After an off-season of change, many fans and pundits alike didn’t quite know what to make of the made-over Florida Panthers. Between the near-total overhaul of the defense corps, the restructuring of the bottom-six forwards and injuries to Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad, opening night of the 2016-17 NHL campaign saw the club dress 10 skaters who didn’t play in last year’s season opener.
Just a week before the puck dropped on the new season, a random sampling of Las Vegas sports books reflected the uncertainty caused by the Cats’ dramatic changes. Three casinos set the odds of Florida hoisting the 2017 Stanley Cup at 12 to 1, 14 to 1 and 20 to 1. Compared to the Dallas Stars’ odds of 10 to 1, 10 to 1 and 12 to 1 at those same establishments, Las Vegas seemed to have a wide range of opinions on the Panthers.
Five games into the new season isn’t a large enough sample size to make definitive statements about the Panthers’ postseason prospects. It is enough, however, to get a sense of where the team is, compared to both the Panthers of one year ago and the rest of the league today. Ten numbers tell the tale.
Florida Panthers: By the Numbers
- 9: Number of players (eight skaters plus goalie James Reimer) to make their Panthers debut this season.
- 54.72: Florida’s even-strength Corsi For percentage (CF%) through five games, good for 3rd in the NHL and a significant improvement over their 49.49 CF% over the same period last season. Puck possession was a weakness for the Panthers most of 2015-16, and the changes on the blue line were made with this in mind.
- 3.20: Goals per game. The 2015-16 Cats equaled that number through five games, but cooled off over the long season to finish 8th in the league, at 2.83 goals per game. Florida’s puck possession-driving defense and improved bottom six forwards should result in a scoring increase this season.
- 2.20: Goals Against Average (GAA). The Panthers were a top-ten team in this category last year (2.44 GAA, 7th in the NHL). Higher Corsi numbers generally mean fewer scoring chances for the opposition, however, so this number could potentially go even lower.
- 33.8: Shots on goal per game. At this point in the season, only the Ottawa Senators (34.0) are putting more pucks on net. Another by-product of the organizational drive to improve puck possession, this represents an increase of five shots per game over 2015-16 for Florida.
- 26.2: Shots against per game (5th in the league), compared to 29.5 last season (tied for 13th). If you’re just starting to grasp the importance of puck possession…you may still be ahead of a few NHL general managers.
- 90.9: Florida’s penalty kill percentage (PK%). The Panthers PK was a liability last season (79.5%, 24th), but the additions of Colton Sceviour, Jason Demers and Michael Matheson have helped considerably.
- 5 to 4: Florida’s shorthanded shots for and against. They’re the only team in the league outshooting opponents while down a man. Sceviour already has one goal and a ridiculously-high (and unsustainable) 75.00 CF% on the PK. Don’t expect the Panthers to out-shoot opponents while killing penalties all season long; it’s not going to happen. They’re quickly building a reputation as the most dangerous PK unit in the league, however. By doing so, Florida is forcing teams to think more defensively than they normally would when on the power play. This is a very good thing.
- 7th: The Panthers’ ranking in ESPN the Magazine’s Ultimate Standings, which measure the value of North American major pro sports franchises to their fans. Florida jumped 41 spots from last year to land in the top-10 as the number-three NHL club, behind Tampa Bay (1st) and Nashville (6th).
- 9.3: Percentage increase in attendance over last season, through the first four home games.
Optimism Justified in South Florida
Early returns are in: The Florida Panthers appear to be on the right track, both on and off the ice. Though the power play isn’t where they need it to be, the penalty kill is exceeding expectations. The Cats are currently one of the top puck possession teams in the NHL. New players aren’t merely “fitting in,” they’re thriving in the South Florida sun. For the first time in a very long time, the question isn’t, “will they make the playoffs,” it’s “how far will they go?”
Welcome to the big time, Panthers fans.