For Better and for Worse at the Same Time
The Panthers, smoking into the break with six straight wins, lost their mojo and then Alexsander Barkov for three games. So instead of movin’ on up in the East side, they left Philadelphia Monday night with just one win in their last six, feeling like their next loss might be the one to keep them out of the playoffs, which it very well might.
“The break has killed us,” said GM Dale Tallon. Hasn’t seemed to slow down the Lightning, Penguins or Flyers though, nor rest predominating thoughts that, so far, Sergei Bobrovsky has been a $70 million dud and that for $35 million, Joel Quenneville still couldn’t bring Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith in their primes with him from Chicago.
For all that money, just doesn’t seem fair, like the reality of a Panthers winning percentage that has them on a pace for 95 points, a nine-point improvement from a year ago and yet the path to the same nada and bubkas.
Quenneville used his third pair defense of Mike Matheson and Mark Pysyk as a fourth line Tuesday night in Newark. Might as well becuase those guys weren't stopping anybody anyway, and it wroked for an astonishing eight points. The Panthers gained on the Flyers and Hurricanes, not on the Leafs but a win is a win is a win because even when you are moving ahead in the Eastern Conference, you can be falling farther behind. The Panthers are better, like the Flyers are better and that even the Hurricanes and Islanders, who played each other in the second round last spring, are better, too.
This is not to mention the Blue Jackets, for whom–Holy Vlady Gavrikov!–less so far seems to be more. Columbus lost the two biggest free agents, Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin, and it still playing to a higher winning percentage than a year ago, when it got to round two. Yet all these clubs are scrambling to get in, just like the Leafs, who are never going to win a Cup this way but based on their current winning percentage, surely can get 96 points, which still might not be enough, as it wasn’t for Montreal in 2018-19.
See the way it’s generally worked since 1917 is that when some teams get better, others get worse. Natural selection. Kill or be killed. Then came the salary cap, the three-point game, and a conference in which only the Red Wings have taken a big dip. Toronto and Montreal are just a little bit off and the Canadiens have won nine of their last 13, so perhaps not off for long. Everybody else, even the Devils, are ahead of last year’s pace or only marginally trailing it.
“The East is as good as it has been in a longtime,” said Quenneville. “When we were in Chicago we felt like we had the tougher conferenc but now it’s at least balanced or overweighted to the East.”
He was being kind to his old haunts. The Pacific Division has fallen into the sea, the fault belonging to San Andreas, even if managements wanted to blame Pete DeBoer, Randy Carlyle and John Stevens. None of those teams improved with coaching changes because, duh, you need players to win. Meanwhile, back in the East, practically nobody is going south.
“Seems like every team we are playing right now is fighting for that same space in the standings,” said Quenneville.
Maybe the East has gotten tougher because he is coaching in it. Or, maybe top to near bottom, the West really never was so superior. Until the Penguins won back-to-back, the West took seven of the first ten Cups after the lockout but only twice in the nine years Quenneville coached the Blackhawks did clubs that finished with 91 points or more–the 2014-15 Kings and 2017-18 Blues–fail to make the playoffs.
We interrupt this history even older than Keith Yandle looked on Monday night to point out the East is now far deeper than Alex Kovalev ever dumped the puck. “The numbers it will take to get in, it probably will be as high as we’ve seen,” said Quenneville.
Oh, for the good old days of the Norris Division, when men were men, the Leafs were the same old Leafs, 16 of 21 teams made the playoffs, and a $7 million-a-year messiah could be a Coach of the Year candidate after improving his team by nine points, rather than producing a miss of the playoffs for the fifth year in a row; eighth out of nine and yikes, 19th time in 22.
Where have you gone Robert Svehla? The early Panther fans got spoiled fast, first throwing the rats, and then by the time the franchise moved out to the burbs, starting to smell one. Now this team seems to add a good player every year and still remains on a treadmill.
From 103 points under Gerard Gallant in 2015-16 to 81 the next year when Gallant got fired after 22 games – how did that work out for you Dale? – back up to 96, and down to 86 go the Panthers. Whatever. Let us know when you win a playoff round for the first time since that Year Three run to the finals; in the meantime we’ve got some golfing and fishing to do. Only the Senators, who are lame, and the Islanders, who are a lame duck in sub-NHL facilities in Brooklyn and Uniondale, have worse home attendance than Florida.
The Panthers have a good team. When they have the puck. When the other club inevitably gets it, the Panthers have the fourth-worst team, and the worst among the teams in the playoffs or within five points of it. It’s a lot easier to suggest Bobrovsky’s .898 save percentage is .10 below the league average than to look at the high danger scoring chance against on the year, where the league average is 158 and the Panthers have surrendered 190.
Aaron Ekblad, the first overall pick in 2014, is a No. 1 defenseman who hasn’t been seen on a Norris ballot since his second year in the league. Riley Stillman has developed into D you can win with. After that? “Hard to find defenders,” says Tallon.
Toronto gets all the derision for that while Florida gets just as burned and not just for geographical reasons.
All that said, Barkov is really a good player. Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov can score and the Panthers are only two points behind the Leafs. With 25 games to go and about as much separation in the conference, as Eugene Melnyk and his last Canadian dollar, from here on in it won’t be about which team is best on paper but who gets hotter or luckier or stays healthiest or helps itself the most at the trading deadline.
We predict the Panthers will win a playoff round again before global warning makes Florida uninhabitable. But don’t hold us to it, please. Used to be that “you gotta come to play every night’ was a lament to offer after you got shut out by Dominic Roussel. Now it’s reality. And to two playoff-caliber teams in the East who won’t be attending, their worst nightmares.