The next coach of the Florida Panthers (presuming Tom Rowe heads back upstairs when the season is out) will be the walking into a situation most coaches don’t inherit when they move into a new corner office.
The Panthers have taken advantage of a trio of top-three picks in a span of four years to build a promising core composed of top defenseman Aaron Ekblad (first overall, 2014), ace pivot Aleksander Barkov (second overall, 2013), and winger Jonathan Huberdeau (third overall, 2011) that sets the Cats up well for the future.
However, the promise blended together with growth of the young club in the past two seasons wasn’t enough to save the job of Gerard Gallant, who unceremoniously fired on Sunday following a loss to the Hurricanes in Raleigh.
The firing was a shock given Gallant’s .583 points percentage since taking over in 2014 was 51 percentage points higher than second-best mark (Doug MacLean, .532, 1995-97) among the 13 coaches in Florida’s franchise history. It was no shock given Gallant’s coaching philosophy wasn’t necessarily in lock-step with the heavy analytical approach hockey operations has chosen to take.
No matter what the opinions are, whose philosophy is what, who is right, and who is wrong, one thing is certain: the Panthers are set up for the future like few other teams are. And it is their’s to screw up.
Florida has been the latest battleground between the analytics crowd and the eyeballs crowd. While advanced statistics and puck possession metrics have become more of a fixture in front offices in recent years, no team has dove into the pool of data quite like Florida has.
The Panthers made significant changes to its roster this past summer, performing a gut renovation of its defense corps, building around Ekblad, who was given an eight-year, $60 million extension. Gone was Brian Campbell, Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, and Willie Mitchell; replaced with Jason Demers, Mark Pysyk, and Keith Yandle, who was lured to South Florida with a seven-year, $44 million deal. Florida was basing itself on speed, skill, and emphasizing possession, starting on the back-end and going forward.
Growing pains were expected and they’ve happened. The hope is the group, along with promising young blue liner Michael Matheson will grow into a corps modelling the Pittsburgh blue line – anchored by Kris Letang and emphasized speed, getting the puck to the next level, and being in the rush – which helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup last season.
Offseason pick up Jonathan Marchessault has been one of the bigger returns on investment in the league, signing a two-year, $1.5 million deal over the summer. He leads the team with 10 goals in 22 games, filling in nicely for Huberdeau, who is expected to miss the first three to four months of the season with a leg injury.
Marchessault, skating alongside Barkov and Jaromir Jagr, have been one of the top lines in the league. According the corsica, the Panthers have a five-on-five corsi-for of 55.74 percent, third-best of any threesome on the ice together for more than 150 minutes this season. Their 46.71 corsi allowed trails only the Bruins top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, and David Pastrnak.
Roberto Luongo is 37 and not getting any younger, but is still showing no signs of aging. As he gets further into his twilight years, the Panthers will look to 2015 third-rounder Samuel Montembeault, who isn’t expected to be NHL-ready for a few more years but continues to grow as he mans the crease for Blainville-Boisbriand in the QMJHL, ranked 10th in the most recent CHL poll.
There will be many eyes on the Panthers in the coming years, given the approach the organization has taken in building the team’s future. Plenty of coaches should be lined up for the job opening behind the bench when comes open in the spring.
But if we look back upon the Huberdeau/Barkov/Ekblad years as something that could’ve been, it won’t be because the Panthers lacked talent.