The Florida Panthers clearly had a disappointing season.
The Panthers went 24-26-10 under Tom Rowe, their now-fired interim head coach and general manager, before missing the postseason for the fourth time in the last six seasons and ending with a 35-36-11 record—good for sixth out of eight teams in the Atlantic.
Florida was mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture by March 30, when the Panthers fell 6-2 to the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins downed the Dallas Stars 2-0.
The underachievement in 2016-17 for last year’s Atlantic Division winners came on the heels of an 11-10-1 start that might have been better if it weren’t for many key players being injured early in this NHL campaign.
That performance led to the controversial firing of head coach Gerard Gallant and assistant Mike Kelly.
Since then, Gallant has been picked up by the expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
In hindsight, it’s hard to tell if either coach would have made a huge difference on this season. But one could argue that Florida panicked by cutting Gallant and Kelly loose at a time when the Panthers were decimated by injuries.
Among other reasons, part of why the Panthers missed the playoffs was Gallant and the team parting ways less than a year after he led Florida to its best season ever.
Other possible factors are the number of key players who were bitten by the injury bug and the amount of roster turnover in the 2016 offseason. Then there is the dumpster fire the Panthers’ front office situation has been as of late.
Shuffling the Upper Deck
Six years after becoming the Cats’ general manager, Dale Tallon got some help in January 2016 from Tom Rowe, who was named “associate” general manager.
Soon after, Tallon was “promoted” to president of hockey operations, while Rowe became GM. His assistants were Eric Joyce and Steve Werier. Scott Luce, the Panthers’ long-serving director of player personnel and former chief scout, was then dismissed.
From that point, Rowe served as Florida head coach after Gallant was let go. He spent 60 games behind the bench before being relieved of his GM duties and given an advisory role in the organization after the Panthers missed the playoffs, while Tallon returned to the GM chair.
Those moves followed the team’s lackluster season in 2016-17, however.
While he was interim head coach, Rowe left most of the GM work to Joyce and Werier.
Tallon and his team were brought on before Vincent Viola and Doug Cifu took charge of Sunrise Sports and Entertainment, the Panthers’ parent company, in 2013. But the patronage appointments Viola made by adding Cifu, Weirer, Joyce, Brian MacDonald in analytics and Matthew Caldwell as president and chief executive officer are questionable, given their common connections to West Point.
Gallant out in FLA. Must be the way they do it at West Point.
— Larry Brooks (@NYP_Brooksie) November 28, 2016
It’s the shuffling of Tallon, Gallant and Rowe from their respective roles that may have had a bigger impact on the players, though. It doesn’t send the right message to the group expected to perform on the ice night in and night out when it isn’t clear who is in charge.
Then again, the revolving door of coaches and GMs in Florida before this amount of front office turnover didn’t likely help the Panthers either.
The Injury Bug
While no team is immune to injuries, the Panthers ended up losing 216 total man-games to players who were hurt in 2016-17.
Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad, Aaron Ekblad, Alex Petrovic, Roberto Luongo and James Reimer were all sidelined with injuries this season.
In most cases, calling up players from the Springfield Thunderbirds of the American Hockey League only does so much to help a team stay competitive, especially when so many key regulars are out of the lineup and for so long.
Not only did the excessive number of offseason changes likely disrupt a lot of the Panthers’ chemistry (more on that later), but with this much instability in the lineup during the regular season, it becomes even harder for players to gel and complement one another with their skill sets.
With Luongo and Reimer each sitting out at one time or another, it also would have been more difficult for the Panthers to have a decent chance to win in every game when their goaltending situation was rarely ever the same.
The Coaching Change
Gallant led the Panthers to their best season on record in 2015-16 and was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for coach of the year before he and Kelly were cut loose in late November.
Gallant was one of only four coaches in franchise history to earn a playoff berth with Florida. The others are Kevin Dineen, Terry Murray, and Doug MacLean.
Rowe stepped behind the bench as a rookie NHL coach after Gallant and Kelly were canned. A difference in opinion between Gallant’s old-school mentality and the Panthers’ new focus on advanced stats was cited as one of the reasons for the firing.
Although the team’s underwhelming record—which was worsened by injuries—likely didn’t help the case for keeping Gallant around, he and the Panthers’ management group didn’t appear to be on the same page in terms of analytics.
While there’s a place for advanced stats in hockey, perhaps they shouldn’t be at the forefront of every decision made. Some things analytics can’t measure are a player’s level of talent, work ethic, heart and will to win.
Things like puck possession and shots for and against also don’t mean much if a team doesn’t manage to score.
The #FlaPanthers are a mess. Owners letting analytics hounds take over and run the show. Panic move firing the coach. Laughable. (1/2)
— Mike Harrington (@ByMHarrington) November 28, 2016
Many teams that have had success in the past, such as the Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings, didn’t have owners who meddled in the team’s day-to-day operations. Perhaps the Panthers’ 2016-17 season was an example of Viola overstepping his boundaries.
Then there are the players having to adopt a whole new system and style of play mid-season after being used to the one Gallant had them using before his controversial firing. Having to adjust in such a way was likely part of the problem as well.
During the summer of 2016, the Panthers sent Dmitry Kulikov to the Buffalo Sabres for Mark Pysyk and picks before swapping Lawson Crouse and Dave Bolland with the Arizona Coyotes for draft picks.
Florida also lost Brian Campbell, Al Montoya, Teddy Purcell and Jiri Hudler, among other players, to free agency. The Panthers signed Reimer, Colton Sceviour, Jonathan Marchessault and Jason Demers to somewhat long-term contracts.
In addition, the team traded for aging defenseman Keith Yandle in the offseason and then signed him to a long-term deal.
That’s a fair bit of turnover for a team that looked to have so much promise only a few months earlier, when the Panthers made the playoffs but lost to the New York Islanders in the first round.
Adding so many new faces to the fold might have disrupted a fair bit of the chemistry the Panthers had developed in the 2015-16 campaign.
The latest NHL season would already have been well underway by the time the new players and previous ones meshed and got accustomed to Gallant’s system, only to have to learn a new one when Rowe took the reins.
That mistake, and several others, aren’t worth repeating if the Panthers want to return to the postseason in 2018.