All the Panthers could ever do was give themselves a chance

Ryan Lambert
Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) looks up at the scoreboard after scoring goal during the first period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2019, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
The Panthers are hanging with the Atlantic heavyweights. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

When you invest as much into the future of your franchise as the Florida Panthers did this past summer, you expect results.

The problem was that, while they identified their two most glaring weak points — coaching and goaltending — and threw a little extra depth into the deal as well, it always seemed like there wasn’t a ton of wiggle room for them. The reason why was simple: Tampa, Toronto, and Boston all finished last season a mile ahead of them and more or less kept the bands together.

The natural logjam atop the Atlantic Division posed a problem. What could the Panthers’ ceiling reasonably be if three teams that were all but guaranteed yet another 100-plus points come April were blocking the door? The only answer was probably to sneak in through the side window of a wild-card spot and hope for the best.

But then something weird happened. Even as the Panthers started the year disappointingly at 2-2-3 with Sergei Bobrovsky delivering putrid goaltending and the offence underperforming, only Boston looked like anyone expected. Tampa and Toronto have been, shall we say, disappointing to date.

The concerns about “what’s wrong with the Leafs???” are overblown, but the way Tampa is playing so far this season is very discouraging and doesn’t portend an overnight turnaround, though the Lightning certainly have the talent for it. Put another way, there’s plenty of reason to believe the struggles of both clubs will be short-lived, these points are all being left on the table.

That door that seemed closed, locked, barred, and nailed shut just a month ago. Now, it appears wide open, though who knows for how long? Buffalo certainly took advantage with a hot start that’s cooled off quite a bit, and after those early difficulties, Florida is back on track, sitting 5-1-1 in the last seven games with a plus-6 goal difference. Maybe you say there are too many overtime results in the mix to date (six out of their 14 games), but they’re 2-4 in those games so it’s not like they’re getting the full benefit like last year’s Sabres did during their big 10-game win streak.

Right now, the fairest thing you can say about the Panthers is that they’re playing well enough to deserve their spot in the standings — currently third in the Atlantic, but 10th in the whole league by win percentage. Their full-season expected-goals share is middling, at 16th, but at least north of 50 percent. If all things hold true for the rest of the season (of which 68 games still remain, of course) that alone should be enough to support strong goals-for percentages going forward, given their talent up front and, putatively, in net.

Add in the fact that they’re still coming together in the Joel Quenneville system and you have to like their chances to at least remain competitive with Toronto and Tampa for a divisional playoff spot as the season progresses. If we want to throw out those awful first four games, that gives us a sample of 10, during which time their xGF share has grown to 13th, and is hovering a little above 52 percent.

Basically, there’s now believability in this team doing more than hoping for the wild card. Through factors beyond their control — they’ve yet to play Toronto or Boston, and split their two season-openers against Tampa — they’ve at least staked out a position of relative strength that could prop them up and make things interesting in the next few months.

The problem, of course, is that Tampa and Toronto have the depth and high-end skill at every position to not only go on a streak where they take 11 points from seven games — as the Panthers have just done — but also do it multiple times throughout the remainder of the season.

I’m not totally sure you can say that about the Panthers, but they’re making the argument for themselves. Which is more than we might have thought possible at the beginning of the year.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats/salary info via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference, CapFriendly and Corsica unless noted.

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