Why The Panthers Will Make A Playoff Run...And The Lightning Won't

SAN JOSE, CA - DECEMBER 03: Martin Havlat #9 of the San Jose Sharks looks on as Kris Versteeg #32 of the Florida Panthers loses his balance and control of the puck at HP Pavilion at San Jose on December 3, 2011 in San Jose, California. The Panthers won the game 5-3. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

The Florida Panthers (18-9-6, 42 pts.) are off to a blistering start to the season, while the Tampa Bay Lightning (14-16-2, 30 pts.) are languishing. Is this for real or merely an early season mirage?

The Florida Panthers are a better team than the Tampa Bay Lightning.

There, I said it. We're all thinking it, so let me be the first to go on record saying it: as it stands right now, the Lightning are not a playoff-caliber team, but the Panthers are.

If you're a hockey fan in the state of Florida, it's been impossible to ignore the stark contrast between the two local franchises so far this season. The Panthers entered the year with few expectations; they had missed the playoffs the past 10 seasons in a row, and they finished fifth place in the Southeast last year. Meanwhile, the Lightning accrued 103 points last season and reached the Eastern Conference Championship, and they brought back nearly the exact same roster. Despite the Cats' massive offseason turnover -- they have a total of 14 new players on their roster -- nobody expected them to unseat the Lightning as the in-state hockey powerhouse.

Yet here we are. It's over a third of the way through the season and the Florida Panthers are sitting in first place in the Southeast Division with 42 points (18-9-6), while the Lightning are the third-worst team in the Eastern Conference with 30 points (14-16-2).

But early season standings are prone to oddities like this; it surely can't last, right? The Atlanta Thrashers were in second place in the Southeast Division with 39 points on this date last season, but they finished the season in fourth place with only 80 points. Similarly, the Dallas Stars were looking like shoe-ins for the playoffs in late December last year, but they fell from first place in their division all the way to last, finishing out of the playoff picture. Fans in both Tampa Bay and Miami are waiting for that other shoe to drop -- Bolts fans with eagerness and Miami fans with trepidation.

Panthers fans can relax, though. The other shoe doesn't exist.

If you want to dig beyond a team's record and find if their performance is sustainable or not, there are a couple key statistics to look at. The first of these is possession percentage, as teams that control the puck often give themselves more opportunities to score while giving their opponents fewer. In the long run, teams that control the puck often will win more games than team that control the puck infrequently -- pretty simple concept, no?

Since NHL statisticians don't keep track of actual possession percentages -- just think about all the logistical nightmares involved in tracking that -- hockey fans have come up with a reliable substitute: Fenwick Percentage. In short, a team's Fenwick number is their total number of shots on goal and missed shots. By taking a team's Fenwick score and comparing it with the Fenwick score for teams facing them, it's possible to get a reliable estimate of puck control. If a team is getting out-shot by a wide margin, it's pretty safe to say that they're not doing a good job holding onto the puck.

So far this season, the Panthers have a Fenwick percentage of 52.5% -- meaning they control the puck 52.5% of the time when the score is tied. This is the eighth best score in the NHL, and it places the Cats right behind the Bruins (52.9%). Meanwhile, the Lightning have a Fenwick percentage of 45.9%, the fourth worst in the NHL and a far cry from the 52.9% rate they posted last year.

That's not all, though. When it comes to predicting future performance, one of the most important statistics is PDO -- or in simple terms, shooting percentage plus save percentage. Over the course of a season, teams will go through periods of time of either good to bad "luck". Maybe their goalie gets incredibly hot for a few weeks and saves an extraordinarily high percentage of shots, pushing the team on a winning streak. Or maybe a team is getting off lots of shots, but none of them are finding the back of the net; there's a lot of luck involved in scoring, and sometimes the puck just isn't bouncing the right way for a team.

PDO attempts to measure these swings of both good and bad luck, and it's a good indicator of if a team is playing over their head or if they're getting "unlucky" and should improve over time. League-average PDO is 1000 -- duh, if a shot isn't saved by the goalie, it's a goal -- and scores above 1000 are indicators of unsustainably good play. On the flip side, teams that score below 1000 are likely under-performing and should improve going forward.

If the Panthers were merely a mirage, we'd expect them to have a PDO well in excess of 1000. Instead, this is how the Lightning and Panthers both rate at the moment:

Pdo_medium

The Panthers rate out just below 1000, although it looks as though they should expect some regression from goalkeeper Jose Theodore (2.34 GAA, .923 Sv%) and some improvement from their offense. Theodore has not played at this level since he was 25 years old back in 2001, so it seems likely that his performance will decline slightly as the season goes along. Also, the Panthers may not need to improve their second and third lines as much as everyone is claiming, as they're due for some offensive improvement once a couple more pucks start dancing their way. All in all, though, the Panthers aren't playing over their head -- their performance so far this season seems legit.

The Lightning...well, there's some good and bad news there. Their PDO is well below 1000 -- their score of 986 is tied for seventh lowest in the NHL -- so we should expect them to improve going forward. However, almost all that improvement is due in the defensive zone. The Bolts are actually above-average this season at turning shots into goals, and considering they are doing better than last season (8.3%) and are missing one of their top goal scorers in Martin St. Louis, it seems likely that their Shot% will decrease over the remainder of the year.

With that in mind, the big question becomes: do the Lightning think their defense will improve over time? If so, how much? Dwayne Roloson is looking like he's hit a brick wall at age 42 (3.67 GAA, .882 Sv%), and backup Mattieu Garon isn't exactly a dominating force in the crease (career: 2.82 GAA, .904 Sv%). The Bolts are also without their best defender, Mattias Ohlund, and he will not be back until late this season...if at all. Also, the Bolts' PDO last season was below 1000 as well -- they clocked in at 991 -- all thanks to their defense, so unless GM Steve Yzerman starts getting on the phone and making some trades, it doesn't seem likely that the Bolts will improve that much.

All of this brings me back to my original point: the Florida Panthers are simply a better team than the Tampa Bay Lightning right now. Both teams could stand to improve before the trading deadline, but there should be a sense of urgency in Tampa. If they want to have any hope of saving their season, the Bolts need to acquire either a top defender or goalkeeper as soon as possible; otherwise, they might as well start planning for next season.

As for the Cats? Well, they can take a more leisurely approach to the trade market. They could stand to improve their offense on their second and third lines, but such a move would merely be a reinforcement that would make them a tougher team to beat down the stretch and (knock-on-wood) in the playoffs.

For the first time in 10 seasons, the Florida Panthers are looking like legit contenders. It's about time we stopped waiting for that other shoe and just accepted the truth of the matter: they're a darn good team.

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