Over the weekend, two more teams joined the Buffalo Sabres in being officially eliminated from postseason contention in the 2013-14 season. In a game featuring sparks flying between head coach Dallas Eakins and star forward Taylor Hall, irate fans throwing jerseys onto the ice, an 8-goal effort by their biggest rival, and a hat trick by a former prospect, the Edmonton Oilers were eliminated by Calgary. The next night, a 6-2 blowout at the hands of Anaheim similarly ended the playoff chances of the Florida Panthers. So what went wrong?
Edmonton: On one hand, the Oilers and their fans have to be desperately unhappy with how their season has played out. With a stable of gifted young forwards, including Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Nail Yakupov, and veterans like Ryan Smyth, Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky and David Perron, more than a few observers expected this year’s Oilers to make their first playoff appearance since coming within a game of winning the 2006 Stanley Cup. And certainly, not everything that’s been bad about this season could have been anticipated. For one thing, goaltending: when Edmonton entered the campaign with a tandem of veterans Devan Dubnyk and Jason LaBarbera, I can’t say I expected that the season would end with both goalies traded and playing in the AHL.
Still, there were reasons why people like me predicted they would miss the playoffs. You might like the sound of the names I’ve mentioned above, but you’ll notice that there are no defensemen in that list. Goaltending certainly explains part of why the Oilers have allowed more goals this season than any team other than the Islanders, but it’s not the full story: only four teams this season have allowed more shots than Edmonton, and unlike, say, Dallas, they haven’t compensated with a high-powered offensive game. Edmonton’s Fenwick Close is a miserable 43.8%, and their vaunted forward corps has shot a mediocre 7.7% at even strength while putting the fifth-fewest shots in the league on net this season. Put simply, the Oilers are where they are because miserable defensive teams with bad goaltending need to score enormous numbers of goals to have a chance, yet for all their talent, Edmonton is in the bottom third of the league in scoring.
It’s tough to say what will happen next here. Unlike the situation in Buffalo, this is a team that’s supposed to be finishing a rebuild, not starting one. The public rift between Eakins and Hall may not bode well for the former, and though he appears to be a smart guy, it’s not clear to me that Eakins is the man for this job. You can make a strong case that the Oilers’ problems come from inadequate personnel rather than coaching, but at the same time, the results Eakins has produced are similar to the ones that sent Ralph Krueger packing for the English Premier League after last season. Their current goaltending tandem of Viktor Fasth and Ben Scrivens doesn’t look bad on paper, but with their train wreck of a blueline, expectations need to be set accordingly. On the bright side, the team should have a lot of cap space to work with moving forward, and could rework their defense corps significantly if they go about things intelligently. Unfortunately, the pressure on this once-proud organization could also lead to dramatic moves that send things in the wrong direction.
Florida: In contrast to Edmonton and Buffalo, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to understanding the 2013-14 Florida Panthers. Few people expected much from the Panthers this season, and fewer still were surprised by their elimination. Last season’s Calder winner Jonathan Huberdeau has struggled this season, the disappointing Kris Versteeg was traded for prospects, and rookie phenom Aleksander Barkov hasn’t played since being injured in the Olympics. The team’s depth, beyond the above players and solid contributors like Tomas Fleischmann, is questionable at best. Yet this is not a fundamentally poor hockey team: with a 49.2% Fenwick Close, the Panthers are far from terrible as a puck possession squad, and they’re a top-10 team when it comes to even-strength Corsi attempts allowed. Both of these numbers suggest a team that’s pretty solid defensively. Brian Campbell and Tom Gilbert have been outstanding performers on the blueline this season, and Dmitry Kulikov has quietly had a strong year.
With the above issues in the forward corps, scoring was predictably a problem for the Cats this season. Florida is about average when it comes to putting shots on goal, but they’ve scored on just 7.6% of those shots at even strength, and their 10.4% power-play conversion is the NHL’s worst. As such, only the Kings and Sabres have scored fewer goals this season than Florida’s 168. If they’d gotten goaltending to match their defensive play, this might not be a serious problem, but unfortunately, that was not the case this year. Tim Thomas was brought in as a free agent, but the former Vezina and Smythe winner couldn’t provide the level of play we saw in his Boston days; Thomas gave the Panthers a mediocre 0.912 Sv% at evens in 40 games before being traded. Jacob Markstrom, once touted as the goalie of the future in South Florida, put up an awful 0.885 before his own trade. Throw in the league’s worst penalty kill, and you can start to see how even-strength possession was beside the point for Florida: the Panthers won just 42% of the games in which they controlled a majority of the 5-on-5 shots.
Predicting the future for the Panthers isn’t easy, insofar as (apart from a memorable playoff run nearly 20 years ago) they’ve never been a particularly good team. The willingness of ownership to spend above the cap floor is questionable, though you can interpret their willingness to take on Roberto Luongo’s cap hit as a positive sign. Even with the gargantuan deals being paid to Luongo and Campbell, the Panthers project to have tons of cap space moving forward: other than these two and Brad Boyes, they have no players under non-entry-level contract past next season. Luongo has put together a strong 2013-14, and remains one of the better goalies in the game. Freed from the melodrama of his last two seasons in Vancouver and playing behind a solid defense, @strombone1 should shore up this area of weakness. The depth in the forward group might take more time to remedy, but there’s every reason to hope for a bounce-back from Huberdeau and a healthy return by Barkov. Only time will tell how serious this team is about building on their solid pieces towards a real contender.