Where Do We Go From Here: the Florida Panthers work to regain their footing in the standings after being plagued by injuries

Florida Panther’s second line centerman, Vincent Trocheck went down with a gruesome injury on Monday, November 19th, 2018 in a game at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa against the Senators.

The Senators were on the power play and with 22 seconds left on the penalty kill, Trocheck forced a turnover in the neutral zone and pushed the puck into Ottawa’s zone, looking for a shorthanded opportunity or at least a chance to kill time. He and Senators’ forward Ryan Dzingel were racing after the puck, they get wrapped up in a corner behind the net and as Trocheck hits the boards, the toe of his right skate gets caught in the ice as he falls back at an awkward angle.

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I’ve seen the footage half a dozen times already and it does not get any easier to watch. Not only because of the nature of the injury itself, but because of the reactions of everybody in the stands and on the ice. 

By all accounts, this ended up being a very difficult game for everyone involved. Play had stopped with 3:37 left in the 1st due to a medical emergency in the stands where a spectator had gone into cardiac arrest. After the fan was rushed to a nearby hospital, it was decided they would go to intermission early and play the remaining time of the 1st period when they returned from the break, presumably because of the NHL Safety Protocols that require a working defibrillator, an ambulance, and at least two medical doctors be on hand at all times while the game is in play.

This was also Mike Hoffman’s first game back in Ottawa. The winger, who the Florida Panthers acquired in the off season, was drafted by the Senators in 2009 and had played for the organization over the past 7 seasons of his career. Despite his controversial departure, he was greeted with a video tribute and mostly applause from the crowd at the Canadian Tire Centre.

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Trocheck was stretchered off the ice with 1:46 left in what was an already emotional 1st period. The Panthers had been up 3-1 and managed to hold onto and extend their lead by 4 goals, but not without also giving up 4 goals. The game ended 7-5 in the Panthers favor with quite a few highlights to temporarily softened the blow of a fallen comrade.

Dadonov scored a buzzer beater with 0.4 seconds left on the clock at the end of the 1st. Michael Haley had his NHL return after spending time in a NHL/NHLPA Assistance Program and scored a goal in the 2nd. Rookie Juho Lammikko scored four primary assists to both tie a Panthers record for most assists in a single game and set a new franchise rookie record. Mike Hoffman scored the final goal against his old team and extended his franchise record consecutive point streak to 16 games.

It all made for a great story, and left hope that we could continue winning games even with one of the core members of our team out of the lineup. But after three losses and one additional injury immediately following that game, Panthers fans struggled to find hope.

Following a 7-3 blowout loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning (their 1st game without Trocheck), the Florida Panthers stepped out onto the ice of the PNC Arena in Raleigh on Friday, November 23rd looking to regain their footing as they faced off against the Carolina Hurricanes. Unfortunately 39-year-old veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo sustained a lower body injury late in the 1st period and was unable to continue playing.

Luongo stopped a long shot from the slot from Jordan Martinook and then goes down as he stops the rebound from Lucas Wallmark. He is unable to get back up to stop the 2nd rebound and Martinook finds the back of the net to open up scoring for the Canes. Lu lays there for a minute, and with the help of the trainers he is able to skate off the ice with 37.9 seconds left in the 1st period and does not return.

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Backup goaltender James Reimer enters in relief and after a tense and scoreless 2nd period, the Panthers found themselves down by two towards the end of the 3rd and decide to pull Reimer with 3 minutes and 21 seconds left in the game for the extra attacker. Reimer had saved 26 out of 28 shots, allowing Martinook his 2nd of the night and a powerplay goal from Teuvo Teravainen. Martinook was able to complete the hat trick with an empty net goal with two minutes to spare, making the game 4-1 the final in Carolina’s favor.

The Florida Panthers lone goal came from offseason acquisition, veteran forward Troy Brouwer who made the game 3-1 after landing a huge hit on Haydn Fleury to take him out of the play and picking up the puck to score on a breakaway. The only highlight of the night for the Panthers was that this is Brouwer’s 6th goal in 18 games this season, which is the same amount of total goals he had last season in 76 games with the Calgary Flames.

Trocheck underwent successful surgery to repair an ankle fracture and will be out of the lineup indefinitely. Many expected him to be out for the rest of the season but Dale Tallon released a statement expressing that they were “[…] confident that he will make a full recovery and be back on the ice with our team this season.” Some say he may return in as little as 8 weeks, some suspect he’d only return if the Panthers are legitimately in the playoff race in 2019. I think all Panthers fans would agree that the most important thing is that he goes through a full recovery before attempting to return.

This is the 2nd time this season that Roberto Luongo has been out with a lower body injury. He was injured during the season opener in Tampa against the Lightning after fellow teammate Frank Vatrano was pushed and fell on his leg. Lu was on injury reserve for just under 4 weeks with a Grade 1 MCL injury.

There are conflicting reports about whether or not Luongo’s latest lower body injury is an affliction to the same knee or if he’s struggling with his hip/groin that has been a concern since his hip surgery in 2016 but nonetheless, Bob Boughner has stated that Lu is day-to-day and that the injury is “not too serious” so we may expect him back soon.

The Panthers have two other players on IR. They lost former captain Derek Mackenzie to a shoulder injury during the season opener against Tampa Bay. He is out indefinitely following shoulder surgery. Forward Jamie McGinn, who has a history of back problems, underwent successful back surgery during the off-season and has also been out indefinitely. Most recently, Denis Malgin has been noted as day-to-day with an upper body injury.

Many others have experienced ailments but have thankfully since returned to the lineup.

Keith Yandle left a preseason game early with an injury but recovered in time to save his Iron Man streak (he’s now tied with Jay Bouwmeester for 6th on the all time list.) Shutdown defenseman Bogdan Kiselevich spent two weeks on IR after a puck broke his jaw during the very same preseason game. Kiselevich until recently was playing with a cage after having had surgery to repair his jaw. Michael Haley had missed 8 weeks while going through a NHL/NHLPA Assistance Program. Nick Bjugstad had been marked day-to-day for a while and played through an upper body injury (reportedly to his hand) towards the end of October. Jared McCann missed a game with an upper body injury.

The most controversial of the injuries was perhaps an undisclosed upper body injury on defenseman Mark Pysyk following a high hit from Washington Capitals captain Alexander Ovechkin during a very wild game that ended up being the Panthers first win of the season. Popular Capital’s blog Russian Machine Never Breaks wrote a piece about the hit on their page. No penalty was called on the hit and Pysyk was out for three weeks with what many thought to be a concussion.

It has not been an easy season for the Panthers, who in contrast had the healthiest blue line in the NHL last year. After having relied on only 7 defenseman for all of the 2017-18 season, thus far they’ve already had 8 in 22 games. Most of their forwards last season were lucky enough to remain healthy too, with injuries only truly impacting their goaltending, much like they have again this year.

The Florida Panthers had to rely on their 3rd string goaltender Harri Säteri for 9 games after both Roberto Luongo and James Reimer were out with injury last season. Despite having been drafted 10 years ago by the San Jose Sharks, Säteri played his first NHL game with the Panthers, just four days after his 28th birthday and they were able to get a surprisingly good performance out of him. The Finnish goaltender went on a 4 game win streak that marked a turning point for the Florida Panthers and was credited by some in the organization as having saved their season.

While that is a bit of a fanciful statement, Panthers fans did have confidence that their goaltending was strong down the line as Luongo and Reimer also put up stellar performances after returning from IR and Säteri continued to succeed after his NHL stint.

Goaltending has been a point of weakness for the Panthers this year.

James Reimer, who has played in 1/3rd of the games so far this season, started out struggling between the posts. The biggest criticism people tend to have towards Reimer is his inconsistency. When he’s doing well, he does really well. Last season there was a stretch of time where he went on a win streak and had 2 shutouts in 3 games. This season he’s at a 0.895 SV% and lost 5 out of his 9 starts. While you cannot blame a loss solely on poor goaltending, there were several games in October where the Panthers’ underlying metrics were mostly positive with the big exception being the save percentage.

Michael Hutchinson, the goalie the Florida Panthers signed in the off season to take over for Harri Säteri, has been in a similar position as James Reimer. Hutchinson had comparable statistics to Säteri but with much more NHL experience. While he only had 3 NHL starts with the Winnipeg Jets last season, he was one of the best goalies in the AHL and in the 102 games he played with the Jets throughout 5 seasons, he had a .910 average SV%. Hutchinson so far has seemed to struggle with the change of scenery both at the NHL and AHL levels. In the 3 NHL starts he’s had, he’s allowed at least 4 goals per game.

In contrast, Roberto Luongo had a really hot start. He was good in the opener against Tampa before he went down with injury, and then when he came back he had a 4 game win streak, not allowing more than 2 goals per game. Lu was the 4th player 39 or older in NHL history to start a season 4-0-0. Following those 4 games, he did have 3 less than stellar showings, including two games where he allowed 6 goals.

While goaltending has been seen as one of the most pressing issues this season, it has already started to improve and I do think it will further improve for a number of reasons.

The biggest being that the abnormally high scoring rate going on across the league right now is not particularly sustainable. Should it follow the path of recent years, scoring will go down as defense tightens and goalies will start to see their save percentages improve. (Although Rory Broylen wrote an interesting article for Sportsnet that suggests the trend will continue in terms of power play effectiveness so special teams may be more important than ever this year.)

The other reason is that, while James Reimer may not have had a great start, he usually bounces back in spectacular fashion and I do think he’s one of the more reliable options of most prospective backups in the league. 

Reimer has already started to look more steady in net and made close to or more than 30 saves in his last 5 starts. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean his save percentage has improved, but that may be more due to a lack of effectiveness from Florida’s defense. Eg: Reimer made 36 saves in his start against the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday. That’s normally a pretty formidable amount of saves, but 5 goals still found their way into the back of his net after facing an absurdly high 41 shots.

Michael Hutchinson has had flashes of brilliance here and there and the hope is that as he gets more settled in with the franchise, he will start defending at a higher rate but–with all due respect to Hutch–I do really hope we won’t see much more of him any time soon. (Which, to be clear, is not a dig at Hutchinson, it’s a please-stay-healthy, positive affirmation towards our two main netminders.)

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As for Roberto Luongo, he is one of the few goalies that has historically been able to return from injuries with seemingly little to no negative impact on his play upon return. With any luck that will be the case again this time. 

Goalies typically have 3 or so years where they peak and it’s easy to miss them or not take advantage of those years, and goalies that have gone through a number of lower body injuries aren’t typically able to perform as well as they had before but Luongo has consistently been able to defend at a high level and is one of the few goalies that has sustained an above average level of performance throughout most of his career.

Lundqvist is one of the only other goalies that comes to mind when discussing ability to bounce back from injury and sustain high levels of performance and both are players that can still easily be considered top 10 in the league when healthy.

Lu will be returning at some point in the beginning of December.

 

The biggest concern is making up for the loss of Vincent Trocheck.

Trocheck is an incredibly dynamic personality. He can move the puck really well, he’s a great skater, has a nice shot, he’s one of our best defensive forwards, and he has a tenacity and spark (and dare I say grit) to his play that makes him an invaluable 200 foot player and a top 30 player in this league. He’s very vocal on and off the ice and unquestionably a leader for the Florida Panthers.

Panthers’ captain Aleksander Barkov has called Trocheck the engine that drives this hockey team and he’s not alone in that sentiment. The big question that’s been asked is: how do the Cats replace a player that’s irreplaceable?

Last season Trocheck lead the team in goals (31), power play points (27), total shot attempts (494), hits (145), and had the highest faceoff win percentage (54.1%) with exception to Frank Vatrano who was at 80% but had only taken 5 faceoffs for the Panthers (Trocheck, in turn, had taken 1,577 faceoffs–2nd only to Barkov). Troch was also 2nd in overall points (75) and he lead forwards in time on ice.

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While 2017-18 was a breakout year for him, he was named an All Star the season before that for his exceptional play and has been a key contributor for the past 3 seasons. He’s a player that does a little bit of everything and excels at almost everything he does.

This season Trocheck had 14 points in 18 games, and with only 3 goals in that period he wasn’t generating offensive production at the expected rate but he was still producing for this hockey team. He roughly averaged 21 minutes and 40 seconds time on ice a night before that night in Ottawa, putting him amongst the top 30 most played NHL forwards this season. A lot of those minutes were spent on both the powerplay (where even after being out for almost 5 games, he still leads the team in TOI) and the penalty kill, where he was a key contributor. Trocheck had also been leading the teams’ forwards in hits and his ability to win faceoffs were significant for the Panthers’ possession metrics.

Before Trocheck went down, the team had been gaining offensive traction and was 6 and 2 in their last 8 games, including a 5 game win streak, and then immediately after lost three in a row–one of those losses was an overtime loss to Chicago where they blew 2 two goal leads.

Now if you’re looking for a silver lining, here’s a decent one:

The Florida Panthers this year, at 22 games played, have more points than the Florida Panthers last year by the same margin. In 2017-18, we started out the season with 8 wins, 12 losses, and 2 overtime/shootout losses for a total of 18 points. At the time this piece is being written, we have an 9-9-4 track record for a total of 22 points.

Those 4 extra points may mean nothing to a lot of people, but for a team that missed the playoffs by 1 point last year? It can mean a world of difference.

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But if they’re technically already at a better track record than last year, why does it feel worse? Well, part of it may actually be because they missed the mark by such a small margin last season.

Everyone knew how crucial the start of this season was going to be because we saw how last year, they were ruined by their slow start. It cost the Panthers the playoffs, and with how hot they were, many though they could’ve done some real damage if they’d made it.

As a result, another slow start hasn’t really inspired a winning attitude amongst the fanbase.

At the 22 game mark last season the Panthers were 7 points out of a playoff spot and when ranked by points over .500, they were 28th in the league. Currently when ranked by points over .500, they’re closer to 20th. 

We’re 5 points out of a playoff spot with 5 teams in front of us but we also have a couple games in hand. Though the term games in hand might bring back some bad memories.

The fact that we were still in the playoff race until the final week of the regular season last year after the poor start we had was a near miraculous feat.

The Panthers were one of the best teams in the league following the All Star Break with a 24-7-2 record. They were tied with President’s Trophy winners the Nashville Predators (perhaps better known as the Regular Season Western Conference Champs) with 24 wins, despite having played less games within that time frame.

A hot streak like that is incredibly difficult to replicate, much less replicate with even more success. Most Panthers fan who lived through those last few weeks where we kept winning games while having everyone ahead of us in the standings also keep winning probably don’t want to experience the anxiety and dread of having to rely on games in hand again as its a gamble that doesn’t always pay off.

The way this team looks on paper, and with the talent they have on the roster, they should have more success than they do now, even with the injuries that have plagued them.

The problem is, while the Panthers have been getting a lot of shots on goal, they’ve been allowing almost as many and the quality of shots they let other teams take against them is usually slightly better than the ones they’ve been getting.

This is why, while our goalies are making more saves, they haven’t necessarily seen improvements in their save percentages. If they tighten up their defense and continue to build on the good offense they have going, we should start seeing more Ws along the way.

The good news is, there have been a lot of improvements since October.

Before the NHL Global Series games in Finland, the Florida Panthers’ power play was well below league average (if I’m not mistaken, we were 28th in the league at one point) but has steadily climbed up the ranks. At 25.6%, they’re 6th in the league and tied with Boston for the 3rd most power play goals with 22.

And while their penalty kill numbers still don’t look great, they’ve shown a significant improvement in a very short time. Following the game against Winnipeg on November 2nd, Florida had the worst PK% in the league. (Thanks Patrik Laine.) But in the past 5 games, the Panthers have only allowed 3 power play goals out of 16 chances and none in the last 2 games.

They’ve also been limiting the number of opportunities for opponents to go on the power play and have allowed the 4th least amount of power play chances in the league. (Shoutout to Sasha Barkov for having drawn the most penalties in the league while still having taken 0.)

With their win against the New Jersey Devils on Monday, November 26, the Panthers have taken themselves out of last place in the Eastern Conference and have a shot at climbing back up the standings. Of the 2 games they’ve played of their 8 game home stand, they’ve already managed to get 3 out of 4 points. There’s plenty of teams in the Atlantic they haven’t faced off against yet and if their upwards trend continues, they have a real chance of redemption sooner rather than later.

And one thing I know for sure is that with 60 games to play, there’s still a lot of hockey left, and this is a team that has shown they know how to come back winning from behind.

Shey Junqueira

Shey is getting her degree in mass communication, journalism, and marketing. She is a diehard Florida Panthers fan but follows a lot of other teams can be found wading through the swamps of Central Florida in an old Atlanta Thrashers jersey, screaming about the benefits of non-traditional hockey markets. She's a queer Latina, a Southerner, and English is her 3rd language. You can find more of her takes at swamphockey.co.vu or as @swampshey on Twitter.

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