On August 1, the National Hockey League will return to playing games in Toronto and Edmonton. The top four teams in each conference will play for seeding while the fifth through twelfth place teams will be battling to get into the playoffs altogether. Those series are known as the Qualifying Round. The New Jersey Devils were worse than that at the time of the NHL Pause back in March. Therefore, they will not be returning to play. They did not even qualify for the Qualifying Round. While the New Jersey Devils are not involved in these games, there are plenty of reasons to pay attention to them all beyond just having any kind of professional hockey in North America (and literally being on all day for at least four days). Since there are eight weekdays until the start of the Qualifying Round and there are eight series, I will be giving you a Devils fan-centric rooting guide for each one.
We will continue this series with a return to the East with a match-up that is not exactly jumping off the page in terms of hype. But a Qualifying Round would be good for what may ail them. This series features the New York Islanders versus the Florida Panthers. Read on to learn more about this one.
The Series Information
What you need to know about the series in general.
The Records: The New York Islanders (35-23-10, 58.8% Point%, 7th in East) vs. Florida Panthers (35-26-8, 56.5% Point%, 10th in East)
The Pre-Pause Season Series: The Islanders have beaten them three times out of three, with one of those games going beyond regulation. Links go to the Gamecenter page at NHL.com:
Game 1: October 12, 2019 - Islanders 3, Panthers 2 (Shootout) in Nassau County, New York
Game 2: November 9, 2019 - Islanders 2, Panthers 1 in Brooklyn, New York
Game 3: December 12, 2019 - Islanders 3, Panthers 1 in Sunrise, Florida
These teams played each other all in the first half of the season when the Islanders were hot. Seriously. While the Isles started off a bit slowly, the October 12 game yielded the first win for Semyon Varlamov featuring a 35-save performance by the goalie. The win on November 9 extended a point streak to then-12 games for the Isles. That game also featured Thomas Greiss stopping 37 out of 38. Greiss frustrated the Panthers again on December 12 with 32 out of 33 stops to sweep the season series. By December 12, the Isles were 21-7-2. I point that out because a lot of reality hit the Isles in the face prior to the NHL Pause since that win in Florida.
The Broadcast Schedule: From NHL.com:
Game 1: Panthers versus Islanders, August 1, 4 PM ET - NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN1, TVAS, MSG+, FS-F
Game 2: Panthers versus Islanders, August 4, 12 PM ET - NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, TVAS, MSG+, FS-F
Game 3: Islanders versus Panthers, August 5, 12 PM ET - NBCSN, NHL.TV, SN, TVAS, MSG+, FS-F
Game 4: Islanders versus Panthers, August 7, TBD
Game 5: Panthers versus Islanders, August 9, TBD
Note that local channels are carrying the games in this and in other series. This was not on the broadcast schedule at NHL.com until Thursday night, so please keep that in mind going forward.
Games 4 and 5 may not be necessary as it is a best-of-five series. If they become needed, timing and broadcast information will be determined later. As per the NHL’s announcement, the home team is the second team listed. Given the timing of the first three games, they run into traditional eating times in the Eastern Time Zone. You could call it the Meal Series.
A Quick Analysis: Both teams could really stand to win this series. The issue is that their 2019-20 performance belies some serious concerns.
First, the Islanders. The Isles started off the season on such a run and then have tapered off. To me, a big reason why that happened is in their 5-on-5 team stats at Natural Stat Trick. They stink at 5-on-5. Their team CF% is 46.43%, which was the third worst in the NHL and just worse than their (and our) hated rivals. What about shot share? Their SF% is the sixth worst in the NHL at 47.94%. The expected goals model figures the Isles are closer to the league median. But an xGF% of 48.84% is hardly praise worthy. And it is the 12th lowest in the NHL. What about scoring chances? If you focus on high danger chances, they are just above 50% thanks to a high danger chance differential of 2. If you focus on all scoring chances, they are back in the red with a SCF% of 47.91%. A lot of teams have enjoyed the run of play against the Isles.
The main reason why the Isles have not been wrecked in the results as well as in shot differential is their goaltending. The Isles’ team save percentage in 5-on-5 is a very good 92.33%. It is the tenth best in the NHL. However, their sticks started to cool - the team’s shooting percentage is 7.88% - and so the losses began despite the best efforts of Varlamov and Griess. Add a below-median power play success rate (17.3%, 24th) and a league-median penalty kill success rate (80.5%, 15th) and you will realize how much the Varlamov-Griess tandem has been carrying the Isles through and after their hot first few months of the season. Had there been no pause, the Isles were at risk of being on the outside looking in at the playoffs. And if that did happen, I would think culprit number one would be how opponents often outperformed them in 5-on-5.
Second, the Panthers. The Panthers fans wished they had the Isles’ goaltending performance. And maybe some other aspects of their team. Management bet big on Sergei Bobrovsky. Seven seasons at $70 million big. So far, the 31-year goalie is rocking a 5-on-5 save percentage of 90.7% and a penalty kill save percentage of 87.2%. That is not worth a $11.5 million salary. It is a good thing that Chris Driedger found some success in 12 appearances because Bobrovsky and Sam Montembeault contributed heavily to a team 5-on-5 save percentage of 91.09%, which is the the third worst team save percentage in the NHL in 2019-20. Getting better goaltending than only Detroit and San Jose is not going to get the job of making the postseason done. And if it was not for this Return to Play format including 24 teams, then they would not have done it either.
Management also bet big by bringing in Joel Quenneville to coach the team. I, an outsider, am not entirely impressed with the job he has done. Florida is not nearly as bad as, say, the Isles in 5-on-5 play in this past season per Natural Stat Trick. There are some stats that are not good, but not bad, such as a team CF% of 49.79% and SF% of 50.37%. The expected goals model is not as kind, marking the Cats with a 48.09%, which is both worse than the Islanders and the eighth worst in the NHL. Florida has also been deep in the red for both scoring chances - SCF% of 48.70% - and high danger scoring chances - 45.75%. CF% is close to breakeven and not exactly good. The sad thing is that the Panthers have been pretty good at finishing their shots with a team shooting percentage of 9.01%. But generating the shots and especially chances have not been so easy. There is more work to be done, Mr. Quenneville. And perhaps some upgrades to the roster. Still, I am a little sympathetic as it is hard to keep up when you the guy in the crease is not making enough stops.
Both teams are in odd places for the near term. Florida has a top-tier two-way center in Aleksander Barkov at age 24, a top-end defenseman in Aaron Ekblad, a solid scorer in Jonathan Huberdeau, and plenty of fine players that could support them now (e.g. Mike Hoffman, Evgeny Dadonov). Management paid big money to bring in the goalie to bring such a squad to the promised land and that led them to nowhere prior to the pandemic-caused pause. A playoff appearance would justify plenty of the moves made by management and perhaps give a fanbase looking for something beyond “we have some great players but not much success.” The Islanders have went all in on their core, who are aging with plenty of big contracts on the books for at least the next three seasons. Their time to succeed is really now because it could get ugly real fast. It may still get ugly next season or in two seasons. A playoff appearance would dull the pending pain. Both teams could end up or remain stuck in the desert of not being awful but not really close to being good or even playoff hopefuls. I do not envy either squad’s situation. This series will give one of them a drink at the oasis.
The SB Nation Blogs: For anything Islanders related, you will want to visit the long-time and legendary Lighthouse Hockey. For anything Panthers related, you will want to visit the hardworking efforts going on at Litter Box Cats.
The Stakes at Hand for the Devils
We know these two teams are playing for a playoff spot. But what is in it for the Devils?
There are some series where the results really do not impact the Devils. This is one of them. I am stretching here but I think if Florida and Vancouver both win their qualifying series, then the Canucks first round pick would go to Vancouver and be at least 17th overall. If it’s the Islanders and Vancouver, then the lowest Vancouver’s pick would be is 16th overall. It is not much but it is something.
The Second NHL Draft Lottery Possibilities
We know that Alexis Lafreniere will be the top pick in the 2020 NHL Draft. That pick is owned by one of the eight losing teams from this Qualifying Round. So there will be a second lottery to determine it. How should we react if the loser of this series wins this one?
If the Panthers win the Second Draft Lottery: Of all of the teams in the East, Lafreniere going to Florida would likely bother me the least. While it is true that the Devils need to surpass Florida to get to the goal of competing for playoff spots in the East, I just do not have a lot of faith in Florida’s management to make the most of winning first overall. They certainly did not make the most of it with Aaron Ekblad, who is a very, very good defenseman but clearly there is not a top tier team built around him. Florida took Barkov second overall in 2013 and could very well be called the Finnish Patrice Bergeron, and there is not a top tier built around him either. Lafreniere will make big impact for any team. But until Florida can demonstrate that they can build a competitive roster for today’s game, I am not convinced Lafreniere’s impact will be as large as it could be for Florida. Among the teams in the East, Florida is the one I am just not worried about it causing some indirect damage to the Devils.
If the Islanders win the Second Draft Lottery: This would be much more annoying. Having Lafreniere in the division is bad enough. Having him on a team where his cheap years will end just as some of their big money deals end means he could help keep the Isles viable as a team. Sure, I prefer the Isles to win the lottery over the other New York team or even other teams like Pittsburgh or Carolina. But the Devils need to get past other teams to move up. The Isles are in a position to have squad succumb to older players on contracts they cannot live up to. I think they are prime to fall in the near future. Obtaining the right to take Lafreniere #1 in October would push that back.
Pending Free Agents to Look For
The Devils have a lot of cap space, a full-time GM, and a new head coach. Maybe they will spend in free agency this Fall. These games could be a real showcase for those looking to hit the market. These are some of the more notable potential unrestricted free agents in this series.
The Panthers: You want a reason to pay attention to this series? This is a great one. Florida has plenty of forwards up for new contracts at the conclusion of this Return to Play situation. According to CapFriendly, Mike Hoffman, Evgeny Dadonov, Erik Haula, and Brian Boyle are all pending free agents. You could add Mark Pysyk to the list as he sometimes plays right defense and sometimes plays right wing. Whether the Devils are re-tooling or outright re-building, they could use some wingers to strengthen the lineup. While Hoffman and Dadonov are both 30 and 31, respectively, short-term contracts for either would help add some scoring punch, talent, and experience to the wing position. New Jersey needs it at left wing and could use help at right wing too. Haula is a bit younger and he could be a nice depth option. Boyle may not produce a lot but you know what you are getting out of him so for a one-season deal, he may not be the worst choice. Pysyk would at least offer versatility. I would expect plenty of teams to pay attention to this series just to see how any of these five UFAs perform.
Of course, the Panthers could retain them. Per CapFriendly, Florida has roughly $20.9 million in cap space planned for 2020-21. While they have plenty of restricted free agents to re-sign, I do not anticipate that doing so for all of them will break the bank. If Florida wants to still try to be competitive, then they may want to try to retain some of these pending UFAs. They will have the cap space to do it. Will management spend the money and, more importantly, would the player want to stay? Who knows. Provided they do not get ridiculous in the offseason, the Panthers should not have any cap issues for 2020-21.
The Islanders: The UFAs coming out of Long Island are not as impressive. I doubt many will be interested in a Andy Greene, who will turn 38 in October. Matt Martin, Derick Brassard, and Tom Kuhnhackl will not likely move the needle for anyone unless depth forwards will move a needle. The big prize is in net. 34-year old Thomas Greiss. Greiss has mostly been excellent in his five seasons with the Islanders so far. He has been consistently used in #1A/#1B tandems and has proven to do the job very well. While he is not getting any younger, he is definitely one of the better options available for teams looking to add a second goaltender. Teams that have a young goaltender and wish to have a more veteran goalie to share the net and help the young goalie out hone his skills should be interested in how Greiss performs in this series. The Devils are one of these teams should really pay attention to how Greiss performs in this series.
They should also pay attention to how they are going to manage the salary cap. I love Lou but he has not helped his own cause out. Look at CapFriendly and weep. The team has $8.1 million in cap space planned for next season and they need to give new contracts to ace forward Mathew Barzal and defensemen Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews. Barzal and Pulock alone could command more than the $8.1 million combined. This is to say nothing for the players in their system that they may want to call up. It is true that Lou inherited some of these anchor contracts that take up a lot of space. Such as that miserable Johnny Boychuk deal that still has two more seasons on it. It is also true that Lou was not thinking too long in the future some of the more recent ones, such as giving 31-year old Jean-Gabriel Pageau a six-season, $30 million extension. That one still baffles me. That could (should?) have been Barzal’s extension. Teams with a lot of cap space should look at the the Isles as a target. Someone to help themselves whilst helping them get out of their cap-related problems. The Devils are also one of those teams.
My Choice & Your Turn
From a sentimentality standpoint, I would like to see the Isles go through. I cannot dislike Lou. Seeing Andy Greene get another playoff shot before his NHL career ends would be nice. From a standpoint of who I would rather see get Lafreniere, I would prefer Florida to be in the lottery than the Islanders. From a standpoint of who has more to gain, the Isles are at least building a new arena and despite their serious cap issues in the near future, they have a team worth cheering for. My perception of Florida is that they were, have been, and will likely continue to be a floundering franchise. From a standpoint of who I think is a better team, this is a toss-up. The Isles were worse than I expected in 5-on-5 play and really do not have the special teams success to help overcome that. But the Panthers have real flaws and despite some exceptional talents, they have not put together a really competitive team - mostly because Bobrovsky has been a big bust in his first season on his gigantic contract. Should that continue, then I can see the Isles taking the series. But I would not be totally shocked if Florida does. From my viewpoint, I just want to see what the pending free agents have left in the tank and then wonder whether I would want them to be Devils or not.
However, that is how I see this matchup. I want to know what the People Who Matter think of this series; I want to know what you expect and hope for in this series. Please leave a comment as to how you see this series going down, who you would want to win and why, and who interests you within this series. Also, please vote in the poll just to answer who you think will win this series. The rooting guide series will take this weekend off and return on Monday with a match-up that has serious stakes for the Devils: Vancouver and Minnesota. Thank you for reading.
Who will win between the New York Islanders and the Florida Panthers in this best of five series?
This poll is closed