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From dysfunction and irrelevance to consecutive Stanley Cup Finals — Getting to know the Florida Panthers

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Photo credit:© Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports
Cam Lewis
13 days ago
The Florida Panthers have won more playoff games in the past three years than they did over their first 27 seasons as a National Hockey League franchise.
Between the team’s inception in 1993-94 and their Presidents’ Trophy season in 2021-22, Florida’s only playoff success came during a Cinderella run in 1996. Now the Panthers are in their second of back-to-back appearances in the Stanley Cup Final and are a serious contender.
It’s been quite the ascent for a franchise that spent most of its existence as a perennial non-playoff team, an organization that routinely saw changes in personnel and identity with no real clear sense of direction, a place that was viewed as somewhere for players to go late in their career to take it easy.
This is no longer that version of the Florida Panthers. This is a team with a perennial Selke Trophy candidate as their top-line centre, multiple power forwards who can score, a group of depth forwards who throw more hits than anybody else in the league, a blueline who can move the puck and defend, and a two-time Vezina Trophy winner in net.
They’ve certainly come a long way from this.

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The Panthers got off to a solid start in the league, especially in comparison to the other expansion teams of the early 1990s. The San Jose Sharks entered the NHL in 1991-92 and went 17-58-5 in their inaugural season. The Ottawa Senators and Tampa Bay Lightning both joined in 1992-93 and posted 10-70-4 and 23-54-7 records respectively.
With the first selection in the 1993 Expansion Draft, the Panthers selected goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, who was available because the New York Rangers had prioritized keeping Mike Richter around long-term. Vanbiesbrouck finished second in Vezina Trophy voting in Florida’s first season in 1993-94 and led the team to a respectable 33-34-17 record, just one point back of a playoff spot.
After a 20-22-6 finish in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season, the Panthers broke out in 1995-96. Scott Mellanby, the team’s Expansion Draft selection from the Edmonton Oilers, led the way with 32 goals and 70 points and Florida made the playoffs with a 41-31-10 record. Thanks largely to Vanbiesbrouck’s .932 save percentage, the Panthers made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, where they wound up getting swept by the Colorado Avalanche.
This is where the good times ended for the Panthers. The team was dropped in the first round of the 1996-97 playoffs and then imploded in 1997-98 with a 24-43-15 record. They moved into a new stadium for the 1998-99 season and struggled with attendance because of a combination of poor performance and location.
The Panthers had been playing in the Miami Arena, a downtown stadium near South Beach shared with the Miami Heat of the National Basketball Association. They moved to Sunrise, a town in the Everglades about an hour’s drive north from downtown Miami.

Hockey fans look on during the third period of an NHL hockey game between the Florida Panthers and the Ottawa Senators in Sunrise, Fla. The Senators defeated the Panthers 1-0 in front of the smallest crowd in Panthers history at 7,311. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

 
By the time the 2001-02 season rolled around, the Panthers’ original owner had sold the team, the goaltender who had led them to the Stanley Cup Final had left in free agency, and the general manager who had put that team together, Bryan Murray, had been fired.
The next couple of decades saw the Panthers make just two playoff appearances, both of which ended in the first round. There was a revolving door of general managers and coaches, half-assed rebuilds that resulted in three first-overall draft picks being traded away, and star players who came and went without seeing any sort of success with the team.
Which anecdote would best summarize this era of hockey in Florida? Probably the feud between GM Rick Dudley and head coach Mike Keenan.
During the 2002-03 season, Keenan told the team’s top prospect, Stephen Weiss, that he would be heading back to Major Junior without informing Dudley and the decision had to be reversed publicly. Later in the season, Dudley barred Keenan from running practices, fired his hand-picked assistants, and replaced them with his own selections. At that year’s draft, Keenan complained to the team’s owner about a selection Dudley was preparing to make. While on the draft floor, Dudley received a call from ownership expressing concern about the player and the Panthers nearly missed making their pick.
Dudley eventually fired Keenan, but when Dudley was fired as GM just a few months later, Keenan was hired to replace him. By this point, any momentum the Panthers had from their successful start as a franchise had been washed away.

The Florida Panthers selected Aleksander Barkov with the second-overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft.

 
Things slowly started to change for the Panthers in 2013 when Vincent Viola, a billionaire from Brooklyn who graduated from West Point Military Academy and New York Law School, purchased the team. Viola and Co. inherited an organization buried in complete dysfunction and sought to build something better with a process-oriented approach and a strong culture.
“We were absolutely shocked,” Viola’s right-hand man, team President and CEO Matthew Caldwell, told The Athletic about the state of the Panthers when they were purchased. “You can do as much due diligence as possible, but looking under the hood, there were a lot of problems with the team. It just had really struggled. And losing creates a more and more negative, toxic culture. It was really hanging on by a thread.”
After missing the playoffs in nine of ten seasons in the 2000s, the Panthers hired Dale Tallon, the architect of the Jonathan Toews-era Chicago Blackhawks, to be their President of Hockey Operations.
Tallon led the Panthers to some success, including their first-ever Southeast Division banner in 2011-12 and another in 2015-16. He also assembled the young core of Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, and Aaron Ekblad through the draft and made multiple significant acquisitions through trade and free agency, including Roberto Luongo, Jaromir Jagr, and Sergei Bobrovsky.
But the old-school hockey man didn’t jive with Viola’s new-school executives and Tallon’s Panthers still weren’t able to do anything in the playoffs. They lost in the first round in 2012 and 2016 and, after failing to get past the Qualifying Round of the 2020 bubble playoffs, Tallon and the Panthers parted ways.

The Florida Panthers hired Bill Zito as general manager in September of 2020.

 
Things really started to change for the Panthers when they hired Bill Zito as their general manager in the fall of 2020. Zito was Jarmo Kekelainen’s assistant general manager with the Columbus Blue Jackets and has completely transformed the Panthers on and off the ice.
No longer is Florida a place for players to go to take it easy, it’s now a place where players have the best brought out of them.
Zito traded for underachieving talents in Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart, and Brandon Montour and all of them have finally reached their potential with the Panthers. He signed Carter Verhaeghe to a two-way contract in 2020 and he’s scored 127 goals in 330 games in Florida since. He grabbed Gustav Forsling on waivers and he posted a league-leading plus-56 rating while logging an average of 22:09 minutes on the team’s blueline in 2023-24.
The biggest addition, though, came after Zito’s team suffered a massive letdown in the playoffs a couple of years ago.
The Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2021-22 with a 58-18-6 record, earned their first playoff series victory in 24 seasons with a six-game win over the Washington Capitals, and were promptly swept in the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning, their biggest rival.
A few weeks later, Zito traded Jonathan Huberdeau and defenceman MacKenzie Weegar to the Calgary Flames for pesky winger Matthew Tkachuk. It was a shocking move for the Panthers, as Huberdeau was coming off of a 115-point season and was the organization’s all-time leading scorer at the time.
“We were excited about Bill because we felt he was always going to push the envelope, he was never going to be complacent,” Caldwell said. “And if you know anything about Vinnie and the cultures of his companies, it’s all about being very ambitious, challenging industries, challenging the norm and the standards.
“There was part of us like, ‘hey, we just had our best season ever, let’s just keep the stability, let’s keep the momentum.’ The offseason plan wasn’t, hey, let’s go make a dramatic move. But Bill saw an opportunity.”
With Tkachuk in the fold, the Panthers fully leaned into their identity as a team of heels, one that makes life incredibly difficult for their opponents.
They made the playoffs in 2022-23 as the eighth seed and knocked off the heavily favoured Boston Bruins, who had just posted the best regular season in NHL history, in the first round. They breezed through the Toronto Maple Leafs in five games in the second round and swept the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference Final.
Florida’s Stanley Cup dream came up short as the team was ultimately defeated by the Vegas Golden Knights, but, unlike in 1996, this run wasn’t just an anomaly. The Panthers went 52-24-6 in 2023-24 and took down the Lightning, Bruins, and New York Rangers en route to their second Stanley Cup Final appearance in as many years.
All of those years of dysfunction and irrelevance are now in the rearview mirror. The Panthers are nothing like what they used to be.

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