goal games allowing them to make the playoffs.
In my estimation, this is the worst team that will make the final sixteen since the lockout, surpassing the 2007 Tampa Bay Lightning.