The Florida Panthers are 4-0-0 to start a season for the first time in franchise history. Not only do they remain undefeated, but they’ve also knocked off perennial playoff teams and Stanley Cup favourites in the New York Islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning, and Colorado Avalanche along the way. It begs the question, why are they off to such a hot start and, more importantly, can they keep it up?
All Around Scoring
The Panthers were always a team that could put the puck in the net, finishing last season with the third-most goals in the NHL. However, they did that playing only the same seven teams, including the defensively porous Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. This season, in just four games, they’ve already put up 18 goals, tied with the Edmonton Oilers for the league’s best. Edmonton has faced the likes of the Arizona Coyotes and the Anaheim Ducks so far, while the Panthers faced three defensive stalwarts and the normally defensively minded Pittsburgh Penguins.
Most impressive about the Panthers’ early season goal scoring is how spread around it all is. Six different players have scored more than twice already. Given that Anthony Duclair potted two of his three goals while on the fourth line, a forward on each of the Panthers’ four lines has scored more than twice.
Making matters more impressive, bona fide superstar Jonathan Huberdeau is yet to find the back of the net, along with forwards Owen Tippett and shot machine Frank Vatrano. When Huberdeau, who does have three assists in the first four games, starts putting the puck in the net at anywhere near his historic pace, this team will have legitimate offensive weapons up and down the lineup. Panthers fans, management, and players all knew this team would score goals this season, but doing so from the first puck drop is impressive.
It has been a long time since the Panthers could consider themselves the beneficiary of elite goaltending. Sure, it is only four games in, but the early returns have been impressive. Sergei Bobrovsky, who has the largest contract on the team before Aleksander Barkov’s extension is factored in next season, holds a .944 save percentage and a sub-two goals-against average. His rookie compatriot, Spencer Knight, impressed in his only start, beating the Lightning and stopping 30 of 31 shots.
The real benefit of the goaltending is more than just the ability to keep pucks out of the net, it is when the team is getting big saves. In the contest against the Lightning, Knight stopped all 16 shots in the first two periods, giving his team the chance to take an early 1-0 lead. That work included killing off a 5-on-3 advantage for the Lightning that lasted more than a minute and a half. In fact, the Panthers’ penalty kill went 6-for-6 on the night, four of those coming before the start of the third period.
In Bobrovsky’s latest win against the Avalanche, which was his 300th win in the NHL, similar big-moment saves were a factor. Not only did Bobrovsky stop 30 of 31 shots he faced, but he stopped 10-of-11 in the first frame and 12-of-12 in the second, giving his team a chance to take a commanding lead by the start of the third frame. Again, the penalty kill was perfect going 3-for-3 with each kill coming before the end of the second period. Most notably, Bobrovsky stopped J.T Compher on a breakaway and robbed Andre Burakovsky with an impressive glove save while sliding cross-crease. No matter who is in net, the goaltending so far is delivering more than just routine saves.
The Penalty Kill
The Panthers’ penalty kill has been a revelation to start the season. Despite taking the most penalties in the league in their first four games — 22 times shorthanded to be exact — the Panthers have only given up three power-play goals against. That works out to an early season success rate of 86.4 percent on the penalty kill. That is good enough for a top-10 spot in the league, eight spots better than last season’s totals.
The most surprising part of the penalty kill for the Panthers has been the change in personnel. Huberdeau has found himself killing penalties this year, even admitting in a press conference that he is unsure how that role came about. Rookie Anton Lundell leads all Panthers’ forwards in shorthanded ice time, taking up key penalty-killing duties left vacant by the loss of Alex Wennberg and Noel Acciari to the Seattle Kraken and injury, respectively. The early returns are impressive, but a long season remains.
Keeping It Going for 82 Games
The million-dollar question is, of course, can this positive start continue. Obviously, the Panthers are not going to make it through a full NHL season undefeated, but they can win the division if these fundamentals stay in place.
Depth Scoring – Yes
The depth of the Panthers is off the charts. They have the potential to have as many as six, seven, or even eight 20-goal scorers, barring injuries, at the end of the season. Given that Huberdeau, Vatrano, and Tippett all remain scoreless, there are likely more goals in the offing, especially from Huberdeau who has averaged a goal every third game — 27 a season — since 2019-20. Of the three keys to their early season success, this is the most likely to continue.
Goaltending – To Be Determined
The goaltending is the most interesting aspect of the team to date. With both Bobrovsky and Knight in the rotation, the coaching staff has two solid options, allowing for adequate rest and a real chance at winning no matter the opponent. That said, the Panthers have yet to play a back-to-back this season and Knight, though brilliant in his first game, only has five regular-season starts career. There will, at some point, be growing pains with Knight. Bobrovsky, despite his early season success, still has a history of soft goals at the wrong time. Remain optimistic about the goaltending, but also remain realistic, too.
Penalty Kill – No
Why mince words? There is no way the Panthers can take as many penalties as they have and still be this successful. Their 22 times shorthanded is most in the league and works out to 5.5 power plays for opponents per game. That rate is unsustainable, especially when teams with lethal power plays like the Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Boston Bruins are divisional opponents. The key to the penalty kill is fewer penalties. If the Panthers can take fewer penalties, they can also keep their goaltending numbers in the stratosphere. However, the team also took the most minor penalties in the league last season, so do not expect this trend to reverse itself quickly.
All in all, the season is off to as good a start as the Panthers could have hoped. The penalty kill, goaltending, and depth scoring are all early reasons why the team finds itself atop both the division and atop the NHL’s power rankings. Whether those trends, and the Panthers’ success, can continue, we will have to wait and see.
Mitch Davidson originally hails from Oro-Medonte, Ontario just north of Toronto and has been following hockey, the business of the NHL, and the Florida Panthers for the better part of two decades. In his professional career, Mitch is a full time writer as he serves as Executive Director of a public policy think tank, a regular public opinion columnist, and a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Canada Institute, following a 6 year run as a senior staffer in provincial politics.