What will happen with the upcoming resumption of NHL play? Predictability has never been the hallmark of the Stanley Cup playoffs. In this season, so distinctly different from any other, predictions seem even more foolhardy. Enter the Florida Panthers.
Going back a decade or more, predicting the Stanley Cup winner based on regular season play has been, well, not useful. It’s been more misleading than helpful. That isn’t to say the regular season doesn’t matter this time around. Indeed, it matters a lot since there will be a qualifying round. Sixteen teams will require an extra round just to qualify for the playoffs. This alone makes their journey much harder.
Unsettled Seasons and Florida Panthers Joel Quenneville
When life is unsettled, I look less at the players and more at the leadership. To me, this most resembles a season shortened by a labor dispute. The most recent example was a 48-game season coming in 2012–13 (which occurred, in its entirety, in 2013). But I’ll also look at two NFL seasons shortened by labor issues, both coming back in the 1980s.
Why does this make sense? The NHL is in a chaotic situation. This isn’t really different from other sports leagues. They all, to some degree, face chaos. How people react to chaos has a lot to do with success.
In 2012–13, the Chicago Blackhawks came out of the lockout and were on fire for the entire regular season, before running the table in the playoffs to hoist a Stanley Cup. The head coach? Joel Quenneville, one of the most successful coaches in NHL history. He understood how to handle the chaos better than anyone else and it showed.
In the two NFL shortened seasons, chaos also came from labor issues. The 1982 season saw the league only play nine games instead of the usual 16. In the 1987 season, the league managed 15 games. The NFL dealt with a mid-season strike, resulting in one missed game and three games played with replacement players. And the Super Bowl champion in both seasons had the same head coach. The coach? Joe Gibbs, one of the most successful coaches in NFL history.
I’ll also note the last two seasons the Olympics interrupted the NHL, the Stanley Cup champions played good hockey in February, the month with the disruptions.
There’s not a lot to go on, but a team’s ability to handle the atypical is going to be key. And coaching, it seems, has greater relevance — favouring the Florida Panthers.
2020 Florida Panthers
So if I’m looking for a team with an edge heading into this chaos, I’m looking hard at the coaches. And while there are a few names which stand out, the name which sits above the rest is, well, Joel Quenneville. He took chaos and won a cup in 2013. It’s possible he does again. His current team? The Florida Panthers, for those who need reminding.
But the Panthers strike me as the sort of team capable of making a run. The coach is a great fit for this environment. And the roster is talented, even if the team gets little national, or even local, attention.
The cynic in me says the 2020 Florida Panthers have what amounts to an advantage, since they’ll play in an arena without fans. The Panthers fan base is, well, whatever the opposite of rabid is. Over the years, it has been depressing to watch Panthers home games due to the lack of attendance and lack of energy in the building. An empty and quiet arena is something the Panthers players have experienced over the years.
Do the 2020 Florida Panthers have the talent? This is another issue. They have five players who scored 20 or more goals, a sixth player tallied 19. They have solid veteran defencemen. The team has three skaters who are legit stars in Johnathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, and the electrifying Sasha Barkov. Plus they have a top-tier goal scorer in Mike Hoffman. The team also has respectable role players. Brian Boyle, for example, has been in the playoffs nine seasons in a row.
So why did the Panthers finish with a modest record? Goaltending. Well, defence and goaltending. The Panthers allowed more goals (228) than any team headed into the season’s restart (and four teams who aren’t).
The Panthers have a premier goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky, but the two-time Vezina winner had a problematic season. Of course, the question is often whether the issue is the goalie or the defence?
In early March and with an injured Bobrovsky, Quenneville handed the reigns over to Chris Driedger, who posted three strong games, allowing just one regulation goal in each of the Panthers’ final three games. For the season, Driedger delivered a stellar save percentage of .938 in a dozen appearances. Bobrovsky, who joined the Panthers this season, was a miserable .900 while the Panthers other backup, Sam Montembeau was at .890.
Goaltending is the issue for the Panthers and it might be about as random as it gets. Goalies are voodoo and the Panthers will go nowhere if the voodoo is wrong. But if it works, the talent is there. Still, in this unusual situation, I like the odds of Quenneville getting the best out of his netminder, whoever he goes with.
This season, the playoffs will be about things that aren’t quite the norm. Teams will not have time to get in synch, so expect more penalties. But also, more short-handed goals. Teams that figure things out quickly will have a substantial advantage. Some will say the Panthers defence is a problem and it’s hard to argue. But defence is usually something which takes time to get right. It’s likely other teams will have their own share of struggles.
The 2020 Florida Panthers have a competitive roster of skaters. They have some balance; this is not a one-line team. If the goaltending is right, this is a competitive team. They have a coach who has proven his team can thrive in chaos.
Wild Ride to the Stanley Cup
As of now, I’m still thinking the NHL is making a mistake trying to finish the season. COVID-19 is a tough and opportunistic disease and it never does sleep. The best way to prevent transmission is to avoid having other people breathing on you. Hockey doesn’t work that way.
But if things do come off as planned, or something like that, expect a wild ride. To borrow a metaphor, this is the season to bet on the jockey, not the horse. To mix the metaphor (and species), the Panthers are a long shot, but they have a jockey built for this unusual run.
The Panthers have to win what amounts to five playoff rounds. The usual four is a tough enough road. Plus, their opening round is against another coach who’ll likely get his team playing well, and quickly. It wouldn’t shock me if the winner of the Isles–Panthers series is holding the Cup when all is said and done.
It will be interesting to see which teams thrive with the chaos we’re about to see. Assuming, that is, we actually get to see it.
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