The Florida Panthers have won 11 straight games? You’re kidding, right? I thought they were moving to Quebec City? I thought no one came to their games? I thought they had a bunch of veterans no other team wanted? Here’s something that no advanced stat, analyst, coach or scout could have predicted: the Panthers have won 11 straight, will have four representatives at the NHL All-Star Game and are the best story in the NHL right now. Didn’t see that coming, did you? That’s a lot to take in for a team that consistently has been the subject of attendance jokes, harsh criticism and relocation banter through the years. So what’s gone right for the Cats? And what can we expect to see in the future from the NHL’s hottest team?
It Starts On the Ice
Management doesn’t win games. The head coach and fans don’t win games either. The will to win and succeed in the NHL comes from the players under contract. It comes from everyone on the roster pulling their weight and, most importantly, pulling for each other. Looking at the Panthers’ roster, from top to bottom you will find contributions. Fourth liner Derek Mackenzie scored the game-winning goal two games ago against Buffalo while the game prior saw Jaromir Jagr score twice to lead the Panthers past a very good Wild squad. The Panthers also received contributions from second liners Reilly Smith and Vincent Trocheck during their most recent game against the Senators. Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya have been the best goaltending tandem thus far this season, and the NHL is seeing the emergence of center Aleksander Barkov.
While the Panthers’ top line of Barkov, Huberdeau and Jagr has deservedly gotten the most attention from other teams around the league, it’s important to acknowledge the contributions from the other young guns and grinders present on the roster. Corban Knight, Quinton Howden, Connor Brickley, Rocco Grimaldi and Logan Shaw, despite having limited NHL experience, have made their mark in terms of the intangibles, with each bringing grit, depth and scoring to the lineup. Anytime a team has AHL players or rookies who can step in immediately and contribute in multiple ways, success is soon to follow.
Depth is important, but an undervalued sign of a winning program is player ownership. Each player takes pride in donning his hockey sweater and plays not just for himself, but for his teammates. The Panthers players have taken ownership of their team. They are playing the game and having fun with it too; cracking jokes with each other and coming together as a team. These Panthers aren’t necessarily the “best” guys, they’re the “right” guys.
Stability At the Top
During my final year of Junior A hockey in Canada, the team I played for went through two head coaching changes and multiple player trades. The atmosphere for most of the year was one of uncertainty and worry. The team wasn’t doing great, we didn’t know who our next head coach would be, or who would be traded next. There were rumors of our team going bankrupt and the core group of guys suffered as a result of this uncertainty. Stability is an underrated part of team success. If players and fans see constant trades, quick coaching changes, and different fan experiences, it begins to wear on their confidence. When confidence in players begins to falter, the result on the ice is poor and if the result on the ice is poor, the result is fewer fans at the games and less money flowing to the team.
The Panthers have been no stranger to uncertainty in all aspects of their organization. From horrible trades that left fans in bewilderment, to the seemingly inevitable prospect of the team relocating elsewhere, it’s no wonder the organization wasn’t putting forth a winning product on the ice. After trading away fan favorite and star Luongo in 2006, the Panthers struggled with their identity, and went through seven different coaches within a 14-year period. Attendance began to drop under the tumultuous era of owner Michael Yormark and the fan experience began to decline along with it. Soon, the Cats were the laughingstock of the NHL, seemingly adept only at losing, trading away their best players for worse ones and driving away their fan base.
With the purchase of the Panthers by current owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu, things began to change. After hiring head coach Gerard Gallant in 2014, general manager Dale Tallon traded for Jagr, a move that may cement Tallon’s legacy as one of the more adroit GM’s in the league. Under Gallant’s coaching, Tallon’s “blueprint” began to take form, with draft picks such as Aaron Ekblad, Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and Grimaldi beginning to blossom. Tallon brought back fan favorite Luongo to stabilize the crease for the Cats, then went out to grab proven NHL veterans and Stanley Cup winners from free agency. Tallon hoped that these vets would pass along the keys to success to the young talent the Panthers had accumulated and, so far under Gallant, his plan is coming to fruition.
The prospect of relocation isn’t an ingredient in the recipe for success, and the idea of the Cats leaving to play elsewhere has undoubtedly played a role in the lack of success thus far. After striking a deal with Broward County to stay in South Florida for at least the next eight years, the Panthers finally can brush off the constant chatter from other hockey folk who are convinced that South Florida should not have a team.
The recent contract extensions to Tallon and Gallant only add to the culture of stability being created by the Panthers ownership. Not only do the players know that they won’t be relocating anytime soon, but now they know their coach and GM are going to be sticking around for a while as well.
What To Expect Next
All good things must come to an end, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy the ride while it lasts. Sure, the Panthers will lose at some point, but that doesn’t mean that will be the end of an already unforgettable Panthers season. The real test that this young Cats team will have to endure is how they will respond to finally losing. Will they crumble and lose more than they win? Or will they bounce back and continue to string together wins? If you look at the attitude of the players, coaching staff as well as the talent on the ice, the latter will be true. This is a squad that has the right combination of veteran leadership mixed in with talented youngsters.
You can continue to expect Luongo to put forth a Vezina Trophy effort while receiving contributions from an already intimidating defense corp. You will also continue to see Barkov continue to bloom into one of the games top two-way centers alongside Jagr. Finally, you can expect the Panthers to continue playing at an elite level. The team is made up of some of the best young talent in the NHL and is being lead by proven winners and Stanley Cup champions.
This team is dangerous and they’re here to stay.
It’s a Good Time to Be a Panthers Fan
Having been a Panthers fan my whole life, and the son to parents who have been season seat holders since 2000, this 10-game win streak and national attention is most welcome. I remember the days when the Panthers were simply bad; it was hard not to cringe when they hit the ice.
I remember watching Peter Worrell, Ed Belfour, Alex Auld, Nathan Horton and Trevor Kidd when they played for the Cats. I also remember Game Seven of the 2012 playoffs and the heartbreak that ensued afterward.
I am ecstatic that I can brag to the guys on my current team about how good the Panthers are right now. After all, I’m just a kid from South Florida who grew up watching the Cats struggle and clean house on an almost yearly basis. Since the takeover of the Panthers by Viola and Cifu, I’ve watched from afar and have been happy with every move made since. I think the way Viola and Cifu have managed the team and have attempted to make south Florida a hockey friendly environment is to be applauded.
With currently the longest winning streak in the NHL this season, the Panthers truly are something to behold. They don’t have an Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, or a Patrick Kane on the team. They have no Norris Trophy winner or a first ballot Hall of Fame coach behind their bench, and that is what makes this team all that more exciting. The team is winning through teamwork, stingy defense, and stellar goaltending.
Oh, how sweet it is.
Main photo credit: Getty Images / Eliot J. Schechter