When the Florida Panthers take the ice on Oct. 10 for their first game of the 2015-2016 season, they will do so with Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo and Brian Campbell leading a core of battle-tested veterans into another grueling NHL season. Perhaps one of the most interesting features of the Panthers is their team composition.
In addition to young players like Nick Bjugstad, Brandon Pirri, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad, who have already begun to bear fruit, the team possesses almost as many veterans. While Dave Bolland, Shawn Thornton, Derek MacKenzie or Jussi Jokinen certainly won’t put up 30-plus goals in a season, these vets bring something almost as valuable: veteran leadership. Bolland and Jokinen never will be on the same level offensively as an Alex Ovechkin, but they do possess something that The Great Eight doesn’t: their name on the Stanley Cup.
Of the 23 players currently on the Panthers roster, seven have won the Stanley Cup. I’ve never played in the NHL, but I have played in junior hockey leagues in both the U.S. and Canada, and I know that while making the playoffs is hard, advancing beyond the first round is even harder.
During my young hockey career, I’ve felt the joy of making it to the league championships and the bitter taste of not making the playoff cut. Unfortunately, the Panthers have had that bitter taste in their mouth for some time, having only been to the playoffs once in the past five seasons. When Panthers general manager Dale Tallon acquired Campbell, Tomas Kopecky, Bolland, Willie Mitchell, Jokinen and Thornton in previous offseasons, he received some flack from Panthers fans and analysts around the league who criticized these acquisitions as futile and insignificant.
To the untrained hockey eye, one may agree with them. While Tallon certainly didn’t obtain these players in the hope that they would be the next Sidney Crosby or Ovechkin, he gave them contracts hoping that they would act as mentors to the younger core of Panthers players and prospects, showing them how to be successful in a league full of established superstars while adding much needed stabilization to the Panthers’ franchise.
Learning from others who have accomplished what you are striving to achieve is an essential part of being successful. I’ve learned to do it and I can attest to how well listening to veteran leadership can be. When I was 18, I played for the Boston Junior Rangers in Tewksbury, Mass. The three years prior, I had played junior hockey in Florida so I wasn’t sure what to expect after leaving my home state of Florida to play in the hockey hotbed of Massachusetts.
Upon arriving in Tewksbury, I set about trying to become the best goalie in the Metropolitan Junior Hockey League (MJHL). I played alongside several junior hockey vets in Greg Stoya, Brendan Hurley, Tyler Whitacre, Jared Dauphinais and Mikio Minobe, all of whom I still call my closest friends to this day.
Of this group, Whitacre and Dauphinais stand out in particular. Both were accomplished junior hockey players — Whitacre in particular played all over New England and ultimately garnered attention from USHL and Canadian Junior A teams. Jared, my goaltending partner who went on to win Goalie of the Year honors for that season, was a New England hockey vet himself, having played in several of the leagues in the Northeast.
These two took me under their wing and showed me the ropes. They showed me how to survive in the much tougher junior hockey leagues of New England. They taught me that hard work and perseverance took precedence over all else and were particularly helpful to me and the other rookies when we collectively swept our way to the league championships later in the season.
As a result of my hard work and listening to some of the advice the veterans and coaches gave to me, I finished that season in the top five of all goaltending categories and garnered attention from colleges and other high level junior programs. For this, I thank “Whitty” and Jared immensely, just as I’m sure Huberdeau and Alexander Barkov will thank Jaromir Jagr for his veteran insight and advice 10 years down the road when both are perennial NHL stars.
What makes the Panthers so interesting to watch and dissect is just how well their core of youngsters interacts with the outer shell of veterans. Jagr plays on a line with Barkov and Huberdeau: one 43-year-old on the wing with a 22-year-old Huberdeau and centered by a 19-year-old in Barkov. If you turn to the defensive core, you’ve got the battle-tested captain Willie Mitchell paired with either the youngster Dmitry Kulikov or the rookie defenseman Alex Petrovic. Look at the other pair of defensemen and you’ll see 36-year-old Brian Campbell alongside the wonder kid, the 19-year-old Ekblad.
The pairing of Ekblad and Campbell is a case in point of what veteran leadership can do for a young and promising rookie. While it was no secret that Ekblad had been successful at every level of hockey prior to being drafted in the NHL, taking that leap into the ranks of the NHL is a formidable task on its own merits, one that very few rookies can tackle coming right out of juniors. Through steady leadership and a guiding hand, Campbell, who was Ekblad’s defensive partner almost the entire year, mentored the rookie and ultimately helped him capture the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s best rookie.
With the amount of young talent and top draft picks that Tallon has meticulously stockpiled over the years, the Panthers are in good hands. However, no amount of talent can surpass experience, and it will be up to the returning veterans to keep the Panthers’ young core on track so that they may ultimately do something special in South Florida for years to come.