Finally. After twelve long years of anticipation and disappointment, Florida Panthers fans finally have the ability of doing something which they could not do for over a decade: watch the Stanley Cup playoffs and cheer on their home team.
After the 11th straight year of seeing no post-season play, the Florida Panthers made one of the smartest moves in franchise history – hiring GM Dale Talon who used his extensive amount of cap space to his advantage adding 13 new faces to the club. These 13-guys would go on to achieve what many thought was impossible at the start of the season – gelling well enough in just a short period of time in order to get the cats into the playoffs.
With these 13 new faces come a lot of questions and speculation such as can these guys even play together, or are these guys good enough to keep winning as many thought the hot October play was nothing more than a mirage.
Even more impressive was Talon’s risk factor in rolling the dice on guys who may not perform as well as he had expected. Three guys in particular Kris Versteeg, Jose Theodore and Tomas Fleischmann were all criticized on how they would perform based on their own personal weaknesses, but as we can see, all three flourished into the great players that come to lead this team to glory.
Kris Versteeg was acquired on July 1st 2011 by Tallon after trading a conditional 2nd round selection and a 3rd round pick in 2012 to the Philadelphia Flyers. Versteeg performed well in his first two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks, and was a key part in the 2009-10 team that won the Stanley Cup for Talon who was then GM of the Blackhawks.
But, since that victory Versteeg was bounced around teams from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Philadelphia Flyers in search of a place to fit in and find his grove. Sadly he could not find his place in either city and was then acquired by the Panthers.
In his first season with the Cats he has had nothing but success. Versteeg has flourished into a great leader on the team, and has become an instant fan favourite as Versteeg jerseys have been popping up around Bank Atlantic Center night in and night out. His success on the ice has been just as impressive as he sits tied for his career high in points (53) with one game left on the regular season. All season long Versteeg was on track to crack the 90 point mark, but sadly an undisclosed injury, and a few hiccups along the way set him back. But, nonetheless he will be a great help in the postseason as he has the leadership and experience needed to win.
Heading into the free agency frenzy last July, Florida faced a problem which they had not experienced in several years – they had no idea who would be their starting goaltender. Fortunately for the past few seasons Florida had been solid in net thanks to the likes of Roberto Luongo, Ed Belfour, and Tomas Vokoun, but sadly Vokoun decided he would not sign with the Panthers and test free agency again – eventually signing with South East Division rival Washington Capitals.
Growing up as a little boy I counted the hours leading up to CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada – more importantly the matchup between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens. I loved watching my favorite player Ed Belfour face off against Jose Theodore in what would be amazing goaltending matchups.
Sadly, since Montreal, Theodore never had a place he could call home as he was bounced between clubs before finally signing with the Panthers. Many critics doubted he could do it as many greats before him failed to get the Cats into the postseason as they struggled to produce winning records. But, just like Versteeg, Theodore stepped up his game and provided a 22-16-11 record posting a 2.46 GAA and a .917 sv% , proving he could once again be a great starter and leader on the Florida Panthers organization.
Finally, the biggest surprise out of Southern Florida this offseason is that of forward Tomas Fleischmann. Fleischmann entered free agency contemplating whether or not he would even receive a contact this season but was humbly surprised when Talon offered up a 4.5M for 4 years contract. Many looked at Talon as if he was crazy, especially considering Fleischmann’s history – never achieving over 51 points, and more importantly his injury prone history. Fleischmann never did play over 75 games in a season, including a minimal 45 games last season between the Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche.
But, to many surprise Fleischmann delivered, silencing his critics and proving just how smart of a man Dale Talon is. Flash has played in all 81 games so far this season, and has set a career high in both goals (27) and points (61). He has become a huge leader on this team, and plays hard night in and night out, striving every shift to help his team win.
So, as us Panther fans smile about finally making the postseason after 12 years, and getting the chance to play for Lord Stanley’s mug, we all need to appreciate just what Talon did. Realize the gambles of which he made in attempts to make this team better, and the surprises which our players provided night in and night out, stepping up their game this season to produce a winning team.
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