The Florida Panthers are in the midst of one of their best seasons this millennium. Only once in the last 14 years have the Panthers qualified for the NHL Playoffs, and that was in 2012 when they captured their first and only Southeast Division championship. Florida General Manager Dale Tallon has been patiently building a winning team over the past four-plus years, stockpiling the franchise with a plethora of young, talented players that should carry the team for years to come.
While the playoff run in 2012 was great, it was due mostly to a large group of veteran free agents that Tallon brought aboard to keep the team out of the cellar while the youth movement was honing its craft in college and the minors. Now, those young players are finally beginning to show their worth in the NHL despite still having a lot of growing and improving to do. With the Panthers showing why they expect to be a consistent winner for the foreseeable future, here are the top five reasons that you can expect to see them in the playoffs come April.
Florida took a big step towards ensuring the team would have great goaltending for the next several years when they re-acquired star netminder Roberto Luongo from the Vancouver Canucks last March. Luongo has been one of the best goalies in the NHL throughout his career, even during his early days in Florida when he was constantly peppered with tons of shots on goal. After being traded away from the Panthers in 2006 and spending seven mostly-successful seasons in Vancouver, Luongo's return to Florida showed fans and teams around the league that they were ready to win now. And with Roberto in goal, the Panthers are doing just that. Florida also added new backup goalie Al Montoya, finally cutting ties with longtime backup Scott Clemmensen. Montoya is head-and-shoulders above Clemmensen in the talent department, giving Florida the confidence of knowing that on the nights where Luongo needs a rest, they would still have a solid goalie in net that wouldn't be giving up cheap and demoralizing goals on a regular basis.
After Tallon's arrival in Florida he instantly began stockpiling the franchise with young high draft picks, knowing that in a few years they would be ready to lead the team to greatness. Many of those young guys, such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Vincent Trocheck, Erik Gudbranson and 18-year-old rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad are a big part of the Panthers current success. The best part about all of these young and talented players is that they are going to keep getting better and better for the next several years. Florida also has a number of prospects in the minors and college just waiting for their time to shine. Guys like Rocco Grimaldi (AHL), Kyle Rau (NCAA), Jayce Hawryluk (CHL), Mike Matheson (NCAA), Alex Petrovic (AHL) and Quinton Howden (AHL), just to name a few, are the future of the Panthers and will get their opportunities in the NHL soon enough.
CLOSE GAME SUCCESS
Florida has played a ton of one-goal games this season and has done quite well in them. Through 40 games the Panthers have played in 26 that were decided by one goal and have picked up at least a point in all but three of them, compiling a record of 14-3-9. The success and experience that Florida has gotten in close games will pay huge dividends when the playoffs roll around. Also, the team has been unflappable when facing tough odds. Falling behind by one or two goals doesn't faze the Panthers and they have battled back time and time again. Additionally, and maybe most importantly, Florida does not lose games in bunches. They've only lost consecutive games in regulation twice this year, with one of those times coming in the second and third games of the season.
2014 FREE AGENT CLASS
Coming into the 2014-15 season, Tallon knew that the Panthers were getting closer and closer to being consistent playoff contenders. With that in mind, and with the financial backing of a pair of new and dedicated-to-winning owners, Tallon went to work during the offseason and brought in several veteran players that he felt would perfectly compliment the group already wearing Florida sweaters. So far, it appears that Tallon has been spot-on with his choices. We've already mentioned the impact of backup goalie Al Montoya. Defenseman Willie Mitchell has been a major leader for the team and was named Panthers captain before the season began. He's also played a huge role in the maturation of Ekblad, who is second on the team in scoring with 24 points (5 goals 19 assists) and is playing like a seasoned veteran instead of a fresh-faced 18-year-old. Jussi Jokinen has been a constant contributor and is currently third on the team with 23 points (4 goals 19 assists) in 39 games. Derek MacKenzie is great on the penalty kill and provides a spark anytime he hits the ice. Dave Bolland missed 21 games due to injury but since returning to the lineup has been a solid contributor both on and off the ice. The same can be said for currently injured Sean Thornton, who gives Florida the tough grittiness needed in the NHL, especially in the playoffs.
GREAT LOCKER ROOM
An extremely important but sometimes overlooked aspect to any team's success is the atmosphere in the locker room. Following a pair of extremely rough seasons in which the Panthers finished 29th and 30th in the 30 team NHL, things weren't particularly happy in the locker room. Tallon set out to fix the problem with the group of free agents he brought in. Not only are they all major contributors to the on-ice product, but the team has come together in a wonderful way thanks in large part to the new vets. The level of camaraderie and accountability in the Panthers locker room is something that has not been seen in Sunrise for a very long time (see: 1996 Stanley Cup Playoffs). The young players have great example setters to learn from, making the future even brighter than it already had been.
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