Hockey in Florida? It seems like a crazy idea but I guess it sort of works, with the most recent evidence being the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Stanley Cup victory.
Tampa joined the NHL in 1992, but the Florida Panthers were hot on their heels, joining the league a year later in 1993. Their expansion partner were the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. Florida was placed in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference. At birth, the team was owned by Wayne Huizenga, whose fortunes were made from Blockbuster Video. Things have changed a little bit since then, obviously. They are currently owned by Sunrise Sports and Entertainment, led by Victor Viola.
The Early Years
The franchise began with a very experienced leadership group. Bill Torrey was the first president and his bonafides came via his leadership of the 1980’s New York Islanders, who won multiple Stanley Cup. Bobby Clarke, captain of Philadelphia’s Broad Street Bullies, was named the first general manager and Roger Neilson was the first head coach.
The Panthers selected goalie John Vanbiesbrouck with their top pick in the expansion draft, and used a trapping defensive style to slow down games. It was effective (albeit boring), and the Panthers had one of the most success first seasons of any expansion franchise, finishing only a couple of points out of making the playoffs.
A couple of seasons later, after Clarke left to become GM of the Philadlphia Flyers and Neilson was let go as head coach, the Panthers made the playoffs for the first time and went on a surprising run to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they lost 4-0 to the Colorado Avalanche. It was by far the most successful season in the franchise’s history to date, made all the more memorable by the famed rat story. Apparently, Scott Mellanby killed a rat by one timing it against a wall, in view of his teammates. Once this became common knowledge, fans celebrated the Panthers success by throwing rubber and plastic rats on the ice, similar to the way Detroit fans throw octopi on the ice in the playoffs. Only a few years into their history, the Panthers were already developing a culture with their fans, something they would need as success on the ice was not common.
Still Seeking Consistency
Since that magic run to the finals, the Panthers have only made the playoffs four times. Their highest point total was 103 points in 2015-16, but they could not capitalize on that regular season success in the playoffs. In fact, they have not won a playoff series since that Finals run more than 20 years ago.
Setting their sights on a future run, the Panthers hired Joel Quenneville prior to the 2019-20 season. Quenneville won three Stanley Cups as coach of the Chicago Blackhawks and is considered one of the best bench leaders in the game. This summer, the Panthers parted ways with GM Dale Tallon, replacing him with Bill Zito. Zito had been a sports agent and was working in the Columbus Blue Jacket organization when he took the job. He has never been an NHL general manager before.
The current team has a young nucleus of C Alexander Barkov, LW Jonathan Huberdeau and D Aaron Ekblad. Those three are the future of the club, which needs to get better between the pipes. Florida signed G Sergei Bobrovsky to fill that gap last offseason, but his first season in Florida was his worst since becoming a starting goaltender. He has two Vezina Trophies to his credit, but needs to find his form with his new team. Though it is not fair fight, Bobrovsky is up against the legend of former longtime netminder Roberto Luongo, who is the most decorated player in franchise history and a future Hall of Famer.