Well, I was kind of really wrong with my prediction for the Florida Panthers. A “team full of second and third liners” was what I called them. So now, our friends in southern Florida are all yelling:
So I’d say that the Panthers are definitely the surprise team at this point in the season. Whoddathunk that the Panthers would be sitting atop the Southeast Division while Washington and Tampa were out of the top 8 teams in the Eastern Conference? Now the question is can the Panthers keep it up? Do they have enough to win the division for the first time ever and make the playoffs for the first time since 2000?
Yes, they do.
The top line of Stephen Weiss, Kris Versteeg, and Tomas Fleischmann has just absolutely been on fire this entire season. Versteeg leads the team in goals (16) and points (34) and is finally making his naysayers that he’s known his entire career eat their words about him. He’s on pace for almost 40 goals this season and has a good shot at getting close to it. His production isn’t the most surprising thing in the world considering his past 20 goal seasons and the fact that he’s never really had the opportunity of playing consistent first line minutes, but still, he’s been very impressive.
Tomas Fleischmann has always been known as a guy with offensive ability but was also playing the shadow of the likes of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Semin in Washington. He made the most out of the trade that sent him to the Colorado Avalanche, scoring at nearly a point per game pace. But disaster struck with an injury that knocked him out for the remainder of the season. He seems to have picked up from where he left off before he was sidelined.
The pivot of the top line, Stephen Weiss, is finally breaking out the way I’ve been expecting him to for the past few years. I guess it has a lot to do with good chemistry with his linemates, but Weiss is definitely one of the more underrated offensive talents in the league. It’s good for the Panthers that he’ll finally get the recognition via his production that he deserves.
On the defensive side, Brian Campbell is doing what he does best, which is put up points. His 25 ranks him second in the league among defenseman. Surprise scorer Jason Garrison has potted 10 goals, including 6 powerplay goals, and leads the league in goals among defensemen. Finally, Dmitry Kulikov’s 20 points aren’t too shabby either.
In 33 games this season, Florida has scored 90 goals, which puts them 15th in the league in goals per game. They don’t give up many goals, having a goals against per game of 2.42, good for 7th. Their special teams are solid as well. They’re set up to win the Southeast with relative ease, as the teams behind them don’t seem to want to have anything to do with a divisional crown. The Lightning, whom I thought were just having a bit of a rocky start, is just not a good team. And the Capitals can’t seem to get anything together. Still I’m not ready to put them in the elite branch of NHL teams.
The big reason is the lack of scoring depth. This will be their downfall come playoff time. Right now, out of their 90 goals scored, 39 of them have come from the top line of Weiss, Versteeg, and Fleischmann. That’s 43%. Now, add in Garrison’s goals and we find that 54.4% of the Panthers goals have come from 4 players. That’s one trick pony territory if I’ve ever seen it. The next best goal scorer is Sean Bergenheim, who has 7 on the season so far and amazingly, no assists. Shawn Matthias is next with 5 goals.
Okay, but as long as they’re not scoring, if they’re not allowing goals, they should be fine, right? Take the +/- of the team without taking the four top scorers’. The team is a combined -66.
Yes, that’s bad. Yes, Scottie Upshall’s been out, but even he only had 1 goal in 15 games. And maybe a healthy Mikael Samuelsson can provide a spark.
What does this mean? It means that if you can shut down the top line of the Panthers, you’re going to win almost every game you play against them. Outside of the 4 top goal scorers, Kulikov is the only player with more than 1 powerplay goal: he has 2. If you look at the teams who enjoy any sort of success in the playoffs, and the teams that ultimately go on to win the Stanley Cup, superior scoring depth is one of the main common traits these teams share. Yeah, you might be able to shut down the top line, but do you have the resources on your team to then shut down the second and third lines? If you’re playing the Panthers, most playoff teams absolutely do.
Can the Panther’s defense withstand an offensive onslaught from a team like the Bruins, Flyers, or Penguins in a seven game series? Can they rely on Brian Campbell and Jason Garrison to be “the guys” on the blueline to shut down opposing forwards?
Making the playoffs and a possible divisional crown is a great step in the right direction for the Panthers. They can attract talent from around the league in free agency if they think they’ve got a shot at success. It’s just simply not their time yet.