By Bill Whitehead
This weekend wasn’t supposed to go like this. At all.
Two teams visiting BB&T Center, Buffalo and Tampa Bay. One terrible, one most assuredly overachieving but off to a great start nonetheless. Florida fans would surely hope for three points, but four definitely shouldn’t have been a farfetched notion.
Instead of the Panthers moving to 5-7-1 or 4-7-2, Florida jumped all over the lousy Sabres but managed just one goal in a 3-1 loss, then played a solid last 50 minutes of regulation before losing 4-3 to the Lightning in a shootout. If you’re checking the standings this morning, don’t bother. It reads 3-7-2, which really is nothing to write home about.
Plenty of questions surround these Panthers. What is the team’s identity through 1/7 of the club’s season? What can be done about the serious lack of scoring? What is the problem with the dearth of motivation and lackluster starts that trudge and plod along? And finally, who belongs in goal – Tim Thomas or Jacob Markstrom?
As for team identity, start your own diagnosis and jot down some notes, Mr. or Ms. Amateur Psychiatrist. The team hasn’t done anything positive consistently all year. The defense is better than last year, though they could certainly stand to clear their own zone a little quicker and try to produce some odd-man rushes on breakouts. With this team, you just never know what will surface from game to game, puck drop to puck drop. Starting flat has been a tendency in most of the games, but doing that against a Tampa team that played less than 24 hours earlier made no sense whatsoever.
Predicting how the Panthers are going to play night in and night out is like starting a car in the Middle East: You just don’t know what’s going to happen.
The lack of scoring has been extremely puzzling. Florida (2.08 goals per game, 26th in NHL) managed one goal each in games against Philadelphia and Buffalo, the latter with backup Jhonas Enroth in goal, not Ryan Miller. Those two teams are just, well, horrible, and while losing to either outright is bad enough, at least score a few times. But Jonathan Huberdeau, Tomas Kopecky, Shawn Matthias and most along the blue line (Tom Gilbert, Erik Gudbranson and Brian Campbell, all of whom have offensive skill) have been missing more often than not from the score sheet. Huberdeau’s situation is extremely vexing as the Calder Trophy winner has just three tallies, putting him on pace for 21 this year, but he’s far better than that. Florida also ranks 28th on the power play, connecting on 9.8 percent (4-for-49) while allowing two shorthanded goals.
Motivation and preparedness? That’s mostly on coach Kevin Dineen and staff. Honestly, some of Dineen’s choices have been shocking as well. Brad Boyes was going to be scratched Sunday but was placed in the lineup at the last minute when Tomas Fleischmann came up ill. Boyes is Florida’s leading goal scorer and a stalwart performer in the shootout, why scratch him? Boyes scored a goal, added another in the shootout and was positioned to be the game’s star if Dmitry Kulikov could have kept the shootout going.
Tampa Bay did everything it could to give Florida the win. It started backup goalie Anders Lindback instead of Ben Bishop. Lightning coach Jon Cooper inexplicably put two defensemen in the shootout, and neither scored. Dineen’s decision to put Kulikov (now 2-for-5) in the fourth spot after Steven Stamkos scored was also questionable. Nick Bjugstad played likely his best game as a pro, scored a goal and created chances. Giving the former Minnesota Golden Gopher a chance to tie the game and send it to a fifth round would have been a huge confidence builder for the Minnesota native, but Dineen opted for the defenseman. Bjugstad is a centerpiece in Florida’s future. Just when is the perfect time to play him if not for a losing club whose season is slipping away and desperately in need of a spark?
Finally, Tim Thomas needs to start in goal. Period. If you’re interested in seeing the Cats win games, salvage the season and inject some emotion back into a BB&T Center and j2013-14 campaign that’s on life support, Thomas needs to be between the pipes. He gives the Panthers a better chance to win each time out when he’s healthy, and there’s hope he’ll be ready for St. Louis on Friday. If, however, you want to see Markstrom develop and answer the question of whether or not he’s a starting NHL goalie, then play the big Swede. I’d prepare for a tougher season, too, and a harder learning curve.
Dineen is surely interested in seeing some wins rather than player development during the season – for his sake. If this 3-7-2 mark transforms into something embarrassingly hideous and Walking Dead-like, something along the lines of 3-12-2, you would have to really wonder if Dineen – a great guy to deal with, very personable but in the final year of his contract – would be the Cats’ bench boss for too much longer.
In fact, there’s your answer to the question about the Florida Panthers’ team identity.