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Panthers must not overreact to playoffs, including at head coach

With the matchup set for the 2022 Stanley Cup Final featuring the Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning, Pro Hockey Talk previews what to expect from both teams.

Even before they struggled against the Capitals and were swept out of the playoffs by the Lightning, the Florida Panthers inspired an uncomfortable thought. Fun, risk-taking NHL teams rarely receive many chances to succeed.

Time ran out on the Bruce Boudreau era for the Capitals, forcing them to wade through the wilderness before finally grabbing that elusive Stanley Cup. From 2014-15 to 2015-16, the Stars easily lead the league with 522 goals, leaving the Capitals at a distant second with 485. After a setback or two, they now embrace boredom like a badge of honor.

Those are just a few examples of teams barely traveling a rocky road before their style goes blandly vanilla.

So, if you’re like me, you’ve been waiting for the other shoe to drop with the Florida Panthers. Thus, a Jeff Blashill - Panthers connection sounds like a loud thud.

To be clear, Elliotte Friedman brought it up as a passing mention around the 55-minute mark of his “32 Thoughts Podcast” with Jeff Marek.

For all we know, the Panthers stick with Brunette, or go for a different head coach.

The larger direction of the Panthers is worth discussing, though. Whether it’s Blashill, Brunette, or someone else as Panthers head coach, this team could look different next season.

Pondering a Blashill - Panthers connection

Again, at first blush, Blashill coaching the Panthers would be puzzling. Even for a franchise that’s enjoyed a run of making fascinating bets that pay off in big ways.

Really, it’s striking that Andrew Brunette boasts more playoff games coached (10 to 5) and more playoff wins (4 to 1) in one interim run with the Panthers than Jeff Blashill managed in seven seasons with the Red Wings.

Of course, the Red Wings don’t feature anywhere near the personnel that the Panthers rolled out in 2021-22.

Should Jeff Blashill get another chance as an NHL head coach? Possibly.

Understandably, people mention examples of coaches learning from mistakes and nailing a second try as an NHL head coach. They risk simplifying that process, though. Sure, Bruce Cassidy enjoyed success during his Bruins run. It’s easy to forget how large the gap was between the Capitals firing him (2003-04) and his next shot as as NHL head coach in 2016-17.

[Cassidy hopes to coach in the NHL again, possibly as soon as next season]

It would be foolish to blame Blashill for the Red Wings’ struggles. At the same time, it’s difficult to find undeniable evidence that Blashill was a great head coach on a bad team.

Work hard enough, and you can talk yourself into any number of situations. Perhaps Blashill’s aggressive leanings would take off with the right pieces?

But maybe this is really about an earlier impression?

Consider what Panthers GM Bill Zito said about Blashill as the two readied to represent the U.S. at the 2018 IIHF World Championship.

” ... And I think he brings a nice balance,” Zito said of Blashill, via the Associated Press. “He brings a great balance of the technical expertise of the game -- he’s a student of the game and he’s studying, he’s always into the little nuances that make up a game -- as well as the personal, one-on-one to get the most out of the individuals.”

Look, it’s great for a coach and a GM to get along.

Still, there’s a fine line between finding chemistry and making a “chummy” move. After all, the U.S. didn’t exactly dominate that tournament. Kraken GM Ron Francis hired Dave Hakstol after bonding with him under similar circumstances. With time, that partnership might shine. However, it was a failure in year one.

Overall, you can talk yourself into Blashill as Panthers head coach. It just might not be a very persuasive argument.

Jury’s still out on Brunette as Panthers head coach

That said, it’s understandable -- if a bit hasty -- if the Panthers have their doubts about Andrew Brunette as head coach.

Granted, it would be silly to dismiss his overall work. Taking over after Joel Quenneville resigned in disgrace, the Panthers hardly missed a beat under Andrew Brunette. They won a Presidents’ Trophy, and he was a Jack Adams Award finalist.

Playoff worries extend beyond a bitter sweep by the Lightning. Although they eliminated Washington in six games, the Panthers struggled to break through the Capitals’ defenses.

Does Brunette need more experience when it comes to the granular adjustments that sometimes separate good NHL coaches from great ones? These are harsh questions, yet they also might be fair.

Considering all of the assets the Panthers put on the line, they might not be in the most patient mood, either.

Deep down, the Panthers may simply view Brunette as a strong assistant who isn’t totally ready to coach a contending team.

It’s a credible debate. That said, the debate turns dubious if it boils down to Brunette vs. Blashill.

Ultimately, salary cap and free agent issues could make Panthers head coach a tougher job going forward.

Whatever the case may be, the Panthers face a trying offseason

Break down the Florida Panthers’ salary cap/free agent situation, and you’ll likely argue that something has to given. Then again, maybe GM Bill Zito has some tricks up his sleeves?

Consider the basics:

  • Via Cap Friendly, the Panthers’ salary cap space is projected at about $4M. There’s often wiggle room with such estimates, but the bottom line is that it’s tight.
  • Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot are both slated to be UFAs. Mason Marchment was a revelation this season, and he’s a UFA as well. The Athletic’s Pierre LeBrun detailed Claude Giroux’s interest in returning to the Panthers (sub required), but that would require some Lightning-level juggling.
  • Eetu Luostarinen carved out a place in the mix, and he’s a pending RFA.
  • There are also crucial expiring contracts after next season, ones that the Panthers must plan for. Jonathan Huberdeau turned 29 on June 4, and his $5.9M cap hit expires after 2022-23. MacKenzie Weegar, 28, is underrated and underpaid ($3.25M.), but what will his next deal look like? Spencer Knight’s rookie contract ends after 2022-23, too, so that’s a tricky situation. (Even with Knight being an RFA, Sergei Bobrovsky’s $10M cap hit causes problems.)

Those situations create a lot of tricky decisions. Long story short, head coach ranks as just one of the pressing questions for the Panthers.

Even if this team takes a step back, let’s hope they keep dancing to the beat of their own drum. It’s likely their best way to be the last team standing (and would certainly be more fun to watch).