Eight games into the regular season, the Florida Panthers sit 2-3-3. That’s not exactly the start they hoped for. Starting goaltender Roberto Luongo went down with an MCL sprain in the season opener, after which the downward spiral began. Last year’s poor start ended up being the main reason why they missed the postseason by one point, and they wanted to be better about that this time around. Unfortunately, two wins in eight games doesn’t quite qualify as a strong start.
However, it hasn’t been all bad despite their record. Five of their six losses came by one goal, half of them in overtime. That at least earned them three points in the standings, but nevertheless, a loss is a loss. They are scoring over three goals per game on average too, and are 16th in goals-for despite having played fewer games than over half the league. They’ve scored four to six goals three times already as well, so the offensive production is there.
The Panthers losses continue to pile up because of the team’s inability to prevent goals. Undoubtedly, their defensive play contributes to this weakness. That being said, the biggest let down so far has been their goaltending.
Roberto Luongo Needs to Be Healthy for the Panthers to Compete
Luongo, although 39 years old, still remains one of the better starting goaltenders in the NHL. He maintained a strong .929 save percentage last season, above his .920 career clip. He had stopped all 13 shots faced before the injury opening night. His replacements haven’t filled his shoes well to this point in the year.
Panthers Backups Not Getting the Job Done
Backup James Reimer, who signed in Florida to give Luongo someone to transition the net to as he approaches retirement, has not been good. His record is 1-2-1, although bad, should be worse given how he’s played. His poor .877 save percentage, coupled with the large 3.46 goals-against-average, doesn’t give the Panthers much of a chance to win. Even when the team scores four or five goals, they’re at risk of losing. Reimer allowed five goals on just 32 shots against the Columbus Blue Jackets, resulting in a 5-4 regulation loss on a night the team played well enough to deserve a win. The same was true against the Washington Capitals when Reimer got pulled after allowing four goals on 20 shots. Lucky for him, the team won 6-5 in a shootout after he exited the game.
In fairness, Reimer did pick up a solid win Wednesday night against the New York Islanders. It was the first game of Florida’s year that a single goalie played, start to finish, with a save percentage above .900. He stopped 20 of 22 in the overtime win, so an overtime loss would’ve been another sub-.900 game for him.
Unfortunately, things don’t get better after Reimer either. Third-string goalie Michael Hutchinson signed this off-season with Florida, as general manager Dale Tallon hoped to give the team a solid third option in case of injuries. Obviously using him this early in the season is not ideal, and was not part of the plan, but again this is why they have him.
Hutchinson Playing Like a Career AHL Goaltender
In four decisions, Hutchinson is 1-1-2. Just like Reimer, his poor record is still somehow better than it should be thanks to the production the team gets up front. Hutchinson’s save percentage is an awful .839, and his goals-against-average of 4.17 is enormous. Those numbers don’t qualify him for further action at the NHL level; he’d be better off working on his game in the AHL.
The only win Hutchinson has was in that game against the Capitals after Reimer was yanked. In his three other appearances, he’s allowed a minimum of four goals and was pulled once as well. Combine that with the fact that he’s only facing between 19 and 31 shots a night and you can see why the Panthers can’t win right now.
Between Hutchinson and Reimer, Florida’s allowed 30 goals on just 209 shots. Even just average goaltending would mean ten fewer goals against. Since their losses are all by one goal, this makes a huge difference.
Luongo Could Return Relatively Soon
Thankfully, Roberto Luongo is skating again. The MCL sprain he suffered only received a grade one diagnosis, and he joined the team for their current road trip. That being said, he’s been ruled out for the entirety of the trip (which concludes Saturday in New Jersey). Unfortunately, he’s also not expected to suit up in the Finland series against the Winnipeg Jets.
Just the fact that he’s skating means he’s getting close, though. Luongo likely will ramp up his recovery by mixing in some shots as he gains strength in his knee. The Finland games couldn’t come at a better time, either. Florida only plays three games over the next two weeks due to international travel. Luongo can, therefore, take extra care in recovering without costing the team too many missed appearances.
And right now, every missed appearance presents quite an uphill battle for the Panthers.
Fantasy Impact: Steer Clear of Anyone not Named Luongo
Florida could be nearly undefeated with solid goaltending, making Luongo’s injury sting especially bad. Fantasy hockey owners should avoid Florida’s goalies like the plague. Starting Reimer or Hutchinson, at best, could get a win with a below .900 save percentage. If things go south, it could mean four of five goals against in a game they get pulled from. Those odds should keep fantasy owners saying “Luongo or bust”.
If Luongo is available, now would be a decent time to add him, too. Especially in leagues with IR slots, Luongo is a safe bet. When he returns, he’s likely to play the large bulk of their games thanks to how badly his replacements have been. Furthermore, he’ll probably rack up wins. Florida isn’t struggling to score, so if they could just get a .900 save percentage consistently they could dominate games.
Expect the team to make moves at the position should he get hurt again later this year, because Hutchinson and Reimer have played themselves out of the team’s future. It would take some serious improvement for either of them to redeem themselves.
Main Photo: NEWARK, NJ – NOVEMBER 27: Florida Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo (1) during the first period of the National Hockey League game between the New Jersey Devils and the Florida Panthers on November 27, 2017, at the Prudential Center in Newark, NJ. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)