Looking deeper at the Florida Panthers’ struggles this season

The Florida Panthers have not been good this season. They finished first in their division last season, revamped their blue line, and had high expectations coming into 2016-2017. Things haven’t worked out, and they’re currently fifth in the division, with a 13-12-4 record. Luckily, they are only two points out of a playoff spot, and there’s obviously plenty of time to turn things around.

The organization is trying to do just that, having fired their head coach and moved on to new leadership behind the bench. New coach Tom Rowe hasn’t really found success yet going 3-2-4 in his nine games as head coach.

The Panthers have been an incredibly strange team to follow this season, as they typically control play for the majority of the game, but don’t exactly dominate their opponents. Despite having control of the puck, and despite winning the shot attempt battle, it seems like the team is typically out-chanced; their opponents get more Grade A chances, and end up scoring more goals as a result.

At 5v5, the Panthers have been outscored 42-52, a goals for percentage of 44.7%. Without incredibly elite special teams (the Panthers are 29th in PP efficiency and 7th in PK efficiency), it’s difficult to make up the ground lost at even strength, and it’s almost impressive that the Panthers have managed to get close to .500 on the year.

Typically, one would look at their Corsi For percentage, and then their PDO, and see whether or not the Panthers are playing bad, and getting the bounces they deserve, or playing poorly, and just suffering from poor luck.

Under that kind of analysis, one would come to the conclusion that the Panthers are just snake bitten this season. The Panthers are rocking a 52.7% CF%, the seventh highest rating in the league. Their PDO of 98.5, however, is 26th in the league.

They just aren’t getting the bounces, right? We’ve seen this kind of story plenty of times; a team dominates the shot attempts battle, but struggles with getting the puck in the net (or keeping it out). Given that the team has a decent goaltender (which the Panthers do) and isn’t aren’t completely devoid of offensive talent (which the Panthers aren’t), then one should expect their PDO to regress to the mean and end up closer to 100 by the end of the season.

If they continue to get 52% of the shot attempts, then we should expect their PDO to regress, and their GF% should rise up over 50% as well, right? Even our regression based predictions for the Panthers had them at 50.8% GF% for the rest of the season, which wouldn’t exactly get them over 50% for the full season, but would certainly get them close.

Things aren’t that simple, though. In this case, the numbers and eye test match, with both showing that the Panthers have struggled to get Grade A chances this season.

Despite their high CF%, the Panthers have actually struggled from a scoring chance standpoint, controlling just 45.7% of the scoring chances registered in their games. That total is only good for 24th in the league, a stark contrast from the strong Corsi numbers that the team has posted in their first 29 games.

Seeing as I had recently pulled data for NHL teams from 2007-now based on comparing their first 25 games with the rest of the season, I decided to go back and look at teams that had numbers similar to the Panthers.

Incredibly, only one team actually matched their numbers within one percent, within that team being the 2008-2009 New York Rangers. I expanded the search to include any team with a CF% over 50%, a SCF% lower than 50%, and a difference of 4% or greater between the two. That left me with just 14 teams over the past nine seasons, a surprisingly small number that shows just how strange this season has been for the Panthers.

Over the rest of the season, here are the averages of how the teams finished in terms of CF%, SCF%, and GF%.

CF% SCF% GF%
51.8% 50.5% 51.7%

Those numbers might be inflated a bit by the 2008-2009 Detroit Red Wings, who started the year with a 58.8% CF% and a 47.4% SCF%, but managed to get both of those numbers over 53% for the rest of the year. That was an insanely dominant shot attempt team, and the Panthers simply aren’t of that caliber.

The teams most similar to the Panthers were the aforementioned Rangers, and the 2015-2016 Winnipeg Jets. Here’s how each team played out the rest of their season.

Team CF% SCF% GF%
2008-2009 New York Rangers 52.7% 49.6% 46.0%
2015-2016 Winnipeg Jets 50.6% 53.5% 50.3%

Overall, things don’t look too good for the Panthers. Their GF% for the rest of the season will likely fall between 50.0% and 52.0%, which is going to help them win more games than they lose, but it may not be enough to get them into a playoff spot.

We know that Corsi is more predictive of future results than scoring chances, so it makes sense that  the Panthers would out-score opponents going forward. The problem is that they aren’t going to be massively out-scoring the opposition, and their record might not be good enough to make up the ground they’ve already lost in the race to the playoffs.

Still, all is not lost. The example that should give the Panthers the most hope is that of the 2015-2016 Anaheim Ducks. Playing in the weak Pacific Division last season, Anaheim started with a 51.9% CF%, a 46.8% SCF%, and an incredibly low 40.9% GF%.

A dismal 5.0% SH% meant that the Ducks just couldn’t buy a goal. Bruce Boudreau went to work, installing an incredibly strict neutral zone trap that led to the team dominating puck possession, and eventually getting control of shot attempts, scoring chances, and goals. After their first 25 games, here’s how the 2015-2016 Ducks played out the rest of the season.

CF% SCF% GF%
53.4% 54.8% 51.8%

Those are strong numbers all across the board, and they were accentuated by dominant special teams. The Ducks finished first in both power play and penalty kill efficiency, which helped them out-perform their 5v5 goal numbers. The end result was the Pacific Division title, even if Anaheim was bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

Some coaching adjustments may definitely be needed in the Panthers case, and that’s something that I plan to explore in a later post. What we can take away from here, however, is that…

  1. The Panthers have had a strange season, with the difference between their Corsi and scoring chance numbers being oddly large.
  2. They really need to improve their special teams, specifically their 29th ranked PP.
  3. For the rest of the season, a reasonable expectation would be for their 5v5 scoring chance and goal numbers to grow closer to their Corsi numbers, likely around the 51% range.
  4. A 51% GF% would result in them probably winning more often than they lose, but it isn’t exactly a dominant number, and might not get them into the playoffs.
  5. If they can get better results on the power play, they might be able to outperform their 5v5 numbers, and would certainly help their playoff chances.

An option that the team has, if they feel it would be necessary, would be to acquire a power play specialist, or another winger that would be capable to playing on the team’s top line until Jonathan Huberdeau returns to health.

Regardless, the Panthers struggles aren’t the end of the world; the team isn’t playing horrid hockey, and should be expected to actually out-score their opponents going forward. That might not be enough, though, and the team has to make improvement to the special teams if they want to increase their chances of making the playoffs.

(statistics courtesy of puckalytics.com and naturalstattrick.com)

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