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How the Panthers went from Cup contenders to playoff pretenders so quickly

Months after setting franchise records in wins and points en route to the Presidents' Trophy, the Panthers are trudging through a historically bad encore season.

It's been a rough start to Paul Maurice's tenure behind the Panthers bench. (Photo via USA TODAY Sports)
It's been a rough start to Paul Maurice's tenure behind the Panthers bench. (Photo via USA TODAY Sports)

The 2021-22 regular campaign was magical for the Florida Panthers, who won their first-ever Presidents’ Trophy after finishing with a league-best 122 points. This season, however, the team has fallen from grace at a historic rate.

With the calendar freshly flipped to 2023, the team entered Tuesday at 16-18-4 with 36 points through 38 contests, good for 13th (!!) in the Eastern Conference. That puts them eight points shy of the final wild-card seed — currently owned by the Pittsburgh Penguins — and needing to leapfrog five franchises to surge back into contention.

The Panthers have dug themselves a pretty large hole through the first half of 2022-23, but with 44 games remaining, there’s still time to salvage this campaign. As of now, though, they’re trending toward being on the wrong side of history.

Since the Presidents’ Trophy was first awarded in 1986, only three winners have missed the playoffs the following season: the 1992-93 New York Rangers, the 2007-08 Buffalo Sabres and the 2014-15 Boston Bruins.

The Rangers went from the top of their class to 19th overall in just one season, earning only 79 points, which remains the worst year-to-year decline since ‘86. They did, however, regain form in a hurry, capturing both the Presidents' Trophy and Stanley Cup in 1993–94.

Buffalo, meanwhile, dropped to 18th overall and racked up 90 points, finishing four back of the final playoff spot following their first-overall season. Boston came even closer during its post Presidents’ Trophy-winning campaign, ranking 17th overall and missing the postseason by just two points.

Barring a dramatic mid-season turnaround, the Panthers are on pace to topple the ‘93 Rangers in this regard, as they currently sit tied for 23rd in points and rank 25th in points percentage (.474) this season. That’s quite the downturn from where this club sat a year ago.

So what has caused Florida to transition from a Presidents’ Trophy winner to a potential draft lottery team in such a short time? And is it possible to overcome these woes before it’s too late?

The Panthers still have a mathematical chance to make the playoffs, with their odds currently sitting at 16.7 percent, according to MoneyPuck. To pull off that feat, though, they’ll require improved performances from goaltenders Sergei Bobrovsky and Spencer Knight.

Goaltending is just one of the things plaguing the Panthers this season. (Getty)
Goaltending is just one of the things plaguing the Panthers this season. (Getty)

Bobrovsky — in the fourth season of a seven-year, $70-million contract — has posted career worsts in goals-against average (3.32) and save percentage (.894) across 23 games in 2022-23. Knight has also registered the worst goals-against average (3.00) and save percentage (.907) of his young career.

The Panthers have surrendered the 10th-most goals per game (3.42) in the league, which is clearly no recipe for success. It is also a significant step back from being tied for the 10th-fewest goals allowed per game (2.95) last season.

The Panthers were led repeatedly by their goaltending duo in 2021-22, as Bobrovsky ranked third in save percentage above expected (0.009) and fourth in goals saved above expected (23.4). Knight was also much more effective in his limited opportunities, posting 4.0 goals saved above expected and a 0.003 save percentage above expected.

That hasn’t occurred this season, however, with both netminders recording minus-2.0 goals saved above expected or worse and a minus-0.002 save percentage above expected. Altogether, they’ve been worth a combined minus-0.71 Wins Above Replacement, down significantly from last season’s 4.56 mark.

What’s worse is that Florida is allowing significantly fewer high-danger chances this season, ranking 15th in HD shots against at 5-on-5 after finishing 31st a season ago. As a result, they’ve gone from placing 20th in expected goals against at 5-on-5 to 10th in 2022-23, but they aren’t reaping the rewards of that progress.

The Panthers have also been plagued by injuries this season, with Anthony Duclair — who hasn’t played since 2021-22 due to offseason Achilles tendon surgery — and Patric Hörnqvist (concussion) currently residing on long-term injured reserve. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Aaron Ekblad missed 11 games due to a lower-body injury, although his team went 6-4-1 without him. But the 26-year-old hasn’t been the same since returning, tallying four goals and 14 points on the season, putting the talented defenceman on pace for his lowest points per game total (0.52) since 2018-19.

Aleksander Barkov, the club’s No. 1 centre and best player, has also missed time due to an illness and a leg injury, limiting him to 28 games. Anton Lundell and Radko Gudas also endured extended absences because of respective upper-body and head injuries.

With so many bodies constantly in and out of Florida’s lineup, compounded by the offseason blockbuster that sent Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar to Calgary in exchange for Matthew Tkachuk, creating chemistry has proven extremely difficult.

Inconsistent lineup combinations have also likely played a major factor on special teams — another area the Cats have struggled immensely in compared to last season.

In 2021-22, the Panthers were tied with the Nashville Predators for the fourth best power play league-wide (24.4%), led by Huberdeau’s team-leading 38 points on the man advantage. Florida also ranked middle-of-the-pack (16th) with a 79.5 percent penalty kill rate.

Florida’s skaters have failed to replicate those encouraging figures this season, though, placing 22nd in penalty kill percentage (74.8) and 24th in power play percentage (19.3). They’ve also allowed four short-handed markers, on pace to surrender eight or more for a second straight year.

Interestingly, creating offence at even strength hasn’t been an issue for this group in 2022-23, as they rank top five in corsi (54.2) and sixth in expected goals percentage (54.4). The team is also tied for 10th in the league in overall goals scored with 124 as of this writing.

A little more puck luck around the net would help for sure, but not even an uptick in scoring can cover up their goaltending and special teams woes, or make up for their average defensive corps so far. That will all have to turn around — quickly — for the Panthers to claw back into playoff contention in the second half.

And with zero first-round picks through 2025 at their disposal, paired with a subpar farm system, there almost certainly won’t be any season-altering trade acquisitions walking through the door this time, leaving Panthers GM Bill Zito between a rock and a hard place.

Head coach Paul Maurice is also in a very tough spot in his first season with the franchise, one in which he was hoping to redeem himself after going 13-11-5 before leaving the Winnipeg Jets in December 2021. All he's done so far, however, is oversee potentially one of the biggest single-year drop-offs in NHL history.

Luckily for Maurice and the Panthers, time is still their friend — but it will fade, and fast.

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