Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers were the laughing stock of the NHL this off-seaosn after the former made numerous ridiculous signings and trades in an effort to get his team above the salary cap floor. There were a lot who believed that this team would be one of the worst in the league yet again and doomed for years to come. We are over a month into the season now and Florida finds themselves at 8-5-3 and two points out of the top spot of the Southeast Division. Whenever a bad team like this gets off to a hot start, my first inclination is to look at their underlying numbers to see how much luck they've been receiving (see the Ducks last year) and find out if they are as good as they appear. Florida has gotten their fair share of luck but the difference is they have actually played well over their first 16 games.
More after the jump
Here's Florida's underlying numbers compared to last season:
|Year||Corsi w/Score Tied||5v5 SF/60||5v5 SA/60||5v5 +/- per60
||5v5 Sh%||5v5 SV%||5v4 SF/60||% of 5v4 goals|
Florida's underlying numbers have gotten slightly better in a few areas this year. Some of it is good and some of it is bad. The good news is that they are driving possession a lot better than they were last season. One thing that was overlooked in their off-season debacle was that a lot of the players they acquired could play well territorially against tough matchups (Marcel Goc and Sean Bergenheim come to mind). That doesn't make them a playoff team and they overpaid for both players but they are playing their roles well. In fact, they actually aren't shooting the puck at that high of a rate at even strength so they could see their even strength scoring pick up soon.
What makes me skeptical of Florida's strong start is that their goalies are playing out of their minds at even strength. I like Jose Theodore but I find it hard to believe that a goalie who has consistently been one of the worst performers in this category will sustain a .937 even strength save percentage. Florida's actually giving up more shots 5-on-5 than they were last season and that was with Tomas Vokoun as their starter. If Theodore, Scott Clemmensen and rookie Jacob Markstrom manage to outperform Vokoun then I will be shocked. If we adjust their save percentage to the league average they end up giving up 13 more goals at even strength.
Another thing is that Florida's relied heavily on their powerplay for scoring. The Panthers are barely outscoring their opponents in 5-on-5 play (29-27) and 26% of their goals have come on the powerplay. Granted, they did bring in some improvements this off-season with Kris Versteeg and Brian Campbell but Versteeg scored a total of six powerplay goals last season and he's already got four now. Jason Garrison has three of his goals on the powerplay, someone who had a total of zero PPG's prior to this season. Their powerplay is also 13th in the league when it comes to getting shots on net, so while it's definitely improving, I don't belive it's as good as the results show.
One thing I have to give the Panthers credit for is how Kevin Dineen is using his forwards. The signing of Marcel Goc was something that was kind of overlooked this off-season. I say that because Goc was one of Nashville's best players when it came to playing tough minutes and beating them. This frees up easier minutes for other two-way players on the team (i.e. Stephen Weiss) and allows them to focus more on scoring.
|Player||OZone%||Corsi ON||On-ice Sh%|
Dineen is burying Goc with tough assignments and he is amazingly winning all of them. Skille, Upshall and Kopecky are also doing a great job and this is freeing up softer ice-time for Florida's more offensive threats. It should not surprise you that Fleischmann, Versteeg and Weiss are their top scoring forwards. Sure, they are getting some puck luck with those shooting percentages but Goc is taking a load off their shoulders when it comes to zone starts.
If Goc can continue to win his matchups then Florida might have a chance to exceed people's expectations this season. I still don't think they will make the playoffs because a save percentage that high from their goaltenders just isn't going to sustain but for now, they are playing some good hockey. Enjoy it Panthers fans.