One of the best facets of the hockey blogosphere is getting to talk to and meet other writers, fans, and media from different markets. Perhaps one of the most underrated fanbases in the NHL is the Florida Panthers' one. Lots of people crap over the attendance issues and the lack of "real fans".
What I've come to learn over the last year is that the fans that keep coming back are some of the most loyal fans in the league. The franchise had it's share of problems and they've been at the end of a joke or two but the Panthers this year are remarkably talented. The 6-4 loss we handed them on November 8th is something they're looking to enact revenge for. I had the chance to ask my new friend Kris from TheSunshineSkate.com about these #fancycats.
Tell me who you are and what you do; and why you love the Panthers
My name is Kris and I'm just some twenty-something-year-old dude that loves hockey. I've lived in South Florida my entire life so being attached to the Panthers was just a natural fit for me.
Trash Newton, explain this Twitter username/Internet pseudonym you "hide behind"
Hahahaha. It was just some goofy term Don Cherry created. He went on some rant about the CHL around two years ago and Winging It In Motown wrote about it. He then, essentially, subtweeted them about some foolishness and the term "trash newton" was created.
Before we dive into the Panthers themselves, let's talk about the fundraising you've been doing under the #PanthersHelpPets hashtag. How can others get involved?
#PanthersHelpPets is just a fundraiser I started last month as a fun way to help animals in my community through some fun hockey-based pledges. Initially, it just started as me pledging money each time Aaron Ekblad picked up a point and then Panthers co-owner, Doug Cifu, showered considerable interest in helping the cause. Since then, #PanthersHelpPets has raised over $1000 for my local animal shelter with more pledges popping up.
If you'd like to join the cause, you can check out it's page on my site or just message me on Twitter for more info. If you donate over $20 this month, you'll be eligible to win a sweet autographed puck from Ekblad as well.
Going into this season, it was a big year for the Panthers. Lots of focus was on getting out of the "rebuild" and into the playoffs. How have the Panthers been so far this season?
In my opinion, the Panthers have been a pleasant surprise this year. The acquisition of Roberto Luongo a day before the trade deadline last season has solidified their goaltending (replacing a rag tag group of goalies that would hemorrhage goals) and many of their young players have had substantial development.
The team also hired Gerard Gallant to take the reins behind the bench and Florida now has a defense-first system that ranks them Top 10 in Goals Allowed/GP. The Panthers also have some good-to-great underlying numbers, if you're into analytics, and look like they're a fringe playoff team after finishing 30th and 29th in the league the past two seasons.
Who has been the biggest surprise (positively) for you?
I would suggest either Nick Bjugstad or Aaron Ekblad. I’m going to gush over Ekblad for question nine so I'm going to roll with Bjugstad here. Bjugstad in his sophomore campaign with the team has made leaps and bounds in terms of his development this season. At the age of 22, he’s started to put together all the tools to be a productive NHL center and he’s finally starting to really use his frame (6’6, 218 lbs) to his advantage.
He’s currently leading the team in points (15 G, 9 A, 24 Pts) and is on pace for about 50 points or so which is excellent for a team that is offensively starved. Bjugstad was also just signed to a six-year, 24.6m deal ($4.1m AAV) so it looks like he’ll be an integral piece to the Panthers core for quite some time.
Who has disappointed you immensely beyond anything imaginable (if such a person exists)?
I’m going to mix it in up a bit and suggest a thing instead of a player. The Panthers power play is arguably the most milquetoast and stagnant powerplay in the league. Florida’s PP% is a paltry 13.9% (28th in the NHL) and is about entertaining as watching paint dry. Florida is a historically low SH% team and this is near palpable when you watch them on the man-advantage.
Possession wise, the Panthers have been killing it lately. What/who has been the biggest driver in regards to this?
Looking at score-adjusted fenwick, the Panthers have been a team consistently on the rise for the past three years, with a SAF% of 51.9% this season, good for 11th in the NHL. When it comes to individual players, a handful of names standout as drivers of possession.
Brian Campbell, despite being maligned by a rather vocal part of the fanbase, continues to be a steady player with 55.15 CF% at 5-on-5. Campbell is one of those sneaky good possession players that typically inflate his D-partners numbers and his WOWYs reflect that, as nearly every single players sees a significant drop in his numbers without Campbell.
Another interesting player that drives possession is the 19-year-old Aleksander Barkov. His 5-on-5 CF% is the 2nd highest on the team at 55.26%. Barkov was deployed heavily in the d-zone early in this season and still managed to have positive possession numbers while facing tough competition.
I find Barkov’s play as a 19-year-old to be unbelievably impressive as he practically faces the toughest comp, while being deployed in a primarily defensive role, and still manages to nearly lead the team in many possession-based metrics. Here is a handy little graphic courtesy of war-on-ice.com to reflect his play compared to his forward peers.
Do you see the Panthers making any small or huge deals at the trade deadline to increase their chances at a playoff spot?
Florida should be a pretty interesting team to watch this deadline as they've made a few things very apparent:
- The team is thirsty for goal scoring.
- The team has too many forwards on the roster and continuously needs to either IR a player or rotate wingers just to fit everyone.
- The team has a significant amount of cap space and several strong assets if they want to make a splash.
If I had to make an educated guess, I'd suggest that Florida will make some noise this deadline and either jettison a player or two to make room OR make a splash for a goal-scoring winger. They'll definitely be a team to keep an eye on this March.
Aaron Ekblad, probably the only defenseman capable of competing with Johnny Gaudreau and Filip Forsberg. How has his rookie campaign been?
Before I go on a rant about Ekblad, I want to say that Johnny Gaudreau is an American hero. Gaudreau is the absolute embodiment of hockey joy in my opinion and I cherish him with all of my red, white, and blue heart. Love you, Johnny Hockey.
Going back to Ekblad, I feel that he is absolutely exceeding all expectations. His five goals and 17 assists (22 points) is good for third in the rookie scoring race and the 18-year-old is also tied-20th in defenseman scoring. He’s been very impressive on Florida’s top d-pairing and is logging an impressive 22:03 TOI/GP.
Some people have been critical of his deployment (such as his favorable offensive zone starts/quality of competition) but you have to realize he is just 18. How else would you deploy a player that age and still have them be effective? Regardless, Ekblad looks like he will be a crucial component to Florida's transition from a team on the rebuild to a possible playoff contender.
The last time the Panthers and the Flames played it was a high scoring affair (6-4 Go Flames!). What can we expect against the Panthers this evening?
I’d suggest we will see a much lower scoring matchup between these two teams. Florida has only allowed 5+ goals on four separate occasions this season and typically plays a pretty defensively-sound system. Both teams are pretty similar, in my opinion, as far as their development and core group of players. It'll be interesting to watch these two teams play each other and see how they continue to progress throughout the season.
Hopefully, we'll see a tight game with some impressive play from both teams. Best of luck, Calgary!
Thanks for reading, be sure to follow along here with post-game recap this evening, our stats recap tomorrow, and check out The Sunshine Skate for Florida Panthers info as well as SBNation's Litter box Cats. Also make sure you follow Kris on Twitter: @trashnewton