The Florida in all three zones this season can be best described as sloppy. Florida turns over the puck, loses key battles, and has difficulty moving the puck to each other on the ice. The diagnosis for the sloppiness of play comes from a severe lack of chemistry. In the 2011-12 season, the Panthers won the Southeast Division for the first time in franchise history, and ended a decade-plus postseason drought by returning to the playoffs. The reason for their on-ice success was a team that clicked. The line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg was one of the very best lines in the NHL that year, while Brian Campbell and Jason Garrison excellently complemented one another on the blue line.
Florida’s top six that year was solid, and they saw career-high goal production from Sean Bergenheim, who reaped the benefits of his chemistry with Marcel Goc. Last year’s brutal campaign was part of a terrible start, mounting in a staggering amount of key injuries and the exit of Garrison taking a toll on Campbell. A lack of chemistry was understandable last year, when nobody was ever truly healthy. This year, however, is much different. Yes, Weiss has gone on to the Detroit Red Wings and Bergenheim is still hurt, but they had a full training camp this preseason to prepare for this season. Yes, Tom Gilbert, Brad Boyes and Tim Thomas were last minute additions, but the fact that the team hasn’t had a solid four lines almost a month into the season is an issue.
Head coach Kevin Dineen likes to shuffle lines. A good coach is never satisfied, but when lines are shuffled constantly, how can young players like Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau really find a rhythm? For a team that has issues scoring goals, chemistry is key. Barkov has proven he can play and is a major upgrade over Scott Gomez. It might be smart to put Barkov between Versteeg and Fleischmann. He’ll provide some size up the middle and two-way play that could complement the two offensively-minded wingers. Barkov’s vision and puck control could make him the right choice to set up the two top Florida goal scorers from the 2011-12 season, making them threats once again. In the third period of the Florida vs Minnesota Wild game, we got a glimpse of this line after Gomez was benched. Maybe this is a sign of things to come?
It hasn’t been a secret that Dineen likes to play dump and chase. The Panthers lack the size and strength to outwork opponents in this strategy, but yet lack the star power to run and gun. Dineen has been vocal of how impressed he’s been with towering center Nick Bjugstad. Bjugstad is a big part of Florida’s future and provides the size Dineen’s looking for. If he wants to stay in the show, Bjugstad needs to have a strong performance every night. He’s done well grinding it out against veterans, but a true test could be putting him in the middle of Huberdeau and Boyes. Bjugstad provides a lot of size for a line with an undersized, yet uber-talented winger like Huberdeau. Boyes is a veteran with proven goal scoring ability, and this could be a good place for Bjugstad to prove himself as an NHL-er.
Florida’s offense hasn’t found a consistent pace in games, and winds up playing catch up a lot. Lack of consistency can stem from a number of reasons, but one that has been easy to see is their lack of confidence. If these players can become confident lining up with the same guys on their shifts every night, maybe this could lead to some success. With success comes confidence, with confidence comes results, and with results comes wins. I understand Dineen wants to find the right combinations, but trying it for a few minutes a game and constantly moving guys around mid-game isn’t getting it done.
Tonight, Florida faces a team with phenomenal chemistry — a chemistry that brought them a Stanley Cup. The Chicago Blackhawks will be a test for sure. Florida is well aware they need to come with their hardhats and lunch pails, ready to go to work. Let’s hope the coaches cooked up something special in practice today.