Very few professional sports teams own a history less spectacular than the Florida Panthers. The organization spent decades in perpetual rebuild mode, highlighted by a lowly-six postseason appearances to their name. That number includes last year’s expanded post-season, which gave 24 of the league’s 31 franchises a playoff berth due to COVID-19. Prior to this season, the franchise’s all-time record sat below the .500 mark at 852-856-140-205. These figures are all really, really bad. Many of their fans lost patience years ago and frankly don’t expect much; others remain optimistic that “this rebuild is gonna be THE rebuild”. And while longer-tenured fans may advise against getting your hopes up (and rightly so, based on their past experience with the organization), this 2020-21 Florida Panthers team might actually finally be approaching the summit.
The 2020-21 Florida Panthers Team Identity Has Finally Emerged
After long-term general manager Dale Tallon saw his contract expire this last offseason, the Panthers hired Bill Zito from within the Columbus Blue Jackets organization. Zito called it like he saw it at the time, too; the Florida Panthers lacked identity. As Nick Mancini wrote prior to the season’s start, Zito focused on creating a team that would be more competitive and harder to play against.
Under Tallon’s management, the Panthers piled up high draft picks and built a franchise around homegrown talent. Unfortunately, the success never followed. Even as the picks became prospects, and then regulars in the NHL lineup, and then (for some of them) even franchise all-time leaders in various statistical categories, the team would still lose more often than win.
Joel Quenneville and Zito Added the Missing Ingredients
Tallon tried tremendously to make things work, in a variety of ways over the last decade. He added high-profile (Jaromir Jagr) and high-priced (Mike Hoffman) forwards to try and support them offensively. He spent big money and term (Keith Yandle and Mike Matheson) on defence to try and add stability. Heck, he even made two of the biggest goaltending splashes of the last decade (Roberto Luongo trade, and signing Sergei Bobrovsky). None of this seemed to work; when they patch one hole, three others burst wide open.
When Tallon hired Quenneville, it seemed to be his Hail-Mary pass to see if they could break through. At 35-26-8 last year, they were undoubtedly better but with a plethora of issues nonetheless.
That being said, with a year of first-hand experience under Quenneville’s belt and Zito’s eagerness and love for hard-working hockey, the puzzle may finally be solved in Sunrise.
Florida Panthers Players – Show Identity, Earn Ice-Time
The most encouraging transformation for fans has been the noticeable increase in effort shift-in and shift-out. No matter which of the four lines Quenneville deploys, expect them to come out at full-speed. The forecheck this season walks circles around anything they sported in previous seasons.
The team’s first line of Barkov and newcomers Carter Verhaeghe and Anthony Duclair plays a furious pace of hockey. They’re a cumulative +5 in takeaways-to-giveaways, and the second line of Huberdeau and new guys Patric Hornqvist and Alexander Wennberg are +6 in the same stat.
The bottom half of the lineup sees more frequent changes, because Quenneville rewards players for their performance and effort. By doing this regularly, everyone knows to push at their maximum or risk losing a spot in the lineup. Many of these players, such as Juho Lammikko, Ryan Lomberg, Vinnie Hinostroza, Mason Marchment, and Eetu Luostarinen, have never been featured as NHL regulars before either. But, as long as they execute, the team continues to give them opportunities.
The defencemen sit in a similar situation, with the sixth defenceman seemingly up-for-grabs between Markus Nutivaara, Gustav Forsling, Noah Juulsen, and Riley Stillman. Each of them have played thus far, but with Forsling’s recent performance especially in a 3-1 victory over the Dallas Stars, it’s likely his job to lose currently.
Riding the Hot Hand in Net
Through 17 games, Driedger’s started nine games to Bob’s eight. So, a narrow advantage to say the least. The interesting point, though, remains that Driedger owns the team’s last four wins. Four of the last five games belonged to him as well. Furthermore, Bob’s only start came in a back-to-back scenario, and against the Detroit Red Wings, AND it was their only loss in that span.
“He’s got an opportunity right now to get a little bit more than just the odd game. He’s taken advantage of it,” said Joel Quenneville prior to Monday’s victory against the Stars. That game ended up being one that perfectly sums up the difference between last season and this season.
2020-21 Florida Panthers Identity Makes Them a Threat
Against the Stars, Florida peppered the net with 52 shots and only gave up 25. That included some late-game flurries from the Stars, as Florida demonstrated poise and control. They registered 18 takeaways, compared to only one for Dallas.
Typically, when Florida fails to score three or more, they lose in regulation. To win in regulation with only two goals indicates the transformation the team went through this year. The energy, for the first time in a long time, is contagious.
They own a winning record against all seven opponents in the Central Division. And if they continue to play with this level of determination, it’s hard to imagine them stumbling much.