There have been a number of players that have come through this Florida Panthers organEYEzation through the years, and with the drastic roster change that’s happened over the past few months, I thought that I would give you my five favourite Panthers players…..before I had a chance to fall in love with some of these new guys! If you know me, or read this site, you’ll know that I like a certain type of player. As much as I like speed, skill and a great deke, I also enjoy the grit, snarl and physicality that a player can bring.
If I were a coach, my players would play hard, have an edge, be a little nasty, and have heart and character. Much like most of the new players that have been acquired this summer. So knowing that, don’t expect to see guys like Krissy Useless, or Nathan Horton. Just not my kind of players. I’m very old school and since this is a tough game, I expect my players to play it tough as well. No exceptions. Ever. Granted, there are nights when you just don’t have it. I get that, but for the most part the guys in my top five are players that I liked watching play, and enjoyed what they brought to the game.
Here are my five all time favourite Florida Panthers:
5: Olli Jokinen: When he was first acquired with Roberto Luongo and Oleg Kvasha from the New York Islanders in one of the biggest steals in NHL history, or just another Mike Milbury blunder, Olli was joining his third team in his brief career after being a the third overall pick by the Los Angeles Kings in 1997. Jokinen hadn’t achieved much success prior to coming to Florida, with 21 points being his highest output in a season, which he accomplished twice. Still not good enough, and the Islanders gladly parted with him. His first two seasons with the Panthers continued to be uneventful with the 2001-2002 season seeing him score nine goals with 20 assists for 29 points. It was during this time that head coach Mike Keenan saw something in Jokinen and felt that with more ice time and responsibility, he would rise to the occasion. He had two choices. Follow Keenan’s lead and work his tail off, or continue to be the enigma he was and potentially find himself out of the NHL.
For the next five seasons Olli missed one game, proving he was more than durable. He led the Panthers in scoring each of those five years, and his combined totals were 173 goals and 201 assists in that time span, as he proved all the doubters wrong. He became a fan favourite and while maybe not the perfect leader from what we could see, was the offensive weapon for the Panthers and was the big center that every good team needs. After his first couple seasons I thought he’d never grow into the player he ultimately became. Maybe on other teams, he would never have had the chance to blossom, but Olli was a solid player overall in his time here. Unfortunately he lost a battle with coach/general manager Jacques Martin, and he would ultimately be traded to Phoenix.
4: Tomas Vokoun: Acquired in 2007 for three draft picks Vokoun was brought in as the answer for Roberto Luongo who had since been traded to Vancouver. After some sketchy seasons in Nashville, the two seasons prior to coming to Florida found him to be entering the prime of his career as he won 63 games during the two regular seasons before coming to the Panthers. He was a workhorse goaltender who was going to face a lot of pucks, and at the same time be expected to stop all of them. The scoring problem for Florida was well established at this point, and Vokoun was required to stand on his head virtually every night as the Panther weren’t going to win many high scoring contests.
During his four years with Florida he was often ridiculed for giving up soft goals at the wrong time, but as I explained to Mr. Knowsnothing in section 119 one night, Vokoun can’t score, and can’t forecheck and he’s not expected to clear the crease and make saves at the same time. Tomas won 101 games for Panther teams that only once came close to making the post season, but the failures were not to be blamed on him at all. He did what he had to do, and on many nights kept the Cats in games that they had no business of staying close in. He’s now off to Washington and I wish him all the best. Except the 6 nights he plays Florida.
3: Ed Belfour: Eddie, Eddie, Eddie! When he was signed as a free agent in 2006 many people thought the Panthers were crazy. A 41 year old goaltender. Really? Well, Eddie proved all the doubters wrong and almost took the Panthers to the playoffs in the 2006-2007 season. After slow start due to some back problems Belfour played like the ornery youngster he was when he first came into the league with the Chicago Blackhawks. To be perfectly honest with you when Belfour played, there was a confidence in the team and there was no game that was out of reach.
Winning 27 games that year in the 58 games that he played, Belfour at one point played in 27 straight. Brought in to split time with the younger Alex Auld, Eddie the Eagle was actually forced into full time duty when Auld injured his knee during the season, and the veteran did what most players of his time did. He rose to the occasion. Even though he was only here one season, being a favourite of mine when in Chicago, it was easy for him to be on this list. We briefly met Eddie before the season started that year as we saw him at a local Lexus dealership. Quiet and unassuming, I think he was surprised that anyone in South Florida recognized him.
2: Pavel Bure: The most exciting player to ever put on a Florida Panther sweater, I’ll never forget the anticipation and the buzz in the Bank Atlantic Center on the night of his first game. One of the most talented players was now actually a part of this South Florida hockey team, and he did not disappoint. You literally moved to the edge of your seat not only when he had the puck and skated down the wing, but when he hopped over the boards you felt the energy build. He was the most electric player this franchise would ever come to know. His moves were just unbelievable. I’ve seen hundreds upon hundreds of players, but not many could do the things that the Russian Rocket did.
In the two seasons from 1999 to 2001, Bure scored 117 goals and was soley responsible for putting fans in the seats of the “Bank” at that time. The last time Florida was in the playoffs (1999-2000 season) Bure was here, and you would have to say that without him, they had no business making it. Breakaways, penalty shots, power play, even strength, and short handed goals he could do it all. The only problem is that the team couldn’t win enough games and his $10 million dollar a year salary was choking the organEYEzation. He ultimately was traded to the New York Rangers and the fans were promised that the money saved would be used to get multiple players. That’s when the lies began. Thankfully they’re over with now. Bure still comes to games once in awhile and the fans all still love him.
1: Gary Roberts: Gary didn’t have to come to Florida for him to be one of my all time favourite players, but since he did, he’s my number one guy. Gary has more heart, guts, character and professionalism in his little finger nail than most people have in their entire bodies. Yes he was old, and almost at the end of the line at the time, he came over with his childhood friend Joe Nieuwendyk, as the first free agents to sign contracts in 2005. Like many players in that year after the lockout, Gary had some groin pull issues, but in the games he played he played with more passion than you would have expected from a guy his age.
Gary was typically on the first line, the first power play unit and was an alternate captain. He hit, he finished his checks, he stood in front of the net, and he was a leader both on and off the ice. I always said that the Panthers got him too late in his career as I would have loved to see more of him in person. He even dropped the gloves and stood up for his teammates at a time when a player his age should never have been doing that. But again, his character and his the way he was, wouldn’t allow him to walk away from any challenge. I met Gary as well at a Florida Panther event before the start of 2005. A great guy to talk to for a few minutes, he smiled as I first told him how happy I was to have him as a member of the Florida Panthers. I can’t say enough about the way he carried himself as an individual, and the leadership he showed during his brief time here. He was up to this point my favourite all time Panther.
With the culture change and the roster purge that has happened, it will be nice to turn a new leaf and pick a new favourite. I have a feeling I already know who it is, but we’ll just wait to see how things unfold.
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