What’s Wrong with the Panthers’ Special Teams?

The Panthers’ special teams have been the teams greatest weakness so far in the playoffs. What do they need to do to fix it?

Panthers' special teams have struggled to perform in this series
Photo Credit: @CapitalsPR

The Florida Panthers are in a dogfight of a first round. Currently up 3-2 in the series, the games have been far more competitive than many expected. The strange thing, however, is that the Panthers are dominating Washington at even strength. So far in the series, the Panthers are outscoring the Capitals 15-8 at even strength. The only thing keeping the series close thus far has been the struggles of the Panthers’ special teams.

Through the first five games of the series, the Panthers are 0-16 (not a typo) on the power play. Yes, the league’s number five power play on the year has yet to score a goal on SIXTEEN tries. Doing some quick math, that equates to a conversion rate of roughly 0 percent.

By contrast, the Washington Capitals have scored on six of their 20 chances for a success rate of 30 percent. That number is significantly higher than their regular season average of 18.8 percent.

Unsurprisingly, the Panthers performance on special teams has made winning these games significantly harder. The Panthers need to flip their special teams play around if they want to make a deep run in the playoffs. Let’s look at the play of the Panthers special teams and see what is causing this drop in performance, and how it can be fixed.

Power Play Woes

As a hockey fan, I think a disproportionate amount of hockey discourse centers around teams or players being cursed. It acts as a scapegoat for inexplicable playoff performances or uncanny strings of bad luck. Most of the time, it’s just popular pundits ignoring the obvious, or fans living in denial as to why their team lost.

With that being said, I don’t think I’ve seen evidence of a curse as compelling as this one.

I’m only half joking, of course, but this is getting absurd. The Panthers power play struggled early on in the year, but finished as the fifth best in the league. The team was so red hot towards the end of the year they sustained a league best power play percentage of 30.9 percent since February.

Then suddenly, it all vanished.

There are a few moving parts that could explain this. The biggest adjustment for the team has been trying to reincorporate Aaron Ekblad back on the first power play unit. The team found a groove with the five forward power play, and it looks to be a struggle trying to reinstall Ekblad as the quarterback.

Whether it has more to do with Ekblad shaking off some rust coming off the injury or the lack of chemistry with a group that has never played together before, there is simply not enough time to figure it out now. When deployed, the five forward power play has generated the most pressure for the Panthers this postseason. The plan should be to stick with that for now and figure out the Ekblad piece over the summer.

Besides that, better results will just come down to getting some more puck luck and playing with less fear. The Panthers are clearly the more talented team. Because of that, high-event hockey plays to their advantage. Even if they give up more shorthanded chances, the talent on the roster affords them that luxury. If they play more aggressively and with more movement, more goals will follow.

Penalty kill struggles

To their credit, the Panthers have done an excellent job limiting Alexander Ovechkin’s impact on the power play. They have over-committed to his one timer and forced him to pass out of his usual spots. He has only scored one power play goal all series, and it came on a broken play.

Obviously, over-committing to one player opens up plenty of other options for the opponent, and the Capitals are taking advantage of that. The main benefactor of this strategy has been T.J. Oshie. Oshie has scored four power play goals this series. The connection between Oshie and quarterback John Carlson has been superb. Oshie tipping and redirecting Carlson’s soft shots has made the Panthers penalty kill look silly all series.

As seen below, the Panthers pressure Ovechkin out of the zone, but some quick puck movement leads to a Capitals goal.

Fixing this one will be tricky. Washington is fortunate enough to have the greatest shooter of our lifetime on their team and three guys (Carlson, Backstrom, Kuznetsov) who excel at getting him the puck. Over-committing to him is the right call, but the defense relaxes too much when the puck isn’t in the vicinity of the Great 8.

Washington does have a fatal flaw, however, and that is predictability. Their M.O. has John Carlson setting the table for everything and everybody else at the top of the zone. Florida can counter this by putting pressure on the slow-footed Carlson and make him move the puck before he is ready.

Look how much space the Panthers give Carlson to take the shot in the clip below. The Capitals want to feed him at the point, and the Panthers let it happen, which leads to a goal.

It may seem counter-intuitive to play aggressively that high in the zone when shorthanded, but Carlson has destroyed the conservative approach. Carlson may still be an excellent power play QB, but he is not the player he used to be physically. The Panthers have excellent speed and need to use that to their advantage here. The key is to be proactive rather than reactive. The Capitals are too experienced for the Panthers to be playing catch up.

Overall, the Panthers have shown some good and some bad in this first round match-up. They’ve been the better team 5v5, but they’ve also made this series much harder than it needed to be. Hopefully it will serve as a learning experience for them and they can make the adjustments to win this round — and more rounds going forward. Only time will tell.

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Anton Lundell and his case for the Calder

Anton Lundell has had a stellar rookie season for the Panthers, yet he has not received the national attention he deserves.

Florida Panthers rookie and Calder Trophy hopeful Anton Lundell
Anton Lundell fights off checker Oliver Bjorkstrand in a game against Columbus (via @FLAPanthersPR)

In a season highlighted by breakout rookie seasons across the league, Anton Lundell has managed to fly under the radar. As the season wraps up and awards conversations pick up, his name has not been mentioned enough.

Each year, the NHL awards the Calder Memorial Trophy (known colloquially as the Calder) to the best rookie performer in the NHL. Former winners include Panthers Aaron Ekblad and Johnathan Huberdeau. This year, the Panthers have yet another rookie worthy of receiving this award: Anton Lundell.

In all likelihood, Lundell will not win the Calder. The likes of Trevor Zegras, Lucas Raymond, and Moritz Seider have received too much national attention comparatively. Still, his impact matches, and maybe even exceeds, that of his peers. Hypothetically, if the league wanted to give the Calder to Lundell, this would be the case.

Anton Lundell has the raw stats

Currently, Lundell has 18 goals and 25 assists on the year. This puts him fifth among rookies with 43 points. While that may not stand out initially, keep in mind injuries have limited Lundell to 61 games this season. All the players above him have played over 70.

Additionally, Lundell averages less than 16 minutes on ice per game. Compare that to Zegras and Raymond who average about 18 minutes per game. I am ignoring Seider’s TOI numbers since defensemen typically play more minutes on average. Once the points are adjusted for ice time, the stats become eerily similar. Lundell scores 2.66 points per 60 minutes, almost a dead lock with Zegras’s 2.68 points per 60, and well above Raymond’s 2.41.

This discrepancy is a product of the team around him. The Florida Panthers have an other-worldly forward corps, which means he gets less ice time. It also means he gets no regular power play time, unlike his counterparts. Seider, Zegras, and Raymond all average over two and a half minutes of power play time a game.

Simply put, factors out of Lundell’s control contributed to the points discrepancy shown. Given the same opportunity, Lundell would match, if not exceed, the production of the other Calder contenders.

He is also a defensive specialist

When people call Anton Lundell a miniature Aleksander Barkov, this is the sticking point. On the defensive side of the puck, few rookies have been as effective as Lundell. The coaching staff has taken notice, and use him as a regular on the penalty kill.

Lundell averages almost two and a half minutes of penalty kill time per game. This number is fourth among rookies, and far more than any other rookie in the Calder race. That defensive responsibility does not show up in the box score, but should be considered in the discussion. Lundell has also notched four short-handed points this season, a top-10 mark in the league.

This strong defensive play contributes to winning more than any single statistic can show. Lundell’s ability to shut down opposing attacks while not sacrificing any offensive output puts him in a rare class of player. His +33 rating leads all rookies by a landslide, and shows the type of impact he has on both ends of the ice.

Lundell makes those around him better

A big part of the Panthers’ dominance this season has been their forward depth. Specifically, the third line of Anton Lundell, Sam Reinhart, and Mason Marchment has been the best bottom 6 line in the entire league.

As the center of this line, Lundell controls much of the pace and flow they play with. His poise and control on the ice has played a huge part in his wingers having career years.

Sam Reinhart was already an established player before joining the Panthers. With Buffalo, Reinhart scored 20 goals and topped 50 points consistently. In his first season in Florida, however, Reinhart has reached new career highs with 28 goals and 48 assists in 73 games. His play has been stellar, but Lundell should receive credit for developing such good chemistry and putting him in places to succeed.

The same can be said about Mason Marchment, who is having a breakout year. In his first full year in the NHL, Marchment has totaled 42 points in 51 games. The 26 year old came to Florida two years ago in a trade with Toronto. After some flashes last year, Marchment has become a genuine offensive threat once the team placed him on a line with Lundell.

As I said earlier, there is little to no chance of Anton Lundell winning the Calder. Zegras has scored too many Michigan goals, and Seider has doled out too many big hits for Lundell to be seriously considered. All of this is to say that anyone who overlooks the impact Lundell has had on the best team in the eastern conference is doing themselves a disservice. He has the most complete game of anyone in this rookie class, and for my money, should be a Calder Trophy contender.

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Florida Panthers Defense showing signs of improvement

Florida Panthers celebrate after a win over the Anaheim Ducks, thanks to the defense
Photo Credit: FloridaPanthersPR

Following Florida’s 7-6 comeback win over Toronto on April 5, most fans felt nothing but elation. For the Panthers themselves, that game marked a need for change. The Florida Panthers defense had been struggling mightily in the first eight games Aaron Ekblad missed due to injury, and that game marked the tipping point for the team’s coaching staff.

After the game against Toronto, head coach Andrew Brunette mentioned the need for stronger defensive showings. He knows the importance of a formidable defense in the playoffs. With the regular season winding down, the team needed to begin to shut down their opponents. Even with Ekblad presumably returning for the playoffs, the team needed defensive answers with the current group.

In the four games since that shift, the team has allowed only seven goals. Excluding the first period against Buffalo, the team surrendered only four goals in the past 11 periods of hockey. That impressive turnaround can be attributed to several factors which have re-energized the Florida Panthers defense.

New Florida Panthers Defensive Pairings

One change Bruno implemented with the Florida Panthers defense was to change up the pairings. For these combinations, Bruno decided to pair strength with strength. He paired offensive defensemen Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour together, as well as physical defensemen Robert Hagg and Radko Gudas.

These changes create some interesting wrinkles for opponents. The high-powered offensive duo have used their collective speed to grab the puck and push it out of their own zone. In the past four games the pair each have four points (Forsling 3g 1a, Montour 0g 4a.)

Conversely, Hagg and Gudas use their physical nature to shut down opposing chances. Because neither are offensively gifted, the team opts for a separation of responsibilities when they come on the ice. Indeed, the duo disrupts all opposing chances and the forwards do the heavy lifting on offense. So far, it has worked to perfection. In the 27 minutes of the Hagg-Gudas pairing thus far, the tandem boasts a remarkable 72.4 expected goals percentage.

Improved Goalie Play

Of course, none of this would be possible without the goalies. Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight have given amazing performances this past week. Bob was 3-0-0 with a 0.931 save percentage while Knight stopped 24 of 25 shots and won his lone appearance.

Specifically, this last start for Bobrovsky stands out. Against Winnipeg, Bobrovsky stopped 30 of 31 shots. He finished with a goals saved above expected of 1.43. After a horrible couple of starts against New Jersey and Toronto, these games have meaning. They help build confidence and rhythm going into the playoffs. Bobrovsky will likely be the team’s starting goalie come playoffs, and his play can make or break the cup run.

However, if Bobrovsky’s inconsistency proves to be Florida’s weakness in the playoffs, the team should feel encouraged about Spencer Knight’s progress. Knight played one of the best games in his career against Nashville last week. He finished with 1.45 goals saved above expected, which brought his total number for the year into the positive.

After a terrible start to the year, Knight has given the team very consistent play in net. While he likely won’t be the starter, he will end up in net at some point come the playoffs.

New Additions Getting Comfortable

When looking back at the terrible two-week defensive stretch, it is clear that working in some new additions played a part in it. Earlier this year, Sam Reinhart discussed the difficulties of getting acclimated to Florida’s unique system. After 15 games, he became one of the teams best players. His slow start was quickly forgotten by fans and media alike.

The same should have been expected of the deadline acquisitions, namely Ben Chairot and Roberg Hagg. We talked earlier about Hagg finding his fit with Gudas, and the same could be said for Chairot. Now spending his time with Weegar, the two increased their expected goals percentage together from 55% to 62%. Chairot also has two assists over his last four games.

With the chemistry this Florida Panthers defense gained in the past week, the team may have solved its biggest problem. If the team regains its strong defensive play AND adds Aaron Ekblad going into the playoffs, they instantly become the team to beat. Indeed, the ceiling is high, but the team needs to make tweaks in these last few games more than most in their position.

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Aaron Ekblad Injury Leaves a Crater on the Panthers’ Blue Line

Since Aaron Ekblad’s injury, the Panthers have not been as consistent defensively, they will need him to return to be the cup contenders they want to be.

Aaron Ekblad skating off the ice after an injury
Photo Credit: Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ask anyone what this Panthers season has been about, they’ll tell you the offense. And rightfully so. This forward group has put together the greatest offensive season since Mario Lemieux’s Penguins. However, the player who should be considered the MVP of their season is Aaron Ekblad.

While the offense hummed, Ekblad stabilized the back end. He allowed this team to be more than your typical run-and-gun shootout team; he made them dominant. This most recent Aaron Ekblad injury shows his importance to this team, and why he will need to come back if the Panthers want to have any chance at winning the cup.

Defensive numbers faltering

Since the Aaron Ekblad injury against Anaheim on March 18, the Panthers have gone 7-1-0. Certainly not the mark of a team feeling the absence of a star player, but the underlying numbers tell a different story.

Prior to Ekblad’s departure, the Panthers gave up 2.84 goals per game, a top-10 defensive ranking (Vancouver currently ranks 10th in the league with 2.84 GA/GP.) In the eight games he’s missed, the team is giving up 3.75 goals per game. This mark would have them 30th, ahead of only bottom feeders Montreal and Detroit.

They managed to hold their opponent under three goals only once in those eight games, and they have surrendered six twice. These eight games increased their goals against average from 2.84 to 2.94, which ranks 14th.

The Panthers have a historically great offense and, with Ekblad, a strong enough defense to force any opponents to work hard for their goals. That is what makes them special. Without him, games have shown to be more or less a shootout. Sure, the comebacks are fun, but we have to wonder why this team falls behind so frequently. For the Panthers to have success in the playoffs, their defense needs to be formidable. That hinges on an Ekblad return.

Defensive pairs do not work without him

Obviously, losing a Norris Trophy candidate would make any team’s defense worse. However, for the Panthers specifically, there is simply no viable replacement for him. The Panthers were hoping trade deadline acquisition Ben Chairot would be able to eat up much Ekblad’s defensive responsibilities, but he has disappointed thus far.

Of course, it would have been unreasonable to expect for him to duplicate Ekblad’s production, but his lack of a natural fit on the roster raises concerns. Over the eight games Chairot has played, he has been paired with both Mackenzie Weegar and Radko Gudas. When paired with Weegar, the two give up 4.56 goals against per 60 minutes. With Gudas, the pair surrenders a slightly better 3.7 goals against per 60 minutes. Obviously, the small sample size should be noted, but the eye test backs the numbers up.

Unlike the offensive core, the defensive players have not shown the ability to step up when a star goes down. When Barkov missed six weeks, players such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Sam Reinhart, and Anthony Duclair all took advantage of increased opportunities to make sure the offense stayed level.

When Ekblad went out, it has been up to the offense to score even more goals. To be clear, all of Florida’s defensemen have shown to be more than capable in their roles, but not out of them. For them to go back to their roles, Ekblad must return for the playoffs.

Special teams slumping

One underrated loss for the Panthers since the Aaron Ekblad injury has been the loss of their special teams maestro. A fixture on both the power play and the penalty kill, Ekblad’s presence has been missed on both. The penalty kill has stopped 19 of 27 opponent chances over the last eight games, a 70% success rate.

That mark would be last in the league over a full season. This also includes giving up multiple power play goals in three of the eight games. Simply not good enough for a cup contender.

The same is true for the power play unit. Despite its many admirers, the five forward power play the Panthers have been using recently has some inherent weaknesses. Namely, the increased likelihood of surrendering shorthanded goals. Over the past eight games, the Panthers have given up two shorthanded goals at crucial junctures in the game, and should be thankful they have yet to give up more.

The Panthers may still choose to experiment with five forwards on the power play in the playoffs. Their unique collection of talent affords them that opportunity. Still, they miss the option of a reliable two-way defenseman out there as a security blanket.

Aaron Ekblad is one of the best defensemen in the league. Of course, the team needs him for their best shot at a deep playoff run. Over these last few games, it has become increasingly clear what his absence truly means to this team. It takes them from genuine cup contender to another high variance team. The kind of team that flames out in the playoffs. After years of heartache, that is the last thing this franchise needs.

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Panthers vs Penguins: Opening Night Recap

Opening night for the Panthers had its ups and downs. Let’s break down the takeaways from this thriller

Panthers vs Penguins
Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images

What a way to start the season! The Florida Panthers begun their 2021-22 cup campaign with an overtime win vs the Pittsburgh Penguins. After getting the first two goals of the night, the Panthers found themselves down by two with less than 10 minutes to go.

A couple quick goals from Aaron Ekblad saved the say, however. In overtime, Carter Verhaeghe sealed the deal with an overtime snipe. The team played far from perfect, so let’s take a look at some of the key takeaways from opening night.

Penalties, Penalties, Penalties

While it may have been opening night for the Panthers, the referees seemed to be in midseason form. FIFTEEN total penalties were called, with 9 against the Panthers and 6 against the Pens. Some could argue that such a high penalty count points to timid and elementary refereeing. I would argue this falls more on the teams themselves, specifically the Panthers. Truthfully, the team played without discipline at times, making bad situations worse.

For example, Mackenzie Weegar received an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after arguing with a referee about a previous call. This forced the Panthers to play shorthanded for over five straight minutes. The Panthers must clean these up if they want a chance to succeed this year.

Special Teams not quite as advertised

Something else worth noting about the penalties is the overall poor special teams play from the Cats. The Panthers failed to capitalize on any of their six power play chances. More so, they failed to even generate much of anything during those opportunities. The Penguins on the other hand, looked extremely sharp, converting on two of their nine chances. According to MoneyPuck, the expected goals for the game were 7.6-4.16 favoring the Penguins. If you just look at the 5-on-5 play, the expected goals were 2.82-2.42 favoring the Panthers. The Cats won the 5-on-5 battle, but the special teams woes changed the narrative on this game.

Aaron Ekblad how we missed you

In his first game back since March 28, the mystery media members of the night awarded Aaron Ekblad the First Star of the Game. Deservedly so, as his heroics saved the Cats from an embarrassing opening night loss at home. After giving up four unanswered goals, all hope seemed lost for the Panthers. But Ekblad refused to go down. He first took advantage of a loose puck in front of the net following a dog pile to cut the lead in half and restore the team’s vitality.

Not three minutes of game time later, Ekblad buried another one, this time a beautiful backhand above goaltender Casey DeSmith’s right shoulder. The Panthers missed Ekblad’s presence on the blue line after he went down with injury, and having him back and looking better than ever will be huge for this Panthers team.

Vintage Sergei Bobrovsky

Giving up four goals on most nights would be considered a bad game. Last night was a clear exception, as netminder Sergei Bobrovsky looked stellar. As mentioned previously, the Penguins tallied an unimaginable 7.6 expected goals last night. Bobrovsky only let in four, meaning he saved 3.6 goals above expected. For context, Bobrovsky totaled -2 goals saved above expected all of last year.

The two-time Vezina winner had to deal with teammate deflections, overtime breakaways, and nine shorthanded segments, and yet still did enough for the Panthers to pull out the victory vs the Penguins. Much of this win falls on Bobrovsky’s shoulders, something we did not say often during his first two years in South Florida. Of course, it is only one game, but if this is the Sergei Bobrovsky we get for most of this year, this team goes from finalist to favorite.