NHL 31 in 31 Season Review: Florida Panthers
For the next 31 days, AFP Analytics is going to take a critical look back at how the season played out for all 31 NHL teams, starting with the last place team (Buffalo Sabres) and ending with the Stanley Cup Champions. In addition to a season recap, we will look at some major decisions the team will be facing this offseason.
Next up in our 31 in 31 season review is a look at the Florida Panthers, a team who struggled for much of the season but were in playoff contention into the final weekend of the regular season thanks to a late season surge. Luckily for the Panthers, they now have good hockey men calling the shots once again. They clearly came to their senses after one season of going all in on analytics that the embrace of data clearly does not work. I find it unbelievable that those computer boys couldn’t predict injuries. I turned the sarcasm meter up to 10 to type that. I usually keep this section short but I think it is important to address the premise of what I just typed.
I do not know exactly how many teams employ someone to act as an analyst but I would expect it is more than many would make expect. However, I wonder how much of a voice those analysts are given and how many organizations will fully embrace the use of analytics. Some team will try to fully buy in like the Panthers did two offseasons ago. The problem is teams will look at the Panthers and think the embrace of analytics was a failure and because of that not embrace it themselves. I still think we are a few years away from seeing another team try like the Panthers did. Maybe I am wrong and a team has quietly done just that but from my outside perspective, I don’t see it.
I think all parties with any sort of influence are to blame here. First, although I wrote the first paragraph in this section almost as a satire, it isn’t far off words that have been written by many media members who cover the NHL. When that is the type of perception around analytics and that is the what many fans are reading on a consistent basis, it isn’t difficult to see why NHL teams have a hard time embracing their usage. Even though public relations shouldn’t influence making decisions, it certainly will play a role. Money talks and if fans are fed a negative perception they may stop spending on the team very quickly.
Next, the Florida Panthers were definitely too fast to declare the analytics a failure. Teams usually give at least three years to new regimes to allow them to put their stamp on the team and that should have been the case here as well. The perception around the team likely resulted in them moving on quickly. Part of that was the overly negative media coverage but part of that the Panthers brought on themselves. I don’t want to start a war with what I am about to type but there seems to be too many in the “analytic community” who don’t properly deal with a dissenting opinion. This isn’t unique to hockey and is probably fine in the virtual world but when you start dealing with a business and dealing with people on a day to day basis, you have to be careful with how you treat others.
I wrote a final paper on this topic for a leadership class that I took while working toward my Master’s at Columbia University. That paper was 14 pages of content. As such, this topic is much too complex to fully discuss here so my thoughts provided here are not entirely complete and should be considered as such. However, before I dove into our regular review style, I felt the need to have that discussion as it will add context to the rest of the discussion.
Season Bright Spots
The obvious player to start with is Evgenii Dadonov. The Panthers had a, ahem, questionable offseason. The signing of Dadonov certainly was not a move that played into that. Dadonov was tremendous for the Panthers this season. During 5v5 play, he led the team in Corsi For %, Relative Corsi For %, and Points per 60. When looking at the numbers, it is hard to argue that Dadonov was the best player at even strength for the team.
Alexsander Barkov was another player who had a tremendous season for the Panthers. Barkov, who is still only 22 years old, has quietly developed into one of the league’s premier players. The Panthers raised a few eyebrows when they drafted Barkov 2ndoverall in the loaded 2013 NHL Draft in lieu of Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin. However, his play has certainly validated the Panthers’ decision to take him above those other players. This season he excelled while playing tough minutes for the team. Barkov played the most minutes at 5v5, with a good portion coming against other teams’ top lines, and the Panthers were approximately 3% better when Barkov was on the ice versus when he was off. Not to mention he was also second to Dadonov in 5v5 Points per 60 among regular players. Not bad for a 22-year-old, who is on a team friendly contract for four more seasons.
The final player I player I want to discuss is Nick Bjugstad. Bjugstad seems to be a player who was underappreciated this season. Bjugstad was just behind Barkov in Points per 60 (.03 less) and was second among forwards in his possession numbers during 5v5 play, behind Dadonov but ahead of Barkov. I feel like I see Bjugstad’s name come up as a potential trade candidate regularly. He had struggled the past two seasons but his play this season should quiet those rumors. Despite his play in the previous two seasons, he was still signed to a team friendly contract. There is no reason the Panthers should be entertaining any trade offers on Bjugstad this offseason but who knows after the last offseason.
I’ll start with the low hanging fruit. Seeing Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith go to Vegas and makeup two-thirds of one of the best lines in hockey. The team gave both of those players away in order to clear Smith’s $5M cap hit off their books. This decision made absolutely zero sense. I feel as if I could name at least 20 players at the time who are signed to clearly worse contracts before I would even start to consider Smith. It’s especially shocking that they considered the $5M cap hit a problem because of the guarantee of a cap rise thanks to the Vegas expansion fee. I think most would agree the Panthers made by far the worst decision in the expansion draft.
I am going to continue to harp on the poor decision-making process in Florida and discuss the Mike Matheson contract extension. Let me first say, I don’t think Matheson’s play was necessarily disappointing but the decision to sign him to the contract extension mid-season follows a scary trend of following a poor decision-making process. I don’t think the long-term contract is as much of a problem as many do think but I question the timing of the signing. I see no reason to ever offer a contract extension to a pending restricted free agent until they become a restricted free agent. That philosophy does not apply unilaterally for superstar players like Connor McDavid.
The reason for this philosophy is related to sample size. Obviously, the more information you can collect on a player, the better the decision you can make. It could also save you money in the long run. My philosophy could change if teams actually start to utilize offer sheets but for now, I am sticking buy it. Too often teams will try to lock up a young player as soon as they show signs of promise, which is like buying a stock at its all-time high. It is likely that after three years you should have a pretty good idea of how good of a player your young player is. By waiting the full three years, it’s very likely you will have sorted through the ebbs and flows and are paying the correct price for the player. The worst-case scenario is the player continues to get better and you end up paying them a little more money in the end. But who doesn’t want to see their player continue to get better?
I think, for the most part, players on the Panthers performed generally as expected except for the Panthers’ top defensive pair of Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle. It is less surprising that Yandle’s play is regressing as he is likely on the wrong side of the aging curve and maybe should be used in a role where he sees more sheltered minutes during 5v5 play. I am a Keith Yandle fan but I think the Panthers will certainly come to regret the seven-year contract they gave him. It will probably be a few years too long. The decline in play of 22-year-old Aaron Ekblad has to be concerning. The Panthers performed just under 2% worse when Ekblad was on the ice. This past season was also the first of his career where he finished below 50% in Corsi For %. I don’t know if I have a ready explanation for it but it is a trend to watch. If he bounces back next season, it is likely a blip on the radar but if the poor play continues, the team and their fans certainly have to be concerned.
Don’t continue to undo everything done in the “analytics era!” I probably could leave it at that and it would be the best plan I’ve written yet. However, I’ll expand a little. The team really could use another dynamic scorer or two. Someone like a Reilly Smith or Johanthan Marchessault. Too soon? Ok, NOW I’ll get serious.
The Panthers are set up incredibly well for the next few seasons. Their young core is signed to long-term, team friendly deals and with the salary cap rising the team should have plenty of cap space the next few years. I would recommend they retain their restricted free agents in Jared McCann, Frank Vatrano, Alec Petrovic, and MacKenzie Weegar. After those contracts are signed, they should still have between $9M and $11M in salary cap space unless they choose to go long-term for any of those players.
The question is whether ownership will allow the team to spend the money. Not to beat a dead horse, but the team will have a filled-out roster with enough cap space to fit in both Smith and Marchessault. Having both of those players would be a definite improvement over any other move they could make this offseason to fill the unused cap space. Most likely the Smith/ Marchessault move was made because ownership does not want to spend to the cap, which means the Panthers are likely to have a very quiet offseason.
Please be sure to check in again tomorrow as we take an in-depth look at the Colorado Avalanche. If you enjoyed this review, please follow us on Twitter, @afpanalytics, and share it with your friends!
Stats have been pulled from NaturalStatTrick.com and Corsica.hockey. Salary info from Capfriendly.com.
KYLE STICH is the Director of AFP Analytics. In addition, Mr. Stich is a tax specialist and Director of Operations at AFP Consulting LLC, whose clientele include professional athletes performing services on three separate continents. Mr. Stich earned his Master of Science in Sport Management with a Concentration in Sport Analytics from Columbia University in 2017. He earned his undergraduate degrees in Accounting and Sport Management from St. John Fisher College in 2015, where he has served as an adjunct professor teaching Sport Finance and Baseball Analytics.