By this point, it’s no secret that one of, if not the most, effective ways to become a successful team in the NHL is by rebuilding from the ground up.
When taking a look at Stanley Cup championship teams over the past few seasons, there’s a common theme: most of these teams had recently been terrible, accumulated a swath of high draft picks because of their spots at the bottom of the standings, and built their rosters around these players.
It’s a formula that worked for the Pittsburgh Penguins (Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin), the Chicago Blackhawks (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane), and the Los Angeles Kings (Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar). It’s also the reason why there is no shortage of talk already about draft-eligible Ontario Hockey League wunderkind Connor McDavid.
The Florida Panthers currently find themselves in a similar situation, albeit not by their own will and accord. The team has been an Eastern Conference whipping boy for a long time, with their playoff appearance in the 2011-2012 season a surprise exception. No team wants to be abjectly terrible, but in theory the Panthers have actually benefited from these bad seasons, in a way, by collecting and retaining a surplus of high draft picks.
The problem, however, is that the success that these young players had in junior and European leagues, success that led to them being such high draft picks, is not translating into NHL success right now.
The Panthers are currently sitting 13th in the Eastern Conference with a respectable enough record of 4-4-4, but what little triumph the team has had so far can’t be attributed to their elite young prospects. The trio of Brad Boyes, Scottie Upshall and Jussi Jokinen, a collection of NHL journeymen on the wrong side of 30, have been supplying the majority of the offense, while 35 year-old Roberto Luongo has been a lifesaving anchor in net with a steadying .925 save percentage.
On the other end of the spectrum, players like Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad have been struggling to carry their fair share of the weight.
Huberdeau, who was selected 3rd overall in 2011, started his career off well enough, potting 31 points in 48 games during the lockout-shortened 2013 season and taking home the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year. The much-maligned Sophomore Slump got the better of him last year, though, as his totals dropped to only 28 points in 69 games. That trend seems to be continuing this year, as Huberdeau has only recorded one goal and one assists throughout nine games.
Barkov, taken 2nd overall in 2013 ahead of players like Jonathan Drouin, Seth Jones, Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan and Valeri Nichushkin, had a slow rookie season, scoring 24 points in 54 games. He’s been practically invisible this year, with only one goal and no assists in 10 games, despite averaging 17 minutes of ice time per night, with 2:38 of that coming on the powerplay.
Bjugstad, the 19th overall pick in 2010, actually led the Panthers in scoring last season, with 38 points in 76 games (which was, for the record, the lowest team-leading total in the league). He’s fallen back so far this season, with three points in 12 games.
Erik Gudbranson (3rd overall in 2010)? He’s playing on the team’s third pairing. Dmitri Kulikov (14th overall in 2009)? He’s averaging over 20 minutes of ice time and is putting up solid possession numbers, but only has four assists to show for it. Quinton Howden (25th overall in 2010)? He’s struggled to stay in the Panthers lineup since he turned pro, and hasn’t been particularly dangerous in the AHL.
The sparkling exception to this trend, however, is 18 year-old Aaron Ekblad, who was taken 1st overall this past June. A defenseman years beyond his age in terms of both body and mind, Ekblad is averaging 21:45 per game already and that number is only going up, and he has six points for his trouble.
What are the root causes of this problem? First, the team hasn’t exactly had the best group of veteran players acting as mentors. With all due respect to Brad Boyes, your forward group has some problems if he’s the best player out of the bunch. Adding Jokinen, Willie Mitchell and Dave Bolland this summer helps, but it’s not enough. Secondly, Florida’s well-known attendance woes (worst in the league) have to be playing a role. Younger players are more emotional than their grizzled older counterparts, and can either be helped or harmed by the energy from their home crowds. All it takes is watching a young player like Brendan Gallagher, clearly propelled by the raucous fans at the Bell Centre, to illustrate this point:
To be fair, the Panthers aren’t the only struggling rebuilding team in the NHL over the last few seasons (the Oilers and the Islanders certainly join them in this special club), but they’re the team with the most individual players playing below expectations. It’s an issue that will need to be rectified if the team is to take that next step and make all of their failures over the last decade worth the trouble.