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Cullen: Panthers needed patience, reasonable expectations

Scott Cullen
11/8/2013 5:24:40 PM
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It really didn't come as a surprise that the Florida Panthers fired head coach Kevin Dineen Friday, but it's not like a change in the coaching staff is going to magically cure what ails this team.

Any time a team fails to meet expectations, coaches end up on the chopping block, but that leads to the question: why would there have been expectations put upon the Florida Panthers for the 2013-2014 season?

Go back to the 2011-2012 season, when the Panthers won the Southeast Division, with 94 points in 82 games, despite recording 32 regulation and overtime wins, a total that tied non-playoff teams Buffalo, Carolina (who finished last in the Southeast Division) and Colorado for 20th in the league. The Panthers also had a minus-24 goal differential, so anything beyond the point total in the standings suggested they were not really a playoff-calibre team. Consider them a prime example of a team not being what it's record is.

Then the Panthers proceeded to lose in double-overtime of Game Seven (after losing in overtime in Game Six) in the first round of the playoffs against the eventual Eastern-Conference-Champion New Jersey Devils, making it easy to sell the idea that the Panthers were "this close" to competing with the top teams in the league.

It needs to be noted, however, that the Panthers overachieved in 2011-2012, to even generate mediocre results disguised as playoff-worthy. Florida needed to spend a lot of money in the summer of the 2011 season just to get above the salary floor and, as a result, cobbled together a make-shift roster, handing out some contracts that had surprisingly long-term implications.

Sure, Florida signed Tomas Fleischmann (four years, $18-million), and he scored a career-high 61 points in 2011-2012, and has generally been a productive scorer since.

C Marcel Goc (three years, $5.19-million) has been okay and G Jose Theodore (two years, $3-million) was a low-risk move, but the Panthers also inked RW Scottie Upshall (four years, $14-million), D Ed Jovanovski (four years, $16.5-million) and LW Sean Bergenheim (four years, $11-million), none of whom has provided a decent return on investment. (Injuries have admittedly played a part in their lack of production.)

The Panthers also dipped into GM Dale Tallon's past and traded for some former Chicago Blackhawks: D Brian Campbell, RW Kris Versteeg and RW Tomas Kopecky.

That roster didn't have any business harbouring playoff expectations yet, with Dineen taking over for Peter DeBoer behind the bench, the Panthers defied the odds and reached the postseason, thanks in large part to Fleischmann, Versteeg and Stephen Weiss, their top line that combined for 70 goals and 172 points. Campbell added 53 points while playing nearly 27 minutes per game. That quartet made up the entire list of Florida Panthers to record more than 33 points that season, so there wasn't a lot coming from the supporting cast.

The 2013 season brought much worse results, particularly when injuries limited Weiss and Versteeg to a total of 27 games and the goaltending went from decent, ranking 11th with a .914 save percentage, to a league-worst .887 save percentage in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.

Those injuries, and subpar goaltending, over a small-sample season may have been what led Tallon to still harbour expectations for this team coming into the 2013-2014 season. Or maybe it's because there is a new owner calling the shots that the Panthers couldn't simply see the 2013-2014 season as one for development of their young talent.

After all, the Panthers have added some promising young players including LW Jonathan Huberdeau, C Aleksander Barkov and C Nick Bjugstad, who are all playing significant minutes. D Erik Gudbranson, the third overall pick in 2010, and D Dmitry Kulikov, the 14th pick in 2009 are still works in progress, but young enough to be part of what the Panthers are trying to build. G Jacob Markstrom is supposed to be the goaltender of the future, even if the 23-year-old has struggled this year.

Forwards Vincent Trocheck and Drew Shore and defencemen Alex Petrovic and Colby Robak have been in the AHL, playing for new head coach Peter Horacheck. Trocheck, who has 11 points in 11 games as a first-year pro and nearly made the Panthers out of training camp, could get his opportunity soon.

In the summer of 2013, the Panthers didn't spend big money, but brought in a lot of veterans on low-money deals.

Defencemen Tom Gilbert has been a bargain as a top-four defenceman while Matt Gilroy and checking forward Jesse Winchester have been decent. Veteran forwards Brad Boyes and Scott Gomez along with blueliner Ryan Whitney have not been effective and goaltender Tim Thomas hasn't been able to stay healthy in his attempt to return to action after a year off. As a result, the Panthers have the league's 28th-ranked goal differential (minus-1.36 per game), ahead of only the Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres.

Unfortunately, the goaltending hasn't gotten any better this season, ranking 28th with an .885 save percentage, and no team can win with goaltending of that calibre, let alone a team that isn't scoring at the other end of the ice and the Panthers rank 29th in 5-on-5 shooting percentage when the score is close.

The good news, according to the probabilities of advanced stats, is that the Panthers aren't likely to maintain such terrible shooting and save percentages all season, so they are due to get some better results; a little "puck luck" as it were. Of course, being better than their current 3-9-4 record doesn't mean all that much.

When those young players start to control play more consistently and the Panthers start getting adequate goaltending, they may turn the corner, but that's going to require patience and the expectations placed on this team don't necessarily allow for patience.

Trouble is, when a general manager makes moves that appear to reveal a lack of patience, it's fair to start wondering if the next one on the chopping block will be the GM.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.



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