The Florida Panthers broke a trend during the 2019-20 season.
The trend was a harsh, but factual one. The Panthers had only played postseason hockey twice in two of its previous 10 seasons. The trend almost continued before they were given a bid in the 2019-20 Stanley Cup Qualifier Round against the New York Islanders.
Although it was not the traditional Stanley Cup Playoffs, it was still postseason hockey for the Panthers. Even though they lost to the Islanders, 3-1 in the series, they still simultaneously broke the trend and showed promise that could bear better fruit in future seasons.
Neither achievements would have been possible had Florida not hired Joel Quenneville.
Yes, that Joel Quenneville.
After Quenneville was fired by the Chicago Blackhawks after a 6-6-3 start during the 2018-19 season, Quenneville would not have to wait long to find another coaching gig, as the Panthers picked him up during the following offseason.
Even though Quenneville’s luster in the Windy City wore off, he still brought significant postseason-savvy head coaching experience to a team desperate to find itself in the Stanley Cup Playoffs once more.
He also brought experience toward improving teams through his first year with them. He did it with his first season with Chicago and, of course, with Florida.
Well, let’s get into it.
In Quenneville’s first season, the Panthers finished 35-26-8 with 78 points. It was Florida’s first season over .500 since the 2017-18 season, when they finished 44-30-8 in a full-length season. Florida’s fourth-place finish in the Atlantic Division this season was also the highest placement since the 2017-18 season when they also finished fourth.
When looking at scoring statistics during the 2019-20 season, Florida scored 228 goals, which ranked sixth in the NHL. Their 3.30 goals per game average (GF/GP) also ranked sixth. Even in a shortened season, both rankings would be Florida’s highest finish in those categories this millennium (dating back to the 2000-01 season). Florida’s 21.3 Power Play Percentage (PP%) in the 2019-20 season, despite being a downgrade from the season prior (Florida’s 2018-19 PP% was 26.8%), would also be higher than any other season this millennium.
While scoring definitely was not a problem for Quenneville’s squad, goaltending was. With big-ticket offseason acquisition Sergei Bobrovsky flopping in year one of his seven-year, $70 million deal, Florida’s 224 goals conceded during the 2019-20 season was tied for fourth worst in the entire NHL and the worst among all 2019-20 postseason teams. Even still, the conceded goals would be a noted improvement from the 2018-19 squad as, even though they played a full season, they still allowed 273 goals, which was also fourth worst. The “improvement” of the 2019-20 goaltending numbers, even if by sheer technicality, would also be reflected in the goals allowed per game average (GA/GP), as the 2019-20 GA/GP of 3.25 was slightly better than the 2018-19 amount (3.33).
Even though Florida’s 2019-20 Penalty Kill Percentage (PK%) of 78.5% was the team’s worst in that category since the 2013-14 season (76.0%), the team under Quenneville showed overall signs of optimism when looking ahead to future seasons. It was definitely something to build around.
“Something to build around,” after all, worked out well for the Blackhawks.
After Denis Savard was relieved of head coaching duties after starting the season 1-2-1 during the 2008-09 season, Quenneville was promoted and led Chicago to a 45-22-11 record and 101 points. The offense during that timeframe scored 250 goals (tied for fourth in the NHL), averaged 3.21 goals per game (also tied for fourth) and possessed a 20.1 PP% (eighth). On the defensive side, the Blackhawks allowed 198 total goals (fifth) to an average of 2.54 a game (fourth). Chicago’s 80.2 PK%, although 20th in the NHL, was still solid enough when combined with the other strengths of the team.
After the poor start, Quenneville stepped in and morphed Chicago into a livelier team. This would eventually culminate with a Western Conference Finals appearance, where the team would eventually falter to the Detroit Red Wings, 4-1.
Even with the loss, there were improvements in team performance. During the 2007-08 season, the Blackhawks ranked 10th in goals scored (234), 10th in GF/GP (2.85), 24th in PP% (15.9%), 20th in goals allowed (231), 20th in GA/GP (2.82) and tied for 17th in PK% (82.1%). To cap it all off, the Blackhawks missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs entirely during that season, as the team finished 40-34-8.
Although the rejuvenation of the team did not result in a Stanley Cup victory, it was something to build around, and boy, oh boy did it build into something spectacular. Over the next eight seasons (2009-10 to 2016-17), the Blackhawks under Quenneville made the Stanley Cup Playoffs every season and hoisted the Stanley Cup three times (2009-10, 2012-13 and 2014-15).
Let’s get back to the Panthers. Of course, it has to be said that Quenneville will have more work cut out for him – the Panthers, while they possess a gluttony of offensive talent, still have a goaltending conundrum that will need to be hashed out. Defensive transitioning will also need to be addressed. With that said, it would be preposterous to automatically expect Quenneville to lead the Panthers to a Stanley Cup victory in only his second season with the team. More work will need to be done, and there will be growing pains along the way.
Even still, Quenneville’s first season as Panther head coach, even with its warts, broke a trend and showed promise.
Now, that seems like something to build around.