It’s always disappointing when a team fails to make the playoffs, but sometimes it’s mitigated by the fact that it was a rebuilding season or because expectations were low to begin with. That’s not the case with the team’s we’re looking at in this edition of What Went Wrong.
The Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers won their respective divisions in the 2015-16 campaign and the hope was that they could take another step forward this season, but that obviously didn’t happen and below I’ll break down the details of that. I’ll also highlight some players that either underperformed this season or that they simply will need more from in the future.
The Panthers were dealt a serious blow before the campaign even started as Jonathan Huberdeau suffered a lacerated Achilles tendon in a preseason contest and didn’t end up making his 2016-17 debut until Feb. 03. To make matters worse, Nick Bjugstad was also hurt in an exhibition contest – in his case it was a broken hand – and didn’t make his debut until Nov. 22.
Those weren’t the only major injuries that the Panthers suffered in 2016-17 either, but you can see how they were dealing with adversity right out of that gate. Which made Tom Rowe’s decision to fire Gerard Gallant just 21 games into the season and so soon following the bench boss leading the Panthers to a division title all the more eyebrow raising. The Panthers weren’t off to a devastating start either, especially given their initial injuries, as Florida held an 11-9-1 record at the time of Gallant’s dismissal. Granted that’s not great either, but the firing was nevertheless questionable.
It was reported afterwards that Gallant and the front office were in disagreement over the direction of the team and that might have been a big part of the reason behind his firing, but regardless Rowe took over behind the bench. Under him the team got even worse by posting a 24-27-10 record the rest of the way.
To be fair with Rowe, he didn’t enjoy a healthy Panthers team either. In addition to the aforementioned long-term absence of Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, and Roberto Luongo also spent a decent chunk of time on the sidelines.
The Panthers did manage to make one finish push towards the postseason by claiming eight of nine games from Jan. 26 through Feb. 20 to improve to 28-20-10, but Florida was just 7-16-1 the rest of the way.
After that setback of a season, Rowe won’t be returning as the team’s coach or general manager. Still, the silver lining in all of this is that the Panthers do have a promising young core and if their key players can stay healthy next season then they might be able to bounce back even if most of their roster remains unchanged from 2016-17.
Jussi Jokinen – Jokinen was one of the Panthers’ offensive leaders in 2015-16 with 18 goals and 60 points in 81 games, but he fell hard this season with 11 goals and 28 points in 69 contests. While plus/minus ratings need to be taken with a grain of salt, it’s also worth mentioning that his swung from plus-25 to minus-15. He turned 34 years old in April so his age alone is starting to become a concern, but he should do better than he did in 2016-17 even if he doesn’t repeat his 2015-16 point total.
Jonathan Huberdeau – As I mentioned above, Huberdeau didn’t even make his season debut until Feb. 3 due to a lacerated Achilles tendon, so the reason why he didn’t provide the Panthers with the kind of impact they needed is fairly obvious. The silver lining is that he was great once he recovered, scoring 10 goals and 26 points in 31 games. Huberdeau’s career-high is 59 points, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the 24-year-old top that next season as he moves into his prime.
Reilly Smith – From 2013-14 through 2015-16 Smith recorded 51, 40, and 50 points per season. Given that he was still just 25 years old going into the 2016-17 campaign, it seemed reasonable to believe that he still had a bit more upside left. With that in mind the Panthers locked him into a five-year, $25 million contract in the summer of 2016 that will begin with the 2017-18 campaign. Unfortunately, Smith underwhelmed in the final season of his previous contract as he scored 15 goals and 37 points in 80 contests in 2016-17. That’s obviously not too far off from his 2014-15 total, but it’s less than the Panthers need from a forward that’s about to make $5 million annually.
Aleksander Barkov – Barkov was only able to play in 61 games last season and unfortunately injuries holding him back has become a recurring theme. He’s now four seasons into his career and he’s yet to play more than 71 games in a single season. He did score 21 goals and 52 points when healthy last season, which would have translated to roughly 70 points over a full 82 games, so the potential for him to have a big 2017-18 campaign is clearly there. He’s a risk though given his history.
Dallas’ problem isn’t complicated: They have endured bad goaltending. The duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi was an issue in 2015-16 as well, but they were even worse this time around with Lehtonen posting a 2.85 GAA and .902 save percentage in 59 games and Niemi recording a 3.30 GAA and .892 save percentage in 37 contests. That worked out to the team having a 3.17 goals against per game, which was the second-worst in the NHL behind only the Colorado Avalanche.
In recent years Dallas has made up for its lackluster goaltending through sheer offensive force, but the Stars had some issues there too. Dallas averaged 3.23 goals per game in 2015-16 and that declined to 2.71 this season. That’s still an okay showing offensively, but okay isn’t going to do the job when you can’t keep the puck out of your own net.
The Stars saw a decline offensively from their star players as Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn, and Jason Spezza combined for 225 points in 2015-16 and 191 points in 2016-17. It didn’t help matters that Spezza was limited to 68 games, but all three players saw a drop in offensive production.
That’s particularly problematic for the Stars because they don’t have much in the way of offensive weapons beyond their big three. In 2015-16 Patrick Sharp was the only other forward with at least 40 points as he recorded 20 goals and 55 points in 76 games. This season, Sharp played in just 48 games and no forward outside of the big three reached that 40-point milestone (though to be fair, Patrick Eaves did reach it overall, but had just 37 points when Dallas dealt him to Anaheim).
Dallas finished the season with a 34-37-11 record and never really had a great stretch from start to finish. The Stars only had a single three-game winning streak from Dec. 23-29 and were unable to top that. Not to keep coming back to the same point, but it is hard to string wins together when your goaltenders struggle.
The silver lining here is that Dallas might have already addressed its biggest need by signing Ben Bishop to a six-year, $29.5 million contract.
Jamie Benn – With 26 goals and 69 points in 77 games, Benn had a very good season, but the Stars count on him to be even better than that. Benn won the Art Ross Trophy in 2014-15 with 87 points and was a Hart Trophy finalist in 2015-16 with a career-high 41 goals and 89 points. So for him to shed 20 points season-over-season is a big part of the reason why the Stars’ offense went from being exceptional to average. Of course Benn has a great track record and is only 27 years old (he’ll turn 28 on July 18), so there’s a good chance that he’s one of the league’s top players again in 2017-18.
Jason Spezza – Spezza was limited to 68 games this season, but his production declined even when he was healthy from 33 goals and 63 points in 75 contests to 15 goals and 50 points in 2016-17. It’s worth noting though that Spezza often served as a winger instead of his natural position of center. In that regard, Spezza might be one of the players that benefit the most due to Lindy Ruff being replaced by Ken Hitchcock as the team’s bench boss. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Spezza get back over the 60-point milestone next season.
Patrick Sharp – As mentioned above, Sharp provided the Stars with some much needed secondary scoring in 2015-16 and his inability to contribute significantly in 2016-17 was a big blow to the team. Sharp had two concussions and a hip injury so I can’t blame him for having a rough season. That being said, his eight goals, 18 points, and minus-22 rating in 48 contests are obviously disappointing statistics to see from him. At the age of 35, Sharp might still be able to bounce back and have a few more serviceable seasons. He’s set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer and could be an inexpensive gamble for some team, be it the Stars or otherwise.
Antti Niemi – Niemi didn’t look great in his first season with Dallas, but he did enough to pick up wins behind the Stars’ offensive might. That wasn’t possible for him in 2016-17 though as he had a 3.30 GAA and .892 save percentage in 37 contests. That GAA was the third worst among goaltenders that started in at least 10 games behind only Detroit’s Jared Coreau and Colorado’s Semyon Varlamov. Niemi still has one season left on his contract, but the Stars might buy him out after signing Bishop.