NHL playoffs: What teams will learn from Panthers' run to Stanley Cup Final
Florida's underdog playoff run may or not have something to teach us about team building, but either way NHL teams will try to copy their formula.
No one expected the Florida Panthers to make the Stanley Cup Final, but now that they're four wins from a championship the NHL will be forced to take notice of how they got there.
You could argue that the best thing to learn about this run is that the NHL playoffs are pure, unbridled chaos that can't be controlled. This team hasn't really outplayed its opposition as it's been outshot and out-chanced at 5-on-5 throughout the playoffs. Despite not carrying the play, Florida has a 6-0 record in overtime games and is 8-1 in one-goal contests. Its goaltender is carrying a .954 save percentage over the last two rounds.
Maybe there's something special about this team that gives them the ability to eke out tight wins consistently. It's at least as likely that they keep flipping a coin over and over again and it keeps coming up heads. What they're doing might be so hard to replicate that their success is meaningless to our understanding of how to put together an NHL team.
Panthers, Impressive forecheck, grit and determination… Big lesson this year for the league… Get in the playoffs! You never know! Tkachuk brothers were taught right by Big Walt! Opposite of the prototype speed player nowadays looking for skill first.
— David Perron (@DP_57) May 25, 2023
However, human beings are hard-wired to search for meaning even if there's none to be found, and as it stands every NHL GM is a human being. That means you can bet your bottom dollar that clubs around the league will be closely examining the Panthers and looking for lessons to apply to their own team-building efforts.
Here are a few things they can learn from Florida, for better or worse.
Get aggressive on the trade market
The Panthers' masterful trade for Matthew Tkachuk isn't the kind of deal that's consistently available to teams around the league, but Florida still deserves credit for seizing an opportunity on the heels of a 122-point season. Standing pat would've been justifiable, but the team was willing to take a big swing to raise its ceiling.
Elsewhere on the roster there are examples of Florida trading for players only to see them find a new level with the Panthers. Sam Bennett's style of play crosses the line at times, but he's undoubtedly been more effective since joining Florida two years ago in a trade that looked like a minor move at the time.
Brandon Montour never produced more than 35 points before the Panthers traded for him, but he broke out in 2022-23 with a 73-point campaign. His six goals are more than any defenseman in the playoffs and he leads all skaters in shots (59).
Sam Reinhart's two best seasons have come since the Panthers traded a prospect and a first-round pick for him prior to the 2021-22 campaign. Carter Verhaeghe broke out with 43 goals this past season after signing with the Panthers in October 2020 following a nine-goal season with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It's impossible to predict players will improve the moment they get to your team, but the conventional method of team building involves developing a home-grown core and building around it. The Panthers imported much of the top of their roster via trade, and their moves might empower other teams to make aggressive deals.
The value of a big-money goaltender
The case of Sergei Bobrovsky's Panthers tenure is a confusing one because on balance there's been more failure than success — a few weeks ago his contract appeared to be an anchor for Florida.
However, his brilliance in the playoffs has served as a reminder of the value of an elite goaltender at the top of his game. Any netminder can get hot, but Bobrovsky has reached a level that might only be available to some of the top guys in the league.
Having a $10-million cap hit for your top goalie may not seem ideal, but the Panthers are making it work and in this moment, at least, Bobrovsky is worth every dollar.
The player most affected by this run might be Connor Hellebuyck, who's seen as one of the NHL's top goaltenders and could be on the trade block in the offseason. Hellebuyck was attractive to contenders prior to Bobrovsky's run, but what the Florida netminder has accomplished will be fresh on the mind of hockey executives taking a run at the Winnipeg Jets star.
Fighting for a playoff spot
The NHL playoffs were already understood to be unpredictable prior to 2022-23, but Florida's success — particularly their series win over a historically great Boston Bruins team — hammers home that point.
In the next couple of years it may be easier for teams on the fringes of the NHL playoff race to see themselves as possible contenders. That could lead to them either refusing to sell or becoming surprise buyers at the trade deadline.
After all, the Panthers weren't in a playoff position for the majority of the season.
Mind-boggling stat from the NHL: The Panthers were in a playoff spot for only 28% of the regular season (54 of 190 days). They are the only team in the NHL’s expansion era (since 1967-68) to reach the Final after spending less than 30% of the season in a playoff spot.
— Adam Vingan (@AdamVingan) May 25, 2023
The context that the Panthers were an elite outfit the previous year that unperformed in 2022-23 is important. But teams often overestimate their true talent and many of them see themselves as underachievers capable of more.
This Florida squad could help justify that mindset for clubs who perform similarly to how the Panthers did during the regular season.