The Florida Panthers finished the 2018-19 National Hockey League season with 86 points, failing to improve on their 96-point campaign of 2017-18 and missing the playoffs for the third straight year. However, there were a few bright spots to speak of.
Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers both set career highs for goals, assists, and points in a single season. Barkov’s 96 points also set a new franchise high for the Panthers, as he and Huberdeau became the first pair of Panthers teammates to record at least 90 points in a season. Keith Yandle also set a record for most points by a defenseman in Panthers history. Newcomer Mike Hoffman also set personal bests in goals and points.
The Panthers’ power play ranked second in the league, behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning, converting on 26.8% of their opportunities with the man-advantage. At that cursory glance, it may appear that the Florida Panthers had a very strong offensive season, and it would become easy to blame this season on problems emanating from their own end of the ice.
As a result, many Panthers fans have dismissed the plethora of rumors linking the Panthers to pending Unrestricted Free Agent Artemi Panarin, claiming that the team should focus its resources on improving defense and goaltending, rather than its offense. However, dig a little bit deeper and it becomes clear that the Panthers were not as strong a team offensively as the raw goals and points stats may suggest, and that a top-end winger like Artemi Panarin would provide some much-needed improvement to areas of attack in which the Panthers tended to struggle.
Offence Not As It Seems
The Panthers scored 264 goals during the 2018-19 season, the ninth-most of any team in the league, but it is important to break down where those goals came from.
Of those 264 goals, only 162 of them came during 5-on-5 hockey. By percentage of total goals scored at 5-on-5, the Panthers’ 61.36% was the third-lowest mark in the NHL. Additionally, the Panthers’ 2.45 goals for per sixty minutes at 5-on-5 ranked as just the 16th-best in the league and their expected goals for per sixty minutes was even worse, at 2.32 and ranked 22nd.
As one might expect, the Panthers’ middling-at-best goal scoring at 5-on-5 is rooted in their inability to generate and sustain time and pressure in the offensive zone. On a per sixty minutes basis at 5-on-5, the Panthers ranked 21st in the league in shot attempts, 15th in unblocked shot attempts, 16th in shots on goal, 27th in scoring chances, and 28th in high-danger shot attempts (Table 1).
Almost every team that qualified for the 2019 post-season ranked among the top-half of the league in most of these statistics, as well as expected goals for, and every playoff team (except Winnipeg) had at least one top-10 ranking (Table 2).
Considering how the playoff teams stack up to the rest of the league, and that just over 80% of all minutes played were at 5-on-5 in the 2018-19 season, the Panthers’ performance at 5-on-5 left a lot to be desired. Having a strong power play is obviously an important part of the game, but problems arise when a team’s offense essentially relies on their opponents breaking the rules.
Artemi Panarin The Missing Piece?
So how does Panarin fit into the Florida Panthers’ plans? To put it simply, Panarin is good at everything that the Panthers are not. Consider for a moment that there are 93 “top-line caliber” forwards in the NHL and that ranking in the top-31 of any given statistic would make a player one of the best in the league in that stat.
Per sixty minutes at 5-on-5, Panarin ranked 40th in shot attempts for, 19th in unblocked shot attempts, 23rd in shots on goal and scoring chances, 100th in high-danger shot attempts, and 25th in expected goals for. Note that Panarin is only below the “top-line” demarcation in one of those statistics and he is within the top-31 in four of the six.(Table 3).
Moreover, not a single Panthers player outranks Panarin in any one of those statistics. Panarin also had the 23rd-best goals above replacement in the league, beaten only by Panthers captain Aleksander Barkov. Panarin’s impact on his teammates is demonstrably impressive as well (Figures 1, 2).
Panarin most commonly shared the ice with Columbus Blue Jackets linemates Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson. In the 749:30 that the three of them were together, their possession numbers were remarkable, posting a 55.06% shot attempts for. In the 134 minutes that Dubois and Atkinson spent away from Panarin, their possession numbers were equally remarkable, but on the opposite side of the scale, posting a mere 36.33% shot attempts for.
Meanwhile, in that time that Panarin spent with other linemates, he still maintained a 53.33% shot attempts for. This trend is representative across all the other major possession percentages as well (Table 4).
One would think that a team like the Panthers, who struggled offensively during the game’s most common situation, would be very interested in adding a forward who consistently and vastly improves his team’s play for nothing but salary cap space.
This is not to say that Panarin will play in a Panthers sweater for the next five to seven years, but more so to dispel the narrative that the Panthers do not need to pursue him when free agency opens up and present the case for why he should be a priority on July 1st.
Panarin is one of the best forwards in the NHL and there are no two ways about it. The Panthers may appear to have had a strong offensive season, but they were very much propped up by a strong power play and a few very good shooters, which is not a sustainable model for success.
Panarin would provide some much-needed assistance to the Panthers’ ability to generate and sustain offense, as well as push another forward down the depth chart, which, in addition to some of their more highly anticipated prospects, would also give the Panthers a bit more depth for Panarin’s tenure in Sunrise if they were to sign him.
The Panthers have plenty of work to do from a personnel standpoint up and down the whole roster (defense and goaltending included) if they want to create a consistent contender, but to claim that the Panthers should not pursue Panarin given the chance is dangerously shortsighted.
Panthers fans should expect the team to be heavily engaged in pursuing Panarin on July 1st and will, hopefully, welcome him with open arms if he does find his way down to Sunrise.
All statistics from naturalstattrick.com and evolving-hockey.com
Shot location heatmaps from hockeyviz.com
Featured Image Photo Credit: Nikos Michals