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Florida Panthers Playoffs Start Now

One year ago, the Florida Panthers won the President’s Trophy after finishing with the highest point total league-wide. Today, roughly 45% of the way through the 2022-23 season, circumstances sit in a drastically different position. With a record of 16-16-4, the team sits on the outside of the playoff race looking in. And the gap ahead of them remains significant. Out of 16 Eastern Conference teams, Florida falls in 12th place. Out of eight Atlantic Division squads, the Panthers occupy sixth. The last playoff spots currently belong to teams holding 44 points in the standings; Florida owns just 36. The race isn’t over yet, as they still have 46 games ahead to play. But for the Panthers, the playoffs begin now.

Florida Panthers Playoffs Begin Now

The regression the Panthers experienced from last year to this year cannot be summed up easily. The difficulty in pinpointing the root cause comes from the fact that the team overhauled many different aspects of the team. With multiple changes comes multiple variables, so identifying which variable triggered the struggles also comes with a degree of difficulty. (Perhaps, the real question is: why would the President’s Trophy Winners change so much?)

Panthers Franchise Shuffles Drastically over Summer

The first major shuffle came in late June when the team announced Paul Maurice as their head coach. Many expected Andrew Brunette to retain his job. After all, he led Florida to the best season in franchise history, and their first playoff series victory since 1996. All of that occurred after the team parted with head coach Joel Quenneville early in the season.

After more details came to light regarding the disturbing events in the Chicago Blackhawks history, Quenneville was no longer desired as the team’s bench boss. Brunette, the team’s assistant coach at the time, took over with an “interim” title.

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Despite the “interim” tag, Brunette’s departure shocked the hockey world. The Panthers lost in the first round of every playoffs they qualified for since 1996, until last year. Brunette coached that team that finally beat the curse. Instead of retaining his services, Maurice took over. Maurice brought a long history of coaching experience, known for his systems and team-focused approach to the job.

Roster Shake-Up in Florida

Once free agency opened in July, Florida re-tooled with an array of depth forwards and defencemen. Marc Staal, Nick Cousins, Colin White, Chris Tierney, Michael Del Zotto, and Rudolfs Balcers each inked deals with the Panthers. None of those names jump out as big acquisitions, but the group altogether provided much more competition, experience and grit within the organization.

That said, the biggest splash came in late July when General Manager Bill Zito executed perhaps the largest trade in franchise history. Lifelong Panther MacKenzie Weegar, Face-of-the-Franchise Jonathan Huberdeau, prospect Cole Schwindt, and a 2025 first-round pick all departed the franchise in the move. They landed with the Calgary Flames, who shipped back one of the best hockey players in the world in Matthew Tkachuk. A fourth-round pick in 2025 came back Florida’s way too, but Tkachuk without a doubt was the prize piece of this deal.

Shakeups Failing, Panthers Must Push for Playoffs

The combined result of all the above changes simply looks rough. This team went 58-18-6 last year, earning a whopping 122 points in the standings. With 46 games remaining this year, they already sit just two regulation losses away from their total a year ago. To tie last season’s record, the team must go an impossible 42-2-2.

Obviously, that won’t happen. Nor should it be their goal. The Panthers’ focus shifts just to simply qualifying for the playoffs. And in order to do that, they must leapfrog a minimum of four teams in the East. The eight-point gap must shrink quickly, as most of the teams to catch sit up above that threshold.

How the Panthers can Reclaim their Season

If Florida mounts a comeback, it’ll likely occur only if the team goes back to the style of hockey that made them so good last season. In fact, the recipe that worked in Florida began sometime before even last season. Their elite skill, speed, and playmaking ability drove them to the playoffs over the past three seasons. It finally culminated in a playoff series victory last summer and looked to be trending in the right direction.

Then, Maurice arrived and changed their philosophy. He took a lot of the creativity out of their game and worked hard at improving the team’s two-way game via systems. When Quenneville and Brunette were in charge, the team improved defensively not based on the systematic play but based on strong leadership and effort.

Huberdeau became a penalty killer for the first time in his career. Patric Hornqvist and Radko Gudas led by example with physical play and presence. All season long, the Florida Panthers playoffs goal remained to own home-ice advantage. The President’s Trophy assured them of that.

Those sorts of facets fell out of the game plan under Maurice. Tkachuk leads the team in scoring, so his acquisition remains a bright spot. But there remains a clear lack of strength on the blue line. Instead of addressing that, the team over-adjusted and asked all their forwards to play a more defensive-minded style.

Florida Panthers Playoffs Must Begin Now

Despite all the negatives, Florida remains in the top ten of scoring league-wide. Aleksander Barkov and Tkachuk provide dynamic talent and both score above a point-per-game pace. Where the issue remains is on defence, as they also sit in the top ten in goals allowed. Goaltending hasn’t been great either, as their netminders leave the team down at 22nd in save percentage, at a dismal .894 %.

Because the Panthers sit so far below the playoffs bubble, going out and making a trade to buy a goalie or defenceman remains unlikely. It looks nearly impossible to justify spending to upgrade the roster today, in a season that sits closer to being a waste than to being a success. Aaron Ekblad exists as the only true top-pair defender in their franchise. Gustav Forsling and Brandon Montour appear to be the only other two worthy of a regular spot in the top four. Gudas remains out with a concussion, Staal has been downright bad, and the rest sits right at replacement-level talent.

Still, that group in the room must find a way out of it, or risk further changes this next offseason too. Worse yet, if the team struggles through January, they could become sellers at the deadline. What a major regression that would be; from President’s Trophy Winners to deadline scraps in just one year. As a result, the playoffs start immediately for the Panthers.

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