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TimeNov 29, 2016

Florida Panthers - Beware what you wish for

Photo: Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire

What may be a surprise may have been inevitable after Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant was released 22 games into the 16/17 NHL season. A differing of philosophy was cited by GM and interim coach Tom Rowe, which was partially influenced by changes made to the Panthers blue line in the off-season. Gallant was cited as preferring a few tweaks among his defense core, including an upgrade in size while management chose a significant blueline overhaul focused on an analytic approach. Who’s right?…time will tell but early play-by-play numbers tell a compelling story.

First it must be conceded that the Panthers analytic approach is working, at least with respect to analytics most popular measurement, Corsi For percentage. On route to a 103 point season in winning the Atlantic division, the 15/16 Panthers posted a Corsi For percentage of 48.7%, ranking 20th among 30 teams. A quarter into the 16/17 season, their CF% ranks 10th at 51.6%, according to stats.hockeyanalysis.com.

Unfortunately the increase in CF% has not yet translated into better results, but has failed to produce corresponding results for other teams as well. Corsi. See What's up with Corsi this Season? Corsi works much better as indicator of strong teams rather than a creator of them.

The 15/16 Panthers finished with a .628 winning percentage while the 16/17 Panthers sit at a winning percentage of .523 after 22 games, despite a 10 spot ranking improvement in Corsi. Note, Jonathan Huberdeau, Jussi Jokinen, and Nick Bugstad have all missed portions of the 1st quarter of the season.

Without launching into a full assault on Corsi, let’s take a closer look, particularly at the d-core.

Offensively, the new Panthers d-core has increased it’s performance by 59% over the 15/16 group, jumping from a ranking of 27th to 7th among 30 NHL d-cores.

Hidden in this substantial improvement is a 44% increase in all turnovers and an 86% increase in “bad’ turnovers. Florida got the extra offense they were looking for but it has arrived at a significant cost. Strong puck management is a key to success and bad turnovers often result in grade A scoring chances against, which often lead to goals against. Note, Corsi, conventional analytics, and computer tracking analytics count frequency of events and fail to account for the significance of each event and each player’s roll in each event. This two dimensional data collection can mask the factors that actually move the game.

Defensively, the proficiency of the 16/17 Panthers d-core has dropped 14 spots, from 14th to 28th. The current Panthers defensemen are making 13.5% fewer positive defensive plays, and 10.1% more defensive mistakes than the defensive group in the 15/16 season, amounting to an almost 25% drop in defensive proficiency.

These group performance numbers are only slightly below the historical performance of the defensemen the Panthers have assembled for the 16/17 season. Simply stated, the Panthers can expect a marginal level of improvement over current performance but the group is not performing significantly below what their past performance would indicate. The play of Aaron Ekblad and each of the other Florida defensmen deserves its own article.

What do these numbers mean?

Teams require a certain combination of Offense, Defense, and goaltending to win hockey games. Sure the opposition moves the dial from game to game but there is a surprisingly tight threshold and winning formula from team to team, subject to their average goaltending of course. The necessary amount of offense and defense delivered must be split between the forward and defensemen group. The changes to the Panthers d-core have placed a substantial burden on the coaching staff to reduce both turnovers and increase defensive performance, or signifcantly increase the defensive performance of their forward group, to get the level of defense required to match and exceed last season’s success. On that path, the new coaching staff has promised changes to defensive schemes, we assume to better fit current personnel.

Panthers management has also suggested patterning after the 15/16 Pittsburgh Penguins. The Pens have a shiny offense that matched that of the Stanley Cup they won, but hidden beneath that shine was a gritty defensive underbelly of the Pens forwards that helped an average d-core and drive the Pens success, full credit to Mike Sullivan for the sell job and the Pens for buying in. See Penguins Forwards Play Defense.

Does this mean the Florida Panthers are doomed to underperform? Not necessarily but what appeared to be a smoothly developing and maturing team, requiring a few tweaks here and there, has suddenly been made much more complicated, sacrificing a strong foundation of defense for the analytics promise of a high flying offense.

Stanley Cup Champions do not require analytics or numbers to explain the details to their success but on the road there, things are never as clear. What seems clear is the Panthers with Gallant at the helm, were steaming along but through a combination of analytics and an early, undeserving playoff exit, Gallant finds himself on the sidelines.

Corsi don't let me down!


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