There is no denying that the Florida Panthers focused on substantial improvement last offseason.
Whether or not any of those free agency signings will work out in the long-term is still to be decided, but with the high cost of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and defenceman Anton Stralman — both rapidly aging players — the results were not reflective of their efforts.
Through the first few months of the season, the Panthers were one of the streakiest teams in the league. Unable to string a couple of wins together without, in turn, falling to their opponents for consecutive games, they were sitting in the middle of the league without a sense of going in either direction.
Within the heated Atlantic Division, their hopes were clear when signing Bobrovsky, Stralman and forward Brett Connolly to significant contracts — to beat out one of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins, or Toronto Maple Leafs to a playoff spot come April.
The Panthers have bested the Maple Leafs and are currently in one of the top positions in the division with the end of the regular season rapidly approaching.
Whether they will remain in that position after completing all 82 games is still to be seen, but they can certainly feel comfortable scoring a ton of goals throughout the remaining stretch.
No one could have predicted that it was really their low-risk signing of forward Noel Acciari from the Bruins that would make the difference.
On the same day of the Panthers landing Bobrovsky, Stralman and Connolly, they were able to secure Acciari for three seasons at a cap hit of $1.67-million per year. The forward never made more than a million in salary since making his NHL debut in 2015, so the security and guarantee of a modified no-trade clause was able to bring him to Florida.
As of Saturday, the 28-year-old winger has a total of 18 goals through 46 games — already breaking his career-high of 10 during the 2017-18 season.
This surge of production is no doubt an anomaly and heavily backed by his league-leading 26.15 shooting percentage at 5-on-5. But context is always needed for how exactly he’s able to put more than a quarter of his shots in the back of the net.
Acciari’s 17 goals at 5-on-5 is tied with Chicago Blackhawks forward Dominik Kubalik for fifth-most in the league. Forwards Auston Matthews, Jakub Vrana, David Pastrnak and Alex Ovechkin lie ahead of the Panthers skater, but they possibly have something in common.
According to MoneyPuck, based on the location of where their shots are coming from, they are scoring more goals than expected — a lot more.
Toronto’s Matthews leads the league with 10.5 goals above expected at 5-on-5, but sitting at fourth is Acciari and that should instill some hope for consistency. Elite shooters can score more goals than they should based on shot location data — whether Acciari is considered that level of goalscorer is still to be seen, but he has been able to put the puck in the back of the net consistently this season.
Of all the top players in terms of goals above expected this season, Acciari’s name might stick out like a sore Floridian thumb, but if he is able to be in the same breath as these elite-level forwards, then something is going right.
Generally, to imagine a player scoring more goals than they are expected to, based on location, can be simply chalked up to overachieving. To think that a player that only hit double digits in goals once before, is considered among the top goalscorers this season, could be a mistake.
Looking at where Acciari is making his shot attempts and scoring his goals, he is clearly getting his opportunity to get in the high-danger areas. His nose for the net is able to sniff out an opportunity with some offensive positioning.
For example, this one goal against the Ottawa Senators on Dec. 16, shows exactly how Acciari is able to get most of his goals from in-tight.
It helps playing with Jonathan Huberdeau, but Acciari is able to create his own space on the other side of the net, making the backhand pass from his linemate a — relatively — easy one.
According to his boss, his ability to find those imperfect goals is appreciated.
“He has scored some big goals for us,” Quenneville said of Acciari after a massive victory over the Minnesota Wild earlier this season, “and that may have been as big as we have had. That was very good timing for him and for us. But he has an amazing knack around the net. That’s a tip we’ll take.”
What makes Acciari’s rise into recognition during his first season with the Panthers so special, is the opportunity that Quenneville and the rest of the coaching staff handed him.
Acciari is averaging almost 16 minutes of ice-time per game — about three minutes more than his career-high set just last season. This surge in time on the ice is surely contributing to his overall improvement, whether it be just the fact that he’s able to score more goals with more ice-time, or the confidence that the Panthers have shown him and that is recognized in his play.
The Panthers are heading into the last dozen weeks before the playoffs begin with decisions to make regarding their roster. There are certainly some holes, but the way Acciari is able to score timely goals and make them seemingly out of nothing is extremely useful to the postseason-hopeful club.
They could always make more additions to their already league-leading offence if doubt about Acciari’s consistency ever seeps into the brain of GM Dale Tallon. But with a large enough sample size to boast, Florida could trust the 28-year-old winger to continue putting pucks in the back of the net.
Hockey is weird by nature and sometimes a player that rarely scored before is given the right opportunity and goes on a tear.
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