Despite injuries, Brandon Pirri emerges as scoring dynamo for Panthers
At some point during the 2014-15 season, Florida Panthers winger Brandon Pirri woke up, got out of bed, brushed his teeth, had a bowl of cereal and decided he was going to become one of the hottest goal scorers in the NHL.
Well, it may not have gone down exactly like that, but the 24-year-old sniper certainly took his offensive game to the next level in a breakout second season with the Panthers.
Pirri, acquired in a deal with the Chicago Blackhawks prior to last year’s trade deadline, finished with 22 goals and two assists in 49 games. The only other time a player had at least 22 goals with fewer than three assists was Cy Dennehy, who tallied 22 goals and just one assist for Ottawa in 1923-24.
"You can’t even explain it," said Pirri, who had never finished a season with more goals than assists dating back to his days in junior hockey. "It’s like you can’t even get an assist. Both of my assists weren’t really even passes either. It’s very strange. Hopefully next year I’ll get a couple more assists."
Although he finished with a historically lopsided statistical line, Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant had no complaints when asked about Pirri’s offensive production and didn’t lament the unusual lack of helpers.
"Somebody’s got to put the puck in the net," he said. "I’ll take it anytime."
Unfortunately for Gallant, his deadliest scorer wasn’t always available, as frequent injuries forced Pirri out of the lineup for long stretches of time throughout the season.
"There were a lot of ups and downs with getting hurt," said Pirri, who battled through both a concussion and a shoulder injury. "It seemed like every time I got going, I got hurt."
Despite his injuries, Pirri battled back to finish strong.
As Florida made its push toward the playoffs during the final months of the regular season, it was Pirri who led the way offensively for the traditionally goal-starved Panthers.
From Jan. 19 to March 26, few players in the league were better at finding the back of the net than Pirri as the proficient winger notched 17 goals in 22 games. To put that in perspective, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin, who led the NHL with 53 goals this season, scored 22 goals during that same span while playing in seven more games.
"It was fun for me just to kind of validate what I’ve working so hard for and to prove that I should be an every day NHL player," said Pirri. "I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in my short career so far, and with hard work, it was nice to have some [positive] signs."
WHAT HE DID RIGHT
On a team full of playmakers and pass-first forwards, Pirri’s itchy trigger finger and shoot-first mentality were a welcome addition to Florida’s sometimes-stagnant offense. Despite playing in only 49 games, he finished sixth on the Panthers in shots (143) and ranked first in goals per 60 minutes (1.82). In the second half of the season, Pirri became Florida’s go-to option on the power play, a role he will likely continue to serve next season.
WHERE HE NEEDS TO IMPROVE
Pirri had two stretches earlier in the season where he was a healthy scratch, in large part because of questions about his defensive ability. Entering the offseason, those questions still remain, but are easily overshadowed by his value in the offensive zone. While his back checking and board play could use some work, I think it’s safe to say the Panthers won’t overreact to a handful of defensive hiccups here and there.
Feb. 28 vs. Buffalo. After missing nine games with a shoulder injury, Pirri made his triumphant return the lineup in 5-3 victory over the Sabres in what also happened to be Jaromir Jagr’s debut. Playing alongside Jagr on Florida’s first power-play unit, Pirri scored twice with the extra attacker, beginning a stretch of seven goals in nine games. For his efforts, he was named the first star of the game.
At even strength, Pirri’s 52.26 CF% placed him fourth among Panthers forwards with at least 40 games played while his 31.61 shots per 60 minutes ranked third. On the power play, he led the Panthers in goals per 60 minutes (5.28) and finished sixth in total shots (25).
Next season will be a contract year for Pirri as the up-and-coming winger looks to earn a bigger payday than the two-year, $1.85 million contract he signed last July. If he can stay healthy, the 30-goal mark should be within reach.
"I think more than any year I can remember, I’m just excited for next year," Pirri said. "It’s going to be a long summer, but I think when you’re excited to go get going again, it makes working out that much easier and drives you that much harder to work hard."