A Lack Of Capable Goaltending Is Keeping The Panthers Out Of The Playoff Picture
The Florida Panthers are clearly not where they wanted to be at this point in the 2018-19 season. After a miracle run post-2017-18 all star break that saw them finish in a tie for the most points in a season while missing the playoffs, the Panthers went out and added elite sniper Mike Hoffman, KHL all-star defenseman Bogdan Kiselevich, and took out an insurance policy on Roberto Luongo by adding AHL standout Michael Hutchinson (who has since been traded to Toronto for a fifth-round draft pick in 2020), all without losing a single roster player or first-round draft pick. They also passed the Captain’s ‘C’ down from Derek MacKenzie to Aleksander Barkov, a symbolic gesture that seemed to indicate that everything was headed in the right direction. So what happened? If the Panthers did so much that should reasonably push them over the edge and make them a solid playoff team, then why do they currently sit in 5th place in the Atlantic Division and 12th place in the Eastern Conference, 10 points out of a playoff spot, and at a beyond disappointing 82-point pace on the season? What has been happening on the ice that has been keeping the Florida Panthers closer to a lottery pick than a playoff spot?
A quick look at the standings shows that the Panthers have found the back of their opponents’ net 152 times this season, putting them right in the middle of the league. However, it is their power play that has really kept that number afloat. During 5-on-5 hockey, the Panthers struggle to generate any meaningful offense. Now, one might see that the Panthers are among the league leaders in shots on goal, putting the puck on net at a rate only surpassed by five other teams, but the Panthers are 17th in the league in shot attempts per 60 minutes, 26th in the league in scoring chances per 60 minutes, and 29th in high-danger shot attempts per 60 minutes. Panthers’ opponents have largely been doing a very good job of keeping the Panthers offense to the perimeter. According to Micah Blake McCurdy’s (@IneffectiveMath; hockeyviz.com) shot location heatmaps, the only spot in the offensive zone from which the Panthers have been consistently successful at generating shots is the top of the right circle (Figure 1 below); a favorite of the aforementioned Hoffman. Other than that, the Panthers have failed to maintain any presence in high-scoring areas. They struggle to get to and stay in the slot, with the most unoccupied area of their 5-on-5 offense being right in front of the net. Unsurprisingly, that exact area tends to be relatively predictive of goals and is, generally, very heavily populated amongst the most successful teams in the league. Expect the Panthers to continue struggling on offense until they figure out how to properly crash the net.
Surprisingly, the Panthers defense has actually not been as bad as the standings might suggest. They sit top-half in the league in nearly every major metric except for two, one of which, when combined with their sub par goaltending, begets the other. Just as the Panthers struggle to maintain presence in the low slot area on offense, they also struggle to keep their own slot clear (Figure 2 below). As a result, the Panthers find themselves ranked 18th in high-danger shot attempts against per 60 minutes and a horrid 29th in the league in 5-on-5 goals against per 60 minutes. High-danger attempts aside though, on the whole, the Panthers defense is keeping shot attempts down, with the 10th-best shot attempts against per 60 minutes in the league. One interesting discrepancy in the numbers is that, despite their poor performance at preventing high-danger shot attempts, the Panthers have logged the sixth best scoring chances against per 60 minutes in the league. There is a very strong correlation between high-danger shot attempts and scoring chances (R=0.9091 in the last five full seasons), so it is rare to see a team succeed in one and struggle in the other in the way that the Panthers currently are. This seems to be a mix of their defensive system and shaky goaltending. The Panthers generally do a good job of preventing the initial shot attempt or scoring chance, but the attempts they do allow tend to either be from the low slot, create a rebound or other second-chance opportunity, or go in. Overall, the Florida defense has been doing its job, with the exception of an inability to clear the crease or control rebounds, but it is not the reason that the Panthers have struggled to such a degree this season.
Now here is what I believe to be the crux of the Panthers’ position in the standings. I am not usually one to blame goaltending for a team’s problems, but it is not exactly unfair in the Panthers’ case. The season started with Roberto Luongo sustaining an injury in the first game of the season. The Panthers were beating the Tampa Bay Lightning at the time, but they would go on to lose that game in a shootout. Not that it was back-up goalie James Reimer’s fault, per se, but it certainly set the tone for team goaltending in the first half. Reimer, who started in the wake of Luongo’s injury, has recorded a save percentage of .897 and -7.6 goals saved above average. Luongo, since his return, has almost the exact same statline as Reimer, with a .896 save percentage and -7.73 goals saved above average. Among the 45 goalies with at least 1000 minutes on the ice this season, they rank 36th and 38th in save percentage and 35th and 36th in goals saved above average, respectively. Their high-danger save percentages, which is often the best indicator of actual performance, are also far below acceptable levels. Among the same sample of goalies, Reimer and Luongo rank 39th and 41st in that stat, respectively. This is clearly not indicative of the defensive performance in front of them, as the Panthers’ defensive metrics have been mostly in the top-half of the league to this point in the season. However those efforts have been rewarded with the 30th-ranked 5-on-5 team save percentage in the league, which is responsible for their 29th-ranked goals against per 60 minutes, more so than defensive pitfalls.
Let’s start with the fun part. The Panthers power play has been very effective this year, especially since Hoffman took Vincent Trocheck’s spot on the top unit. The Panthers have converted on 26.8% of their opportunities with the man-advantage, which is good for third in the league. In addition to drawing penalties at the fourth-best rate in the league, the Panthers’ shot metrics relative to the league all see reasonable improvements on the power play. They generate shot attempts at the eighth-best rate in the league at 5-on-4, up from 17th in the league at 5-on-5. Unblocked shot attempts improve from 12th at 5-on-5 to seventh at 5-on-4. Scoring chances and high-danger shot attempts improve from 26th to 14th and 29th to 22nd as well. Couple that with team shooting percentage improving from 26th in the league at 5-on-5 with a 7.11%, to more than double that, at 5-on-4 with a 15.97%, good for eighth in the league, and you have yourself a top-five power play.
The Panthers’ penalty kill, though top-half in the league, cannot quite boast the same success rate as the power play. Despite taking the sixth-fewest penalties in the league and having generally great shot suppression metrics while short a man, the Panthers’ penalty kill ranks 14th in the league, successfully killing off 80.6% of power plays faced. Despite their troubles protecting their own crease at 5-on-5, the Panthers actually do a solid job of just that when they are at 4-on-5 (Figure 3 below). In fact, there are not many spots in their zone from which they are threatened while on the penalty kill, save for the top of the left (from the offense’s perspective) circle, a favorite of players like Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos. However, despite being top-10 in the league in nearly every major shot suppression metric, including improving their high-danger shot attempts against per 60 minutes from 26th in the league at 5-on-5 to fifth in the league at 4-on-5, the Panthers’ penalty kill is once again forsaken by goaltending. While certainly not as bad as their 30th-ranked team save percentage at 5-on-5, the Panthers’ goaltenders have combined for the 18th-ranked team save percentage of .860 at 4-on-5, which brings what should be a top-10 penalty kill down to just inside the top half of the league.
The Florida Panthers season has not gone as most would have expected to this point. They are five points closer to last place than they are to a playoff spot, despite having arguably the best roster ever assembled in Sunrise to start the season. Things are looking up, as the Panthers are heading into the all-star break on a three-game winning streak, highlighted by Vincent Trocheck’s four points in those three games since returning from a lower-body injury that he sustained in Ottawa back in November. But they still have a long way to go if they plan on recovering this season. The on-ice product has not been quite as advertised, with what seems like a systems-based problem getting to the crease both offensively and defensively, and shoddy goaltending has not helped them when they have needed the big saves. Special teams are definitely the high point of the team’s play, but that will not always save a team that cannot perform at 5-on-5, where most of the game is played. A miracle run similar to last year is not impossible, as last year’s also coincided with a key player returning from an injury, but if this team hopes to be playing hockey in April and beyond, then they need to work on crashing and protecting the net and the goalies need to reward the team for their defensive efforts.
Follow me on Twitter @PTPJacob and @PTPHockey
Statistics provided by naturalstattrick.com
Shot location heatmaps provided by hockeyviz.com
featured image photo credit – Nikos Michals