3 questions the first-place Panthers face after the best first half in franchise history

·5 min read

The first half of the Florida Panthers’ season could hardly have gone better. The second half gets underway Sunday as the Panthers face the Seattle Kraken in their first ever trip to Seattle.

Through 41 games, Florida was tied for the NHL lead in points and boasted the league’s second best points percentage. With 61 points, Panthers are on pace for the best season in franchise history by nearly 20 points and their .744 points percentage is right on track with the franchise-best mark they set last year.

They have the league’s second highest scoring offense, lead the NHL in shots on goal per game and even have a top-15 defense, in terms of goals against per game. No one has a better goal differential and Florida has managed all this despite an abrupt coaching change in the opening month of the season, when former coach Joel Quenneville resigned in disgrace over his role in the Chicago Blackhawks’ 2010 mishandling of sexual abuse allegations.

Of course, Andrew Brunette is in no mood to reflect on what has happened to get the Panthers, who haven’t won a postseason series since 1996, to this point.

“In our business, you’re kind of looking day to day, game to game,” the interim coach said, “so I’m not really evaluating where we’ve been.”

In the spirit of Brunette’s mentality, here are three major questions Florida has to answer in the second half of the 2021-22 NHL season:

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1. Can the Panthers play better on the road?

Brunette certainly agrees this is the biggest question at this moment.

“Where we are right now is the most important thing and we’re trying to build our road game,” he said. “For me, it’s just more this game and continuing to build our road record to be better.”

The recent signs are promising for Florida, which has the best home record in the NHL and a losing record on the road.

The Panthers actually won their first three road games of the year, way back in the first month of the season, then lost 10 of 13, including a blowout loss to the Calgary Flames on Tuesday, before stringing together some wins in the middle of this ongoing five-game road trip.

Florida blew out the Edmonton Oilers on Thursday, then edged the Vancouver Canucks in a shootout Friday for their first road winning streak since those first three games. Since the calendar flipped to 2022, the Panthers are 2-1-1 on the road, entering Sunday, with a win against the first-place Carolina Hurricanes.

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2. Will Sergei Bobrovsky keep this up?

One of the only disappointments of this season for Florida has been the play of rookie Spencer Knight, who became the youngest goaltender to ever win an elimination playoff game last year, but ranks near the bottom of the NHL in most goaltending categories now.

Fortunately for the Panthers, it hasn’t mattered because Bobrovsky is back to playing like an All-Star, with a top-10 save percentage, top-10 goals against average and the most goals saved above expected in the entire NHL.

He even got his first shutout since 2019 on Thursday, stopping 40 shots to blank the high-powered Oilers. It was his first shutout since his 12th game with Florida.

Bobrovsky has always shown flashes of excellence. This is by the far the best sustained stretch he has put together, though, since he signed his seven-year, $70 million contract with the Panthers in 2019.

In the 2021 Stanley Cup playoffs, he was Florida’s fatal flaw. If he can keep playing like this into the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs, he’ll be one of Florida’s strengths. He has a long way to go, though, to earn the full trust of the fan base.

Florida Panthers goalie Spencer Knight (30) reacts after giving up a point during the third period of an NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida, on Tuesday, December 14, 2021. The Panthers lost to the Senators 8-2, allowing the biggest loss of the season.
Florida Panthers goalie Spencer Knight (30) reacts after giving up a point during the third period of an NHL game against the Ottawa Senators at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida, on Tuesday, December 14, 2021. The Panthers lost to the Senators 8-2, allowing the biggest loss of the season.

3. Should the Panthers take a big swing ahead of the trade deadline?

In the last week, Florida has been heavily linked to Arizona Coyotes defenseman Jakob Chychrun and it makes sense. Chychrun was born and raised in Boca Raton, and he perfectly fits the Panthers’ high-scoring style.

The 23-year-old has been one of the better offensive defensemen in the NHL since he got to the league in 2015 and he led all defensemen with 18 goals last season. As deep as it is on offense, Florida could still use another top-flight defenseman to go with Aaron Ekblad, MacKenzie Weegar, Gustav Forsling, Brandon Montour and Radko Gudas. Bill Zito seems to think so.

“You’ve probably heard it before: You can never have enough defense,” Zito said last month. “It’s something we can’t really rest on. We always have to continue to look to get better.”

The asking price is steep, though. The Coyotes are asking for Knight, rookie center Anton Lundell and a first-round pick, Sportsnet reported, and the Panthers view both Knight and Lundell as future All-Stars.

Right now, Knight is somewhat expendable because of how Bobrovsky is playing, but Bobrovsky’s recent track record mean he might not always be. Lundell is a major part of what Florida does, particularly on the penalty kill, but the Panthers are also deep enough to survive without him.

It’s a trickiest question Florida will face. The Panther scan certainly improve along the margins, but would any marginal upgrade in 2022 be worth the cost to the future?

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