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In A Blink

by Staff / Florida Panthers

Every season, there are NHL teams that leap from the depths to the pinnacle of the League’s standings, seemingly overnight. Sometimes, these are squads that underwent major late-season or offseason changes, such as a major trade acquisition or the signing of a marquee free agent. Other times, it is a team that flies under the radar but quickly reaches a tipping point caused by the sudden growth and improvement of a roster’s young talent who vastly exceed expectations.

This year, the two most notable examples of profoundly positive shifts in fortune are the Colorado Avalanche and the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Team 2012-13 Record 2013-14 Record
Lightning 18-26-4
(14th in East; 28th Overall)
(4th in East; 11th Overall)
Avalanche 16-25-7
(15th in West; 29th Overall)
(4th in West; 6th Overall)

From the 2011-12 season to the 2012-13 campaign, equally impressive and equally giant leaps were made by both the Montreal Canadians (15th to 2nd in the East) and the Anaheim Ducks (13th to 2nd in the West).

The changes seen this year in Tampa and Colorado are particularly interesting as they may be a sign of things to come in the not so distant future in Florida. This becomes more apparent when we take a look at some of the parallels between the organizations that have been drivers of their success this season.

Build Through the Draft

Tampa Bay’s lineup this year has no less than 10 players under the age of 24, each of whom was drafted or made their NHL debut with the Lightning. This list includes big name, early-round selections like Steven Stamkos (1st overall in 2008) and rearguard Victor Hedman (2nd overall, 2009) along with deeper finds such as forwards Ondrej Palat (7th round in 2011) and Tyler Johnson (undrafted).

The Avalanche are no different, with eight of their draft picks currently in the lineup, including Matt Duchene (3rd overall, 2009), Gabriel Landeskog (2nd overall, 2011) and Nathan McKinnon (1st overall, 2013).

As evidenced by the struggles each team endured in last year’s lockout-shortened season, a roster sprinkled with high-end, young talent doesn’t always translate to immediate on-ice success, but once a group has some time to gel and gain NHL experience together, the result can be combustible and a team’s outlook can change quickly. Similarly, both teams are only now reaping the rewards of the deft drafting that took place 3-4 years prior.

Supplement the young core with compatible, veteran free agents

This past off-season, Tampa Bay signed free agent center Valtteri Filppula (age 29), who spent the previous eight seasons with Detroit. Filppula leads the Bolts in points this season with 49.

Colorado, meanwhile, signed free agent right-winger PA Parenteau prior to last season and, this year, acquired Maxim Talbot in a trade with Philadelphia. Parenteau has 33 points this year while Talbot carries the Stanley Cup-winning pedigree from his years in Pittsburgh.

Notables in Net

Both Tampa Bay and Colorado made major deals to acquire goalies that have carried their respective teams to success this season. Tampa Bay acquired Ben Bishop from Ottawa at last season’s trade deadline in exchange for young forward Cory Conacher and a draft pick, while Colorado parted ways with a first and second round pick in order to acquire Semyon Varlamov from Washington prior to last season. Varlamov is currently tied for first in the league in wins with 34, with Bishop just two behind.

Does some of this sound familiar?

If you’re a Florida Panthers fan and you’re nodding your head, well, you should be.

There are a number of parallels between Florida’s current situation and those of Tampa and Colorado last season right before they accelerated towards the top of the standings.

Like the Avs and Bolts, the Cats roster is filled with names that have been familiar to Florida fans since draft day. In fact, no less than 11 players in the current lineup were drafted by the Panthers. The list includes household names like Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Erik Gudbranson, Jonathan Huberdeau and Dmitry Kulikov, together with mid-season additions and frequent call-ups such as Jimmy Hayes, Dylan Olsen, Vincent Trocheck, Quinton Howden, Drew Shore and Alex Petrovic. Some were selected with early picks while others, like Trocheck (64th overall in 2011) were selected further down the draft day list. By the start of next season, many of the newer faces may have every day roster spots, and they could very well be joined by some of the members of the Panthers’ highly touted prospect class, one that was recently ranked 3rd in the entire NHL by The Hockey News.

When it comes to acquisitions, the Panthers got started early on next season with the deadline addition of former AHL leading scorer Brandon Pirri and the re-signing of veteran scoring winger and shootout specialist Brad Boyes to a two-year extension. Florida’s ownership and management have promised to be very active in free agency, and the team certainly has the bandwidth to make some extra moves, with anticipated cap space this coming offseason of close to $30 million. If the young core continues to improve, an 82-game season is ample time for the Cats to make a major leap from this year’s spot in the standings.

Finally, peering between the pipes we can find another close similarity, as the Panthers recently bolstered their crease with the blockbuster addition of Roberto Luongo, acquired at the trade deadline from Vancouver. Luongo has historically posted top flight numbers, including seven consecutive 30+ win seasons and a save percentage that, over the past four seasons, ranks sixth among all goaltenders to have played at least 5,000 minutes. If Luongo keeps up this level of performance, the Panthers place in the standings should rise as their goals allowed total correspondingly falls.

If you need any more convincing about what the future holds for this team all you have to do is look to Florida’s 3-2 win over the San Jose Sharks last night. The Panthers, riddled by injuries, beat the Sharks, who are ranked third in the NHL standings, with contributions from their young core of players and a stellar 52 save performance from Luongo. Playing without a lot of their young stars (Huberdeau, Barkov, and Gudbranson) the Panthers depth of talent was evident as they received big contributions from youngsters Pirri, Hayes and Howden. Having Luongo in net doesn’t hurt either.

Playing without a lot of their future stars, an inexperienced Panthers team was able to go into San Jose and come out with a win over one of the league’s best teams. It was an impressive performance but it was just an appetizer, foreshadowing what this team will be capable of when all the pieces come together.

But wait, there’s more: Close Game "Luck"

The Cats have been in it on many nights this year, only to come away without the points. They boast a not-enviable record of 12-20 in games decided by one goal or less. This is not dissimilar to Tampa’s record of 5-16 (23.8%) in 2012-13. Numbers guys will tell you that records like this are likely to balance out over time on account of simple "regression", and Tampa’s experience reflects this, as this year’s Bolts boast a much more reasonable record of 15-17 (46.9%) in those close games. They have a higher spot in the standings to show for it.

Not convinced yet? Consider Colorado. The Avs were 8-14 (36%) in those close one-goal games last year. This year? They’re a much more impressive 22-9 (71.4%).

If the Cats can be just a little bit better, and just a bit luckier, they might find themselves a lot higher in the standings next season. And that is something Panthers fans will be happy to look up to.

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