While you were away: Canucks, Panthers remain playoff hopefuls

Monday November 23rd, 2015

Welcome to the latest installment of While You Were Away. We’ll be tracking stories you may have missed and players who are trending up or down. We’ll fill you in on roster transactions, make a few predictions and generally keep you updated on all things NHL beyond your favorite team.

As the NHL enters the second quarter of the 2015-16 season, we're sizing up two intriguing teams. In the Western Conference, the Vancouver Canucks are continuing to flirt with a “youth movement” while still giving prime ice time to over-30 veterans such as Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Alex Burrows, Dan Hamhuis, Radim Vrbata and Chris Higgins. In the East, the Florida Panthers have been adding young talent while flirting with the opportunity to make a jump toward the top of the relatively weak Atlantic Division and qualify for the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

How will these two teams fare during the remainder of the season, given that their first quarter has been something of a wash?

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The Canucks had a pair of emotionally laden home games this past weekend and somewhat predictably split the pair. The Sedins were the story as they combined for nine points in a 6–3 win on Saturday against their old rivals, the Chicago Blackhawks. But on Sunday, former Canucks goalie Cory Schneider returned to Rogers Arena and bested his old teammates in a 3–2 win for the Devils. Vancouver is now 8-8-6, still good for third in the Pacific Division.

It’s been hard to get a read on the Canucks, especially after their recent brutal 1-4-2 road trip that featured a number of collapses. There have been bright spots, including the play of Daniel Sedin, who has enjoyed something of a resurgence: At 10-13-23 he currently sits tied for fifth in league scoring at a clip of more than a point-per-game, a pace he hasn’t achieved since his Art Ross Trophy-winning season of 2010-11. But on the other end of the rink, goaltender Ryan Miller hasn’t provided the Canucks with the play they needed to close out games. He sports a 2.45 GAA and .911 save percentage, both below the league averages.

Predictably then, Vancouver’s 5-on-5 goals-for/goals-against numbers rank 15th and 16th in the league respectively according to Hockey Analysis. However, their power play has kept them afloat. They’re tied for fourth in the league in goals scored with the man advantage, but their five-on-five Corsi For % of 48.6 is good for only 20th and would suggest that they are still chasing the play.

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The inconsistencies don’t end there. The team’s youth movement, highlighted by three forwards, rookies Jared McCann and Jake Virtanen and sophomore Bo Horvat, shows promise but the kids still have a ways to go before they become effective possession drivers. McCann has scored 1.77 even-strength points per 60 minutes, good for fourth among Canucks who have played more than 16 games, but his CF% is a paltry 47.66% (according to War on Ice). Virtanen is enjoying a strong start. He sits third on the team in even strength CF% (52.03%) and his points-per-60 minutes is a healthy 1.39, but Horvat’s numbers lag in both categories (45.39 CF% and 0.72 P/60) though he has played more games than Virtanen and McCann.

Luckily, the Sedins are looking as effective as they were in their prime but they will need to shoulder even more of the load if the Canucks are to contend for a playoff spot in a Pacific Division that offers some unexpected opportunities due to the struggles of the Ducks and Flames.

“When you really need your leadership is when you’re going through a tough time,” Vancouver coach Willie Desjardins said after Saturday’s win.

Edmonton and Calgary look likethey will be out of the running and Arizona’s underlying numbers suggest the Coyotes are likely to collapse late in the season, which means the Canucks could be in a good position for a playoff spot if the influence of the Sedins extends beyond the ice and into the locker room.

Meanwhile, the Panthers suffered a 5–4 overtime loss to the New York Rangers on Saturday that left them 8-8-4 and at the bottom of the Atlantic, behind five other teams.

In short, it doesn’t look promising for the Panthers. The Boston Bruins are starting to find their game again and the injury-riddled Tampa Bay Lightning, when healthy, still have to be considered a legitimate threat to top the Eastern Conference. Eight of Florida’s next nine games are against teams that currently sit in a playoff position and five of their eight wins this season have come against teams outside of the postseason picture.

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The Panthers are often chasing the play, as their even strength Corsi For % sits at a dreadful 47.7%, fourth-worst in the league, according to War on Ice. Their two leading scorers, Jaromir Jagr and Jussi Jokinen are 43 and 32 respectively and likely to slow down late in the season. Florida’s third leading scorer, upstart forward Vincent Trocheck, 22, won’t be able to keep up the 20.0% clip he’s shooting at now either. Winger Jonathan Huberdeau, 22, has scored once in 20 games, but on the bright side, center Sasha Barkov, 20, has returned from a broken hand and added some punch to the top line with Jagr and Huberdeau (three goals, five assists in three games).

“Barkov is a two-way player, and that’s what you need,” coach Gerard Gallant told the Miami Herald. “He’s a horse and just gets better every game. He brings a lot of offense, brings great defense and is the exact kind of player a coach wants. You can trust him in all situations.’’

On the backline, Aaron Ekblad, 19, last season’s Calder Trophy winner, battled the dreaded sophomore slump for much of the early going but he has begun to pick up his pace with two goals and three assists in his past six games. Goalie Roberto Luongo’s even strength save percentage of .942 has kept the Cats in a lot of games but at 36, there are questions about his durability throughout the long season as well.

The Panthers, with the second-highest average player age in the league, seem likely to spend another season out of the playoff hunt unless their kids provide that vital production and spark. 

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