The dream ended rather suddenly for the 1995-96 Florida Panthers.
Avalanche defenseman Uwe Krupp’s slap shot from the blue line trickled past John Vanbiesbrouck in triple overtime, and the Colorado Avalanche completed the sweep of the Panthers in the Stanley Cup Final. The “team of destiny,” which had come from behind to beat Eric Lindros’ Flyers and then came from behind again to beat the two-headed Pittsburgh beast of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in the Eastern Conference Finals, had been vanquished.
Yet despite the sour ending, the Panthers had, in only three years of existence, come four games away from taking home the Stanley Cup.
In a surprising twist to everyone, including South Florida, hockey was poised to become the “second sport” behind football. While the Miami Marlins and Miami Heat were still struggling to find identities the Panthers had become the first non-Dolphins professional team to reach a championship game.
A tradition had been born with the “rat trick” as hundreds of plastic rats flooded the Miami Arena ice after every Panthers goal. Shortly before the Panthers lost that Game 4 in Miami, a New York Times column proclaimed, “A Hockey Championship in Miami? Maybe Not, but This Is No Sinking Ship.” The column praised Panthers fans as “among [hockey’s] most passionate adherents,” and proclaimed that the health of hockey and of the Panthers in South Florida would remain strong. Within just a few years of that incredible run, interest in the Panthers dissolved. The “second sport” had become a weird side show on the edge of the Everglades.
Similar to how a precocious child is derailed by a lack of parenting, the Panthers became the fourth and least popular professional franchise in South Florida. The neglectful parent in this case, Wayne Huizenga, oversaw five coaches and three GMs in only eight years of owning the team. When Huizenga finally sold the team in 2000, stability did not follow, with the franchise naming six more General Managers and eight more coaches over the next 15 years. Even Jeffery Loria hasn’t been through as many coaches and GMs. Through all the turmoil and slumping attendance, one of the GMs fed into the endless churn of Panthers management managed to stick around.
Dale Tallon was a two-time All-Star during his playing days in the 1970s, having spent the majority of his career with the Chicago Blackhawks. After his retirement, Tallon remained with the Blackhawks organization, moving up the ranks from TV analyst to director of player personnel to general manager in 2005.
Tallon worked hard to improve the 59-point team he inherited. He drafted Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith. Veteran talent like Brian Campbell, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa were brought in to support the youth. Less than four years after being named GM, Tallon’s team had a 104 point season and ultimately lost in the Western Conference Finals.
Despite putting together the winningest Blackhawks team since the 1992-93 season, Tallon was suddenly demoted, becoming a “senior advisor.” The reasons for this are still somewhat unclear. It could have been because of an error in signing his restricted free agents in 2009, costing the team millions. Former Blackhawk Martin Havlat specifically blamed tensions arising between Tallon and team president John McDonough.
Regardless of the reasons, Tallon’s assistant GM, Scotty Bowman, was named his replacement — the team promptly won their first Stanley Cup since the 1960s. Bowman deserves all the credit for maintaining and continuing to build a juggernaut in Chicago, but there is no mistaking that the 2009-10 Blackhawks were a creation of Tallon.
Suddenly an opportunity presented itself for both the Panthers and Tallon. For Tallon it was the chance to regain his status as a NHL GM and create a another contender. For the Panthers it was the opportunity to hire someone who could potentially last more than two weeks. A little over a month after Tallon was named the nineth GM in Panthers history, he masterminded two separate trades, one involving talented goal scorer Nathan Horton and the other sending away rising young defenseman Keith Ballard.
In return, Tallon was able to stockpile draft picks; the Panthers would have three first round and three second round picks in the 2010 NHL Draft. Of the six picks the Panthers had in the first two rounds, five of those picks are currently on the team. Both Nathan Horton and Keith Ballard no longer play in the league.
Nevertheless, Tallon’s first season with the Panthers was disappointing as the team finished with its worst record in nearly a decade. The 2011 offseason had to produce results. Tallon fired head coach Pete DeBoer and drafted young forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trochek. He brought back fan-favorite Ed Jovanovski as captain, and signed a bevy of free agents, many of whom played for Tallon in Chicago. In an improbable twist (with the help of a weak division), the Panthers suddenly made a massive step in the right direction. The Panthers had a 94-point season, taking them to the playoffs for the first time since 2000 and winning their first ever division title. The upstart Panthers won their first playoff game since 1997 and nearly won a playoff series, taking the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Devils to seven games.
The surprising turnaround was not to last. No player from the 2012 NHL draft has cracked the Panthers roster (although defenseman Mike Matheson is still seen as a blue-chip prospect), and the team collapsed to the worst record in the league during the strike-shortened 2012-13 season. Former third overall pick Jonathan Huberdeau became the first Panthers player to win the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year), but beyond Huberdeau there was very little to be excited about. Many of the veterans Tallon had signed in the previous offseason were hurt or ineffective, and rookie goaltender Jacob Markstrom (drafted by Tallon’s predecessor) looked totally overwhelmed in goal, accounting for the second worst save percentage of any Panthers goalie who played at least 25 games. For a moment it appeared that Tallon pulled a Bill Parcells: one miraculous, overachieving season followed by disappointment.
Despite selecting a talented center in the following draft in Aleksander Barkov, the 2013-14 season was poised to be another forgettable one. The offense was anemic, Huberdeau appeared to have regressed from his Calder-worthy rookie year, and the goalie platoon of Markstrom along with the desiccating corpse of Tim Thomas was about as effective in net as an easily-distracted kindergartener. With the goalie situation continuing to be worsen, Tallon masterminded one of the greatest trades in Panthers history: he got Roberto Luongo back. Luongo had spent five seasons in Florida before a rift between him and management caused him to be traded to Vancouver for peanuts. In his first game back for the Panthers, Luongo posted a shutout – the first time a Panthers goalie had one since 2012. It was from this moment that the Panthers fortunes have vastly improved.
The 2014 NHL Draft had an obvious, no-brainer No. 1 selection: 18-year-old defenseman Aaron Ekblad. Luckily for the Panthers, they were awarded the top pick despite “only” having the second worst record in the NHL. The Panthers took the young defenseman, who promptly went on to win the second Calder in franchise history. Later that season, Tallon traded for 43-year-old legend Jaromir Jagr to pair with Huberdeau and Barkov.
Though one would presume Jagr would be way past the point of contributing, the newly formed top line of Huberdeau-Barkov-Jagr has been the most effective Panthers top line since Ray Whitney, Viktor Kozlov, and Pavel Bure were all selected to the All-Star game in 2000. The 2014-15 team earned 91 points, only the fifth time in franchise history a team earned over 90 points, but narrowly missed the playoffs.
That brings us to today.
The All-Star break has arrived and the Panthers currently lead their division with 63 points. To put that number in perspective, the Panthers fielded a 66-point team just two years ago. The 1995-96 team that went to the Stanley Cup had 60 points at their break (albeit with fewer games played). The best regular season team in Panthers history, the Pavel Bure-led 1999-2000 team that ended the season with 98 points, had 67 points at their break (albeit with more games played).
This Panthers team is roughly on the same pace as the two best teams in franchise history.
There’s more to it than that. There’s plenty to suggest this Panthers team might be the best of them all. They have the best point percentage (read: winning percentage) of any team in franchise history. Hockey-Reference’s “Simple Rating System” gives them a rating of 0.56. The aforementioned ’96 and ’00 teams have ratings of 0.27 and 0.28, respectively.
They have the second best record in the Eastern Conference this year and the third best goal differential in the league. They are in the top 10 in both fewest goals allowed (2nd) and penalty kill percentage (8th). The Panthers are even in the top half of the league in goals per game — this hasn’t been the case in ten seasons.
Yet the most incredible thing about this team is no player on the roster is in his prime.
That seems like an impossibility but it’s true. Only two players on the team are between the prime ages of 26 to 29 – both of them are usually healthy scratches. The team has many old veterans over the age of 35 holding down the fort: Brian Campbell (36), Willie Mitchell (38), and Jaromir Jagr (43!). But the vast majority of the team is made up of younger players that have not reached their prime or are about to reach their prime.
The two Rookies of the Year on the team are Aaron Ekblad (19) and Jonathan Huberdeau (22). Tallon had the foresight to lock up his two franchise centers with six-year contracts in Nick Bjugstad (23) and Aleksander Barkov (20). Besides Jagr, the two leading goal scorers are Reilly Smith (24) and Vincent Trocheck (22). Perhaps the most insane part of all is the longest tenured Panthers player – the only holdover from the pre-Tallon roster – is Dmitry Kulikov… he’s 25.
And then we have Roberto Luongo, the greatest player in Panthers history and one of the greatest goalies of the post-expansion era. Somehow, at 36, he is putting together one of his best seasons ever.
Luongo has the best save percentage of his career besides his Vezina-worthy 2003-04 campaign (which I’ve detailed before). He was seen as washed up just three years ago and now is a consensus Vezina finalist – he might even win his much deserved Vezina this year. While the Panthers will need to find his successor to ensure continuous success, Luongo shows zero indication that his demise is imminent.
Dale Tallon has made his mistakes – his 2011 free agents were mostly busts, he’s never built a Panthers team with a good power play, and Dave Bolland is a healthy scratch despite being paid the same as Bjugstad and Barkov – but his ability to create a competitive, young, and, dare I say it, eminently exciting and likable team for a franchise that has seen the least success in South Florida puts him in the pantheon of team-builders with Dave Dombrowski and Pat Riley.
It’s time we recognize the facts: the Panthers are the best team in South Florida, the most exciting team in South Florida, they deserve your attention, support, and, most importantly, this is not a flash-in-the-pan team.
They are built with a bevy of young franchise players so this team will remain relevant in the coming years. Perhaps the Panthers will finally hoist the Cup in the near future, and South Florida can finally lay claim to four professional champions.