Just for fun, let’s take a team. Any team in the National Hockey League and completely dismember that team. After we clean house, let’s go out and sign, and trade for players that were really unwanted anywhere else and lets also bfing in a new coach. Now tell me, how well do you think that team will perform in that first season? What if I told you, that team would make the playoffs after not qualifying for 12 years? How about even win their division? You most likely wouldn’t believe it. And that’s exactly the type of answer I would expect. However, some teams like to build around other people’s doubt of not only the players, but also the coaches. What’s a great example I can use? , The Florida Panthers.
That’s right, you heard me correctly. The Florida Panthers, a team that everyone had given up on in the past decade. A team that saw upset after upset after upset. A team that saw 7 different head coaches come and go, only to be relieved of their duties because the team was unable to perform at a high level. A team that saw stars players such as Pavel Bure, Roberto Luongo, and Olli Jokinen traded away. After seeing fans leave the games early, or even seeing the fans not coming to support the team, the Panthers certainly didn’t have their best years from 2000-2011. Other than a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals during the 95-96 season, the team does not really have a storied history.
However that’s all in the past. Players such as Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, and Jose Theodore were among 11 players signed on July 1st 2011. That’s not all that was done on that day, former Panther Ed Jovanovski was also signed along with skaters such as Marcel Goc, Sean Bergenhiem, and Scottie Upshall were all brought together to help bring a tough and physical style of play to South Florida. Not only were players brought in, but rookie Erik Grudbranson and fellow youngster Dmitri Kulikov were given their chances and took full advantage of it.
When the season first started, second year Panther GM Dale Tallon knew that the team he put together had potential to make some noise in the season. With the new slogan “We See Red” fans and players alike were all excited and hyped up for the beginning of the season. Fans began getting into the games and with the new found energy in the arena, the team started the season off hot, showing that they this season would be different than all the others, scoring 14 goals in the first 4 games. With former Stanley Cup winners Kris Versteeg and newly acquired defensemen Brian Campbell leading the way, the Panthers came out ready to prove to everyone that they can play with the best of the teams throughout the league.
As the season progressed, the players continued to rack up points, and with the veterans putting in the role of leadership, the Panthers took the top spot in the Southeast Division, a division that has been dominated by teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Washington Capitals for the better part of the decade. With a new face atop of the division, the Panthers knew that they needed to keep up their play if they wanted to make the playoffs after a long nearly decade and a half drought.
Throughout the season, the vets definitely helped out the younger guys. The defense saw an extreme increase in productions from previous seasons. Erik Grudbranson has been compared to fellow lineman Ed Jovanovski due to his size and pure physical talent and build. As he continued learning from Jovanovski, they continued to play on the same defensive line with each other during the year. Grudbranson isn’t the only young defensemen who had been mentored by the older players. Veterans such as Mike Weaver and Brian Campbell continued to help out other defensemen, Jason Garrison and Dmitri Kulikov. With the younger defensemen learning the ins and outs of the game, the team saw a toughness that has been absent from previous seasons.
The defense isn’t the only part of the game that has had the veterans help out the younger guys. Despite our offense have experience, the least experienced players such as Jack Skille, Shawm Matthias, and Mike Santorelli gained a ton of experience just by watching players such as Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss contribute to the team offensively.
On Saturday April 7th 2012, all of the Panthers hard work finally paid off. All of the team’s blood, sweat, and tears that were put into the offseason workouts and regular season earned the Panthers a great reward. Their very first, division title. Now it’s the playoffs, the second season, the main stage, and the Panthers find themselves in unfamiliar territory, home ice advantage. The team will thrive if they can feed off the energy of the crowd as everyone in attendance waves their red rally towel, but also, if they feed off themselves. The team can do that though. This team has something that hasn’t been seen in South Florida hockey in years, balance. The defense both young and old all but their own bodies in harm’s way and our offense filled with finesse players such as Versteeg and Bergenheim have all the potential to be dangerous. Not only can the team score and play tough defense with the best of them, but they also have two goaltenders that are willing to do whatever it takes to ensure the team success in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It is no secret that this team has made it this far because of the veteran leadership and as the Cats now face the toughest challenge of the season, going to New Jersey to play their first away playoff game in over a decade, that leadership must show as they must help the younger players knock out those pre game butterflies and play like the championship team they can be. If the team continues to play the way they have been and the players can properly fill in their roles, the Panthers should not only be fine for the rest of the playoffs, but will also have a very very bright future for years to come.
Thanks for reading.
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Topics: Brian Campbell, Dmitri Kulikov, Ed Jovanovski, Erik Gudbranson, Florida Panthers, Jack Skille, Jose Theodore, Marcel Goc, Nhl Playoffs, Sean Bergenheim, Shawn Matthias, Tampa Bay Lightning, Tomas Fleischmann, Washington Capitals