The Florida Panthers, a hockey team that you might’ve forgotten existed, is 12-3-2 as of Feb. 23. Just two seasons ago, the Panthers did not make the playoffs and were only fifth in the Atlantic Division. Now they’re off to their best start franchise history.
How did Florida get here?
COVID-19 is a huge factor for their early success. For the 2020-21 season only, the NHL’s four divisions realigned in moderation to travel restrictions brought on by COVID-19. Each team only plays games with other teams in their division. There are no inter-divisional games this season, so teams will get familiar with their divisional rivals as the year progresses.
The Panthers are in the Central Division this season, alongside the Tampa Bay Lightning, Dallas Stars, Chicago Blackhawks, and Carolina Hurricanes. It’s a mixed group of difficulty, but also means that the Panthers won’t be as fatigued by travel.
The man behind the Panthers’ bench — Joel Quenneville — is one of the greatest NHL coaches of all time. He led the Blackhawks to three Stanley Cup wins during his 11 years in Chicago. Quenneville joined Florida in 2019 and brought them to fourth in the Atlantic Division, just one spot out of the playoffs.
Having a coach who has winning experience does wonders for a franchise. With a late-season surge in March 2020, the Panthers could have landed a playoff berth under Quenneville’s rule, but COVID halted that.
In the end, it all comes down to the players. The team has a mix of guys in their prime years of peak performance and a cast of young stars with a lot to prove. Seasoned Panthers veteran Johnathan Huberdeau leads the team in points, with seven goals and 15 assists, followed not far behind by team captain Aleksander Barkov with 18 points. These guys are like the South Florida edition of the Oilers’ Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl; they always come in clutch and are likely to score at least one point per game.
A godlike trade that landed right winger Patric Hornqvist from the Penguins in exchange for cringeworthy defenseman Mike Matheson bolstered the Panthers’ offense with some more veteran presence with ample playoff experience.
Although the defense hasn’t ever been one of the Panthers’ strong suits, their top pairing of Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle are solid. Both of them feed loads of high-powered shots to the net and sacrifice their bodies against the inevitable barrage of shots from offensive-oriented teams like the Lightning or the Stars. Lightning veteran Anton Stralman bolsters the blue line with more reliable backchecking.
Goaltending is both the team’s Achilles heel and saving grace. Starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky was signed to a lucrative contract for seven years at $70 million, which sounds like a deal suited for one of the best goalies in the world: Except he isn’t.
Backup rookie goalie Chris Driedger has outperformed Bobrovsky in virtually every key metric this season; goals-against average (2.35 to 3.18), save percentage (0.926 to 0.889), and goals allowed (19 to 26). Also, Driedger is paid less than a tenth of Bob’s yearly salary.