Panthers Early Woes May Wreck Playoff Chances

The Florida Panthers managed to claw their way back against the Philadelphia Flyers Tuesday night after going down 5-2 in the second period. Though they were ultimately defeated in the shootout, the point they earned was much needed.

After consecutively surrendering third period leads to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Vancouver Canucks in the prior three games, the Panthers find themselves 0-2-2 to start the season. While the manner in which the losses came matters significantly, four games is hardly much to read into. However, this small sample size appears to follow an unsettling pattern for the Panthers.

Slow starts have plagued the franchise over the last several years. Just last season, it took the Panthers until December to get any momentum going. After that point, the Panthers became one of the best teams in the league for the second half of the season. Sun Sentinel contact reporter Wells Dusenbury notes that “… the Panthers put together a scintillating second half, finishing 25-8-2 for a league-best 52 points after the All Star Break” (from ‘Panthers Open Training Camp With High Expectations After Strong Finish, Sun Sentinel – 10/19/18.).

Unfortunately, the strong finish was undone by the lackluster start, and the deficit was too much to overcome. The Panthers missed the playoffs for the second straight year, and the sixth time in eight seasons.

Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov
Derailed by a poor start to the 2017-18 season, the Florida Panthers missed the postseason yet again despite a white hot second half finish. (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

Admittedly, the Panthers have not had what you would call a stable franchise over the last few seasons, owing in part to the slow starts. But the team is a full season removed from the turmoil and had a full season to learn and practice the systems. Theoretically, after missing the postseason by a single point last year, this team should be a strong playoff contender this season.

For the Panthers to reach the postseason, though, they cannot let history repeat itself. With the talent on this roster, the team risks ruining another hopeful season in the first couple of months. Add in the fact that their division is stronger than it has been in years, the Panthers are more desperate for a strong start.

Four games are too little to hold much water in extrapolating the future. But there are a lot of signs to indicate that the Panthers are in danger of posting another mediocre start this year. For this season especially, that could be a death sentence.

A History of Slow Starts

It is not news that the Panthers had a terrible start to the season last year. In the first two months, (October and November), the Panthers lugged their way to a pedestrian 10-10-2 record for 22 points and a point percentage (P%) of .500. In October specifically, they only managed a 4-6-1 record.

Aaron Ekblad Panthers
The Panthers managed just a 10-10-2 record in the first quarter of last season, well short of the pace needed to stay close to the playoff picture. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Statistically, having a P% hovering around .500 over the course of the season does not result in that team making the postseason. Over the last several seasons, playoff teams have averaged .647 P%, with the two Wild Card holders in the upper .500 P%’s.

Therefore, starting the season at .500 instantly forced the Panthers to play catch-up, and as we saw, their ferocious finish could not make up the difference. For comparison, take a look at the early season paces of two playoff teams from last year that helped knock the Panthers out of playoff contention.

Interstate rival Tampa Bay Lightning’s same line last season in October and November was 17-6-2 for 36 points and a .694 P%. They went on to win not only the division, but the Eastern Conference’s top seed as well. Keeping in mind that the Lightning plateaued a bit in the middle of the season behind goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy – this hot start was instrumental for the Lightning.

The New Jersey Devils, meanwhile, posted a 14-7-4 record for 32 points and a .640 P% in that span. They went on to earn their spot in the playoffs with the final Wild Card berth in the East by one point. It was the position that the Panthers had fought to steal.

Take into account that the Panthers had one of the best point percentages in the league in the second half last season, while the Devils had a solid but unspectacular finish themselves. So what we have here is one team that started poor and finished strong, and another that started hot and finished decently. Well, the latter team made the playoffs, and the former did not.

Drew Stafford Devils
The New Jersey Devils started last season on fire, helping them earn the last playoff position and ending the Panthers chances. (Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports)

Sluggish starts are no strangers to the Panthers, either. Looking back over the last five seasons, the Panthers have demonstrated a consistent inability to put up points early in the season, particularly in the first two months. Their records, points, and points percentage (P%) are as follows:

  • 2017-18: 10-10-2, 22 points, .500 P%
  • 2016-17: 11-10-2, 24 points, .521 P%
  • 2015-16: 10-9-4, 24 points, .521 P%
  • 2014-15: 9-6-6, 24 points, .571 P%
  • 2013-14: 15-20-6, 36 points, .439 P%

The Cats missed the postseason in all but one of those seasons. In the one season, they did reach the playoffs, 2015-16, they did so off the back of an incredible 12-game win streak during December and January. In that streak, the Panthers doubled their point total (24) in half of the games it took them to accrue in all of October and November. A streak like that, especially from a non-Stanley Cup favorite, is extremely rare.

Recently, it seems as though December is when the Panthers shake off the rust. Their P% in December over the last five seasons was .607, .533, .786, .607, and .607. These are markedly better than the P% in October and November, and had they achieved those totals in those months as well, you may have seen more playoff appearances from the Panthers.

You may not be able to win your season in the first two months, but the Panthers have proven capable of losing it.

In Danger of Falling Behind Division Rivals

Once a privilege to play in the Atlantic Division due to the fact it housed few great teams and a host of average clubs, this division is not so today. The Atlantic division currently consists of two Stanley Cup favorites, an elite dark horse Cup candidate, and a couple of legitimate playoff threats, with three “mediocre at best” clubs thrown in. That composition is much more threatening to the Panthers’ playoff chances than it has been this decade.

Florida Panthers center Jonathan Huberdeau
The Atlantic division is a powerhouse in 2018-19, with several teams being heralded as playoff contenders and Stanley Cup favorites.(Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports)

The Lighting are a juggernaut in 2018-19. With elite scorers Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov, perennial Norris Trophy candidate Victor Hedman, and one of the best young goalies in the league in Vasilevskiy, this team is loaded. Go further down the lines and it is hard to find a weakness on this roster. In 2018-19 so far, they own a 4-1-0 record, with one win coming over the Panthers.

The Toronto Maple Leafs were already a dark horse Cup contender last season. Offensively dynamic and littered with elite talent, Toronto looked poised to make their way into the Stanley Cup favorites category sooner rather than later. During the offseason, this timetable got sped up seven-fold when they signed one of the best centers in the game, John Tavares.

So far in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs are lighting the league up. Four players are over 10 points in eight games. Auston Matthews is on pace for nearly 200 points, and the team is leading the league with a 6-2-0 record. Defense and goaltending concerns persist, but when you are scoring almost five goals a game, that may not matter much.

The Boston Bruins boast one of the best lines in all of hockey, with a prospect pipeline that is inexplicably flush with talent. Though the veterans are aging quickly, this team is still deadly this season. They currently hold a 4-2-1 record.

Finally, the Buffalo Sabres have fought their way to early relevance after a mini roster overhaul, acquiring a new generational talent, and naming a new captain. The optimism so far has not disappointed, as the Sabres enjoyed a 3-2-0 record to start the season, the best start since 2013. Obviously, this team is far from perfect, and they now sit at a 3-4-0 record. It will be a grind for them to sneak into the playoff picture. But no longer are they a throwaway game for the Panthers.

Sabres defenseman Rasmus Dahlin
Rasmus Dahlin is one of several pieces the Buffalo Sabres acquired for this season, helping to turn the disheartened franchise around. (Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports)

The Atlantic Division is a talented division this season, and though a few irrelevant teams exist for the Panthers to jump on, there are some lethal teams that the Panthers will have to climb over to get into the postseason.

Playoff Rules for Thumb

There is no perfect rule for predicting playoff teams. A long win streak or lengthy blunder can change the playoff landscape at any point. But two commonly supported rules exist that predicates the chances of a team getting to postseason play.

The first rule is the Thanksgiving cutoff. Sports reporter Kevin McGran from The Star alludes to this rule when he writes “typically, 13 of the 16 teams in playoff spots on American Thanksgiving… go on to play in the post-season” (from ‘U.S. Thanksgiving Contenders Rarely NHL Playoff Leapt-Overs’, The Star – 11/22/17.). That means that 81% of the time, a team that occupies a playoff spot in the final week of November goes on to make the playoffs.

With the Panthers continually botching their season starts, they have failed to occupy a playoff position on Thanksgiving Day for years. According to this rule, that means the Panthers have had a mere 19% chance of making the playoffs after November. Not exactly the odds you want against you just two months into the season.

Panthers defenseman Mike Matheson
The Panthers were well outside a playoff position Thanksgiving Day last season and were unable to claim a position by the end of the season, supporting the Thanksgiving cutoff rule.(Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports)

The second rule is the 95-point rule. This rule states that a team that can reach 95 total points will make it to the playoffs, and those that fail to hit that mark miss the postseason.

Ironically enough, the Panthers broke this rule last year by missing the playoffs with 96 points. And there have been other exceptions as well. But more often than not, 95 points has shown to be the cutoff between playoff and non-playoff teams.

Over the last three seasons, the Panthers have averaged 24 points in about 23 games. Put differently, they earn 24 points out of a max 46 points in the first two months of the season.

This leaves 59 games to accrue 71 points. That pace would put them at a .601 P% average over the remainder of the season. Though manageable, it is a difficult task to win 60% of games over the remaining three-fourths of the season. And most importantly, as proven last season, even that does not guarantee a playoff berth every year.

Panthers Need to Stop the Bleeding

Quite frankly, the Panthers cannot afford yet another middling pace early this season. It cost them a playoff spot last year, has cost them potential berths in previous seasons, and is on track to do it yet again this season. Relying on another late-season run like last year is not only risky, it is unrealistic to replicate. The Panthers need to get the ball rolling immediately and stop the bleeding.

Keith Yandle, Florida Panthers
The Panthers need to get the ball rolling this season for a realistic shot at the playoffs. (Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports)

The Maple Leafs and Bruins are pulling away from the Cats, with the Lightning close behind. Add in that the Ottawa Senators are astoundingly 3-2-1 and the Sabres have won three games themselves, the Panthers are already chasing a handful of divisional teams.

Fortunately, there is plenty of time for the Cats to rebound. With 78 games remaining, the team has nearly a full season left to play. Their roster is plenty talented, and we saw last year how good this club can be. At the very least, this team can be expected to be fighting for a playoff spot until the last game of the regular season.

But before that, they need to get their first win, and get it soon.