By: Luke Johns
Without a doubt the surprise of this NHL season has been the Florida Panthers. After a mediocre 91 point season last year as well as years of being a laughing stock of the Eastern Conference, the Panthers sit all alone at the top of the Atlantic Division.
They made headlines on Dec. 27 when they beat the Columbus Blue Jackets propelling them into first place. That was halfway through their historic 12-game winning streak, and haven’t looked back since. The ultimate question that’s come from all this: are the Florida Panthers for real?
They remind me of the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays. For years the Devil Rays were the little brother of the American League East and all of a sudden in 2008 (coincidentally right when they changed their name), they were good. Their years of high draft picks were paying off and turning into real MLB players and general manager Andrew Friedman made a lot of smart moves to form that roster. You can compare that to how over the last few years Florida had high enough draft picks to select Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad—all of whom are young studs who have the potential to be good for a long time. On top of that General Manager Dale Tallon has made key acquisitions such as Reilly Smith, Roberto Luongo and Willie Mitchell over the years to form this team’s core.
It’s also worth noting that the Rays had Cliff Floyd who was considered the perfect clubhouse presence to shepherd the young talent, Florida can boast their own great locker room guy in Jaromir Jagr to show the young talent what it takes to thrive in the NHL—of course it doesn’t hurt that Jagr brings his Hall of Fame resume to the Panthers as well.
For most of the 2008 season I wasn’t buying the Rays. I figured their early success was a fluke and they’d fade down the stretch. Sure enough I was wrong and they made it all the way to the World Series.
So how about these similar Florida Panthers? I have two different answers. In terms of the regular season, they are indeed for real. The season is well past the halfway point and the Panthers record speaks for itself. It’d be foolish to think they won’t be in the playoff hunt come April.
That being said I’m not buying them to do any damage in the playoffs. Keep in mind while they do sit at the top of the Atlantic, it’s a very congested division with all the playoff contending teams below them very close to one-another points wise. Also not taking away from Florida’s first-place status, but they peaked during their 12-game winning streak that propelled them into first.
So while I wouldn’t be shocked if they beat a wild card team in the first round, I don’t see them getting past round two. The NHL playoffs are a whole new animal where puck possession and physicality from skaters is essential. The Panthers are a middle of the pack team with hits and while there’s no true stat to measure puck possession, you could make the argument that being 28th in shots per game means they don’t have the puck enough to get a lot of shots.
For at least this year relying on Jagr and Mitchell’s playoff experience isn’t going to be enough for the Panthers to make a deep run. This season’s success will provide invaluable experience for the younger players in years to come, but this year I’m not buying the Panthers as Stanley Cup contenders.