The Florida Panthers were a tough team to get a read on entering the season, but they're starting to make it clear what they can do.
With a comeback victory over the Edmonton Oilers on Monday, Florida has now won seven of its last eight games. Its only defeat in that span was a one-goal loss to a tough Los Angeles Kings squad on the road.
As a result of their recent stretch, the Panthers now sit 12-5-1 with the third-best points percentage in the Eastern Conference (.694). While the team's goal differential isn't overwhelming (+8), they are a top-10 squad in almost every meaningful possession metric, ranking in the top five in shots for percentage (54.45%) and high-danger chance rate (56.59%) at 5v5.
That's great news when you've got a team with a number of excellent finishers, and goaltending with a high ceiling thanks to the presence of two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky.
The fact they've done so well is also impressive considering star defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour have been absent for most of the season. Each blueliner has only played two games thus far, and the Panthers may have another gear to hit with their defense corps intact.
Part of what makes Florida such a compelling team early in 2023-24 is that they aren't leaning on the formula that drove them through last season's playoffs to compete. Much of what they did during that postseason was tough to replicate as Matthew Tkachuk was an overtime goal machine and Bobrovsky produced a .935 save % in the first three rounds to give them a shot at the Cup.
Counting on those players — as talented as they are — to be superhuman over an 82-game schedule was never going to be a practical blueprint. As a result, it was easy to imagine the regression hammer coming for this team, making it look more like the 2022-23 regular-season squad that managed 92 points.
Tkachuk and Bobrovsky have both come back to earth to some degree. The former is still an important contributor, but he's had a difficult time finding the back of the net in the early going.
Bobrovsky has been approximately average between the pipes so far with a save % (.906) narrowly above the NHL standard (.903) and a Goals Saved Above Expected mark of zero.
That pair failing to dominate has done little to prevent the Panthers from succeeding. Sam Reinhart is playing inspired hockey, Aleksander Barkov is doing his thing, and low-key free-agent acquisitions like Evan Rodrigues, Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Niko Mikkola are exceeding expectations. The team is also considered a top suitor for Patrick Kane.
Kane is almost impossible to project at this point in his career coming off hip surgery, but he could provide some handy depth scoring and power-play utility. Even when he was at the worst we've seen him last season, the winger was still fairly productive.
Signing Kane is no sure thing, but it's likely that Florida will pursue significant in-season upgrades.
The Panthers have a lengthy list of players about to hit unrestricted free agency, and while their window isn't closing by any means, they'll be hard-pressed to find comparable replacements for Reinhart, Gustav Forsling, Montour and Ekman-Larsson — plus valuable role players like Nick Cousins and Kevin Stenlund.
That means Florida is a team that's already imposing with the potential to get significantly better as Tkachuk heats up and its blue line is revitalized by Ekblad and Montour. Its 2022-23 playoff run included some magic it's unlikely to find again, but it's doing fine without it. The Panthers are also a team that's likely to push chips into the middle for a 2023-24 run because of its crop of outgoing free agents, whether that means landing Kane or making significant deals at the deadline.
Florida is already a dangerous club, and the best could be yet to come. Last year's postseason success may have featured a heavy sprinkling of good fortune, but the Panthers look well positioned to make their presence felt in the spring once again.