System Analysis: Digging deeper into Florida’s struggles

When the Florida Panthers revamped their defense over the offseason, the main focus was on acquiring mobile, puck-moving defensemen. The team targeted players like Keith Yandle, Jason Demers, and Mark Pysyk, who aren’t known for their physical prowess; they’re known for their ability to break the puck out of their own zone, and kick start their team’s offense.

Brian Campbell, Willie Mitchell, Dmitry Kulikov, and Erik Gudbranson were out. Yandle, Demers, Pysyk, and rookie speedster Mike Matheson were in. There’s no denying that the second group is more inclined towards offense, with Yandle and Matheson in particular possessing skill sets that make them very dangerous when they get involved offensively.

General manager and interim head coach Tom Rowe was a member of the management team that targeted these players, made an effort to acquire them, and brought them onto the team. The opposite has seemed true through Rowe’s first eight games behind the bench, and it shows in the team’s record. Under Rowe, the Panthers are just 2-3-3, and haven’t quite looked good by modern hockey metrics.

Sure, over the past eight games, they’re sixth in the league with a Corsi for percentage of 53.5%, but they’re also 24th with a scoring chances for percentage of 42.7%. Their expected goals for percentage under Rowe is a mere 47.6%, which ranks 18th in the league. This is just more of the same for the team, as they suffered from the same problems before head coach Gerard Gallant was fired.

The Panthers have suffered from some poor puck luck under Tom Rowe, with their goals for percentage of 33.3% being WAY below their xG% of 47.6%, but, those scoring chance numbers are still distressing, and showcase why many fans are disappointed with the way the Panthers have played with year.

Comparing the Tom Rowe numbers to the rest of the league’s full season numbers, we see that the team’s struggles are tilted towards one side of the ice.

On defense, the Panthers rank 25th in SCA/60, conceding 9.1 scoring chances per hour in the Tom Rowe era. This wouldn’t be an encouraging sign if the offseason re-haul had focused on big-bodied, “tough to play against” bruisers. Remember that the Panthers focused on picking up mobile puck movers; the style of play that they’re targeting isn’t one of complete lock down defense, it’s one where you score more goals than the opposition by way of offense, similar to how the Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup last season.

Interestingly enough, there are plenty of teams doing well while averaging almost the same number of scoring chances per hour oas the Panthers. The Rangers, Penguins, Oilers, and Maple Leafs all have positive scoring chance differentials, despite averaging between 8.6 and 9.6 SCA/60 (+/- 0.5 away from the Panthers).

The Rangers play a run and gun system that allows them to get plenty of high danger scoring chances, despite a weak defensive group. The Penguins have an incredible amount of forward talent, but also use their defense to create offense. The Oilers have McJesus. The Maple Leafs use a complete team system to extend zone time, break down the opponent’s structure, and create chances.

All of those teams average more than 10.0 SCF/60, while the Panthers sit at 6.8. The only teams in the league worse at creating offense than Florida are Arizona, New Jersey, and Colorado.

The defensive issues aren’t too concerning, mainly because the Panthers could still turn out positive in the scoring chance department if need be, and because some of the issues appear to be an adjustment period as the players learn new responsibilities under Rowe. The SCA/60 numbers should come down, and though the Panthers won’t be league leaders, that’s fine. Their roster isn’t built to be a lock down defensive team.

The offensive issues are concerning, because it shows that the Panthers have absolutely no way of imposing their will on the opposition. On the offensive side of the puck, the Panthers have been incredibly bad this season. A team that has a decent amount of offensive talent should not be barely out-chancing New Jersey and Arizona, and yet, here we are. Even a slight bump in SCF/60 still leaves the Panthers below average, and this is a team that was built to “out-offense” their opponents; they have plenty of speed and skill, not a ton of size and “grit”.

I want to return to the Pittsburgh Penguins, because, under Mike Sullivan, they led the league in SCF% last season and have a pretty good shot of doing it again this season (56.6% through 30 games). Sullivan is one of the league’s most well-spoken coaches, and his interviews often grant insights into how his hockey team operates and what kind of system he wants to run. One quote I really want to draw attention to comes from last season:

It’s hard to generate offense in the absence of your defensemen getting involved, whether it be off the rush, in the offensive zone.

We see this all the time with the Penguins, as their speedy, skilled defenseman have absolutely no reservations about jumping up into the play and creating chances off the rush. It’s part of what makes them so difficult to defend, as you have to worry about their incredibly talented forwards, AND their defensemen.

They often utilize their defensemen to help break the puck out of the zone, and it works incredibly well. Here’s Kris Letang recognizing that Nick Bonino is dropping low to recover a loose puck; Letang fills the right wing position, finds an open lane, catches the pass, and then tries to spring Bryan Rust on a 2 on 1. The pass doesn’t work out, but the Penguins gain the zone AND get immediate forechecking pressure. The end result of this zone entry would be a Sidney Crosby goal.

Here’s a goal from last night that also illustrates the point; the Bruins pick up every Pens forward, but Justin Schultz jumps right into the open seam, has plenty of time to shoot, and scores.

This is not new for teams around the league. Here we have Brett Pesce joining the rush and assisting Sebastian Aho.

Here’s Michael Del Zotto starting the breakout and scoring a goal against the Avalanche.

Here’s Radko Gudas making the same play that Letang made; recognize the forward is low, fill in a position, catch the breakout pass, find an open teammate. The end result here is a Wayne Simmonds goal.

Here’s Matt Dumba joining the rush against the Panthers, and creating an odd-man opportunity that eventually led to a goal.

I think you get the point.

In today’s NHL, teams tend to try and out number their opponents along the boards in order to create defensive zone turnovers.

As a result, forwards will drop low in the defensive zone to help with recovering the puck, and breaking it out. When this happens, a defenseman needs to fill his position in order to give the rest of the forwards options as they attack through the neutral zone. If no one fills, then the forwards are out-numbered while trying to create offense; not a good combo.

Here’s a basic look at what the breakout should look like. The defenseman steps up, and the forward assumes the role of defenseman until they can switch back (preferably after in-zone pressure has already been established).

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If the defenseman can join the play at the right time, he’ll be increasing the number of defensive reads the opposition needs to make, while giving his team more options. It’s easy for a team system to cover one or two attackers, and though three can sometimes be enough to create offense, four is where things really start to break down. There’s a high degree of chaos, and that’s what causes defenses to break down.

The Panthers, despite having an impressive group of defenders that was acquired with a focus on speed, puck movement, and skill, do not send their defensemen in the rush.

They instead elect to hang back, and let the forwards try to create all of the offense. The end result of most breakouts is a feckless dump into the corner (without much opportunity to pressure on the forecheck), or a long distance shot that the goalie easily stops.

The Panthers then send three forecheckers in deep after the puck to create turnovers in a high danger area, as it’s pretty much the only way they can create offense, but then they leave themselves open to counter attacks. You can see it in the clip above, where Erik Haula scores on the Panthers. They have three forwards in deep, but they cough the puck up, and then give up an odd man rush because players struggle to get back.

Let’s get to the examples. Here, Jason Demers makes a solid play along the boards to gain control of the puck, while Derek Mackenzie swings low to catch an easy breakout pass. Keith Yandle, despite having time to recognize where the play is going and join in, stands in front of his own net. Reilly Smith catches the pass, but has zero support. The Panthers are out-numbered four to two on the rush, and Smith’s shot is easily gloved down by Devan Dubnyk.

Here, we have Keith Yandle and Mark Pysyk doing… something. I don’t even know what Yandle is trying to do here, but if Pysyk moves up the ice, he either draws a forecheck away and buys Yandle time, or makes himself a target for a pass. Instead, he just stands there.

Here, we have Mike Matheson stepping up at first, but then electing to “play it safe” and fall back. He doesn’t even make himself an option for Barkov, and though there’s no guarantee that a play would have even developed (Pittsburgh’s back check here is excellent), Matheson doesn’t even give it a chance. He just immediately defaults to standing at the blue line.

Here, we have Nick Bjugstad swinging low and picking up the puck, essentially taking the place of a defenseman. Ideally, one of the Panthers defenseman (Jason Demers, in this case) would take off, filling the role of a forward. Demers instead stays put. After Bjugstad flips the puck up to center, the Panthers make a nice play to create a turnover and spring Paul Thompson on a mini-breakaway, though he can’t get back in the middle and his shot is stopped.

Some more on the Demers clip; assuming that Demers would take off as soon as Bjugstad swung low, and that he would fill in the right wing position (like Letang did against Tampa Bay), he would have been in a prime position to catch a pass from Thompson, especially if he would have been driving the net hard. At the very least, he would have been an option for Thompson, which leaves Steve Mason with two reads to make, instead of just one.

Here, the Flyers dump the puck in, and Barkov switches positions with Kindl. Barkov recovers the puck, and gets it to Ekblad, who quickly moves it to Jagr. Kindl, instead of joining the play as a winger, slowly drifts back in front of his net. Jagr’s blind pass goes to the area of the ice that Kindl should be filling, and instead of having the chance to attack Andrew MacDonald with speed, the Panthers are instead force to create a turnover and work from there. The Flyers get back, Ekblad’s point shot is easily saved, and after a quick scramble, the Flyers go the other way.

Here, we have Keith Yandle electing to hang back, despite having an opportunity to join the rush. The Panthers dump it in, can’t gain control, and the Flyers break out easily.

Last example, I promise. The Flyers attack with speed through the neutral zone, but Florida handles the attack, and creates a turnover. Mike Matheson has a chance to join the rush, but he doesn’t. Vincent Trocheck can’t fill the lane in time, and Jussi Jokinen is forced to chip the puck around the defenseman to make a play. End result? Icing.

Jokinen’s swing along the boards is timed well, and he makes himself an option for Kyle Rau. That part of the breakout works fine.

The Panthers can’t create any offense off of the rush because there’s no winger in the weak side lane of attack. Trocheck drops low to recover the puck, Rau is along the boards as Trocheck’s option, and Jokinen is in the middle as Rau’s option. Matheson needs to go fill that lane, and act as a winger. That would give Jokinen a passing option, and Trocheck could hang high as a fourth attacker. If there’s a turnover, Trocheck plays defense for a bit until Matheson can get back.

The Panthers have been controlling the shot attempt battle in the majority of their games, so they’ve shown that they’re capable of winning puck battles and at least holding their own in the neutral zone. Their issues stem from a lack of offense, especially since their offseason overhaul focuses on adding more speed, puck moving ability, and skill – particularly on the blue line. This isn’t a team built to be incredible defensively; it’s a team built to out-score the opposition, even if those games are high scoring.

Tom Rowe appears to have not gotten that message. Instead of letting the defense join the rush and make offensive plays, it seems like he’s forcing them to hang back in the defensive zone, and play “safe” hockey. As a result, the Panthers can’t create off the rush, and fail to create scoring chances on the forecheck without sending three forecheckers in deep, which leaves them open to counter attacks.

Changing this one thing isn’t going to miraculously fix the Panthers, but considering the season they’ve had, it might be worth it. Management wanted to build a team that focused on speed, skill, and puck possession. They acquired players that are capable of creating offense and chaos on the rush, but aren’t letting them showcase their skills.

The Panthers need to do something. They’re rapidly running out of time, and each loss makes it that much harder to get back into the playoff race. Letting the defensemen join the rush should help create offense, which has been the team’s number one need for most of the season. At the very least, it would change something in the way the team plays. The status quo just isn’t working right now, and staying the course will likely doom the season.

After the turmoil of the offseason and the decision to fire Gerard Gallant, a terrible season was the opposite of what the Panthers wanted. Hopefully they can right the ship before it’s too late.

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

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