Panthers in the Playoffs?

After winning the Atlantic Division and finishing with their best season on record last year, the Florida Panthers look to have taken a huge step back.

With 73 points, the Panthers (31-29-11) are currently eight points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second Eastern Conference wild-card playoff spot. As of Tuesday, Florida is sixth out of eight teams in the Atlantic and 3-6-1 in its last 10 games at a time when most higher-ranked squads have been playing hotter.

At this point, it’s unclear if the Panthers will make the postseason for the second consecutive year. Several key players such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Roberto Luongo have been bitten by the injury bug at one time or another this season.

Gerard Gallant, the coach who led the Panthers to their strong finish in 2015-16, was also fired in November after an 11-10-1 start and replaced by general manager Tom Rowe, who has gone 20-19-10 since then.

As well, the team that lost to the New York Islanders in the first round of the 2016 playoffs saw lots of turnover during the last offseason that may have affected the decent chemistry the Panthers enjoyed before that.

Florida’s Chances of Making the Playoffs

With 11 games remaining in the NHL regular season, the Panthers would have to win all of them just to finish with 85 points. The lowest point total for a playoff-bound team last year was 87 for the Minnesota Wild, who earned the second Western Conference wild-card seed.

William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs
The Panthers trail the Toronto Maple Leafs by eight points in the Eastern Conference wild-card race. (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

To date, the Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks have all punched their tickets to the big dance.

Even the biggest of miracles won’t allow the Panthers to leapfrog all the teams ahead of them to catch Washington, Columbus and Chicago now.

But with nine points separating Florida from the Boston Bruins – who are third in the Atlantic – and only the struggling Tampa Bay Lightning and upstart Leafs ahead of them in the division – all it could take is a hot week to catapult the Panthers to the postseason.

That would be all but a pipe dream if the Bruins, Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers and Islanders don’t cool off in their last few games, though.

Florida’s Chances of Missing the Playoffs

Barring a huge twist of fate, the Panthers’ likelihood of being on the outside looking in this time next month looks higher than their shot at reaching the playoffs.

Keep in mind that the Panthers are likely a better team than their current record suggests, but several important pieces have been in and out of the lineup with injuries and what not. Or perhaps Florida isn’t as good as everyone previously thought.

On the stat sheet, not only does the Panthers’ win-loss record not look promising, but the 24 more goals they’ve allowed than goals they’ve scored don’t suggest this team is a legitimate contender.

James Reimer’s win-loss record is 14-14 in 36 games for the Panthers this season. (Amy Irvin/ The Hockey Writers)

Then there’s the Panthers’ goaltending tandem of Roberto Luongo and James Reimer, who have split Florida’s games almost evenly this year and posted close to identical numbers in the process (Luongo is 17-15 in 40 games with a 2.68 goals-against average and .915 save percentage, while Reimer has gone 14-14 in 36 games with a 2.63 goals-against average and .917 save percentage).

The concern here is that Luongo’s career is much closer to its end than its beginning, and Reimer is at best a solid backup (as we all saw when he backstopped for the Leafs). It’s not looking like an aging Luongo and average Reimer will give the Panthers much of a chance down the stretch or in the playoffs, if Florida makes it there.

At the trade deadline on March 1, the Panthers acquired 33-year-old forward Thomas Vanek for a third-round draft pick and fringe player Dylan McIlrath.

This move should have provided the Panthers with additional forward depth and helped with the playoff push, but Vanek has only recorded seven points (one goal, six assists) in nine games with Florida. That’s likely less production than the Panthers expected when they picked him up.

Thomas Vanek (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

With an average age of about 28, the Panthers have a nice mix of veteran players and up-and-coming young guns. Their future looks fairly bright on that front, and this could just be an off-year. Or last season’s success was a fluke.

If the Panthers are truly better than they look right now, all the optimism in the world won’t be enough to get them to the playoffs at this rate. But a win Tuesday night over the Carolina Hurricanes would definitely help their cause.