The Florida Panthers and their fans are enjoying a recent sea of success after so many years wandering the NHL desert. With only four playoff appearances to the franchise's name it is easy for many to forget the Cats have had some incredibly talented players pass through the halls of the BB&T Center and Miami Arena before it. With the major NHL All-Star festivities beginning in Nashville today, LBC takes a look at the history of Florida's representatives in the mid-winter classic.
The expansion Panthers of 1993-94 definitely embodied a franchise hitting the ground running. The league's foray into Miami was in the midst of a playoff push which is unheard of for a first-year franchise in any sport due in large part to John Vanbiesbrouck, who used the opportunity to take his game to another level. "Beezer" was Florida's first selection (1st overall) in the 1993 Expansion Draft and his subsequent performance over the next few seasons in Miami were immensely important for hockey in South Florida. Some would argue that Vanbiesbrouck may be the most important player in franchise history - certainly until Roberto Luongo arrived.
Center Bob Kudelski would also head to Manhattan for the Cats. A mid-season acquisition meant to boost the Panthers' offense in their inaugural campaign's playoff prowl, Kudelski was enjoying a career year at the time with the mightily struggling Ottawa Senators and would earn his All-Star spot by filling in for injured superstar Mario Lemieux.
The All-Star festivities also acted as a homecoming for Vanbiesbrouck and as a foreshadowing of Stanley Cup finalists to come. The Beezer had been drafted by the New York Rangers and played for them his entire career before being sent to the Vancouver Canucks in the 1993 off-season only to serve as bait for the '93 Expansion Draft (A side note: ironically or not, the Rangers and Canucks, utilizing Mike Richter and Kirk McLean respectively, would compete in the 1994 Stanley Cup final less than 12 months later). JB won the Goaltenders Competition alongside Montreal Canadiens legend Patrick Roy; the two would later lock horns soon after in the 1996 Stanley Cup Final.
As for the game itself, it ended up being a 9-8 victory for the East with the win credited to Vanbiesbrouck. Kudelski would earn a game-tying goal in the 3rd period to make the score 8-8.
The 1994 half-season NHL lockout would force the 1995 NHL All-Star Game to be cancelled, however the event would return in 1996 and with it came the phenomenon that was the 1995-96 Florida Panthers. John Vanbiesbrouck remained strong as ever and was joined by teammate Scott Mellanby. Mellanby scored the first goal in Panthers history and he was riding the wave he helped create after scoring two goals and killing a rat on opening night of the 1996-96 season vs. Calgary. Florida's first-year head coach, Doug MacLean, had his Panthers leading the Atlantic division at the halfway mark making him bench boss of the Eastern Conference.
The East bested the West in Boston to the tune of a 5-4 score.
Vanbiesbrouck would make it to a third consecutive All-Star Game in 1997 while coach MacLean headed the East once again as Florida had made their mark halfway through the 1996-97 season as the defending Eastern Conference champion. Heavily underrated defenseman Robert Svehla would become the first blueliner in Panthers history to be selected to an All-Star team. Vanbiesbrouck won the Goaltenders Competition again but the victory was his alone this time out.
With Vanbiesbrouck as the starting goalie, the East won again by a score of 11-7. Svehla earned a point on the assist of Mario Lemieux's second goal of the game.
The 1997-98 and '98-99 seasons saw the Florida Panthers hit their first rough patch as many of the players which made up the core of the inaugural year and magical 1996 Eastern Conference championship squad had parted ways. However, 1999-00 arrived and the Panthers were seemingly back in business with three new All-Stars in tow. Ray Whitney was enjoying a third solid season with Florida and made it onto Team North America, while fellow forward Viktor Kozlov would represent the World All-Stars; Pavel Bure squeezed onto that team as well. Kozlov would win the Accuracy Shooting competition and share the victory with Boston's Ray Bourque.
Bure was destroying club scoring records in his first full season in Sunrise and was well on his way to becoming the first-ever winner of the Maurice Richard Trophy as the league's goal scoring leader.
The game would see the World take it to the North Americans 9-4. Whitney would earn a goal and an assist for NA. Kozlov would earn three assists, two of which were instrumental on Bure's three goals. Bure would also add an assist and was named the All-Star MVP.
The 2001 classic would again see superstar Pavel Bure - on a path to another Richard Trophy - represent Florida, just as the Panthers were about to transition from what almost was an NHL paradise to a hockey wasteland for the next decade. Bure would only register one point (an assist) in the game as the World lost to North America 14-12.
Although the Panthers were in the midst of the worst regular season in franchise history (82 games points-wise) they still had one name deemed worthy of joining the World Stars in Hollywood. Defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh was a key member of the Avs' squad which slayed Florida way back in 1996. He was dealt to Sunrise in midseason by Carolina but would be selected to the All-Star team afterward making him a representative for the Panthers. A similar situation would make for some controversy the following season.
The NHL had their first YoungStars game in which the NHL pitted their brightest hopefuls against one another. In net for North America was the Cats' own Roberto Luongo.
The World defeated North America 8-5 with Ozolinsh earning a point on an assist.
The 2003 All-Star Game was locally special as the Panthers would host the weekend at what was known then as the Office Depot Center. However, the game would not be without controversy and embarrassment for Florida which was a sign that things were turning very sour for hockey in South Florida. Florida was blessed with two All-Star selections for their big celebration in Sunrise. Sandis Ozolinsh would once more represent Florida for the World Team, joined by a youngster you may be familiar with (more on him in a moment).
Several days before the celebration Ozolinsh was traded to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim; he would remain an All-Star but the league deemed he would play in the Skills Competition in a Panthers jersey. Ozolinsh sensed the awkwardness that would ensue and refused to take part in the competition stating that it would not feel right wearing another team's jersey.
On the bright side was a new face for the Panthers at the game, Olli Jokinen. Now Florida's all-time leader in goals and points, 2002-03 would be Jokinen's breakout year as he established himself as the Cats' go-to option for offense in his time in Florida.
The All-Star festivities had further feline flair as the YoungStars game saw Panthers center Stephen Weiss score a goal and an assist for the East YoungStars. The All-Star Game returned to an East vs. West format and would end with a victory for the West, 6-5 in overtime; Jokinen scored a goal while dishing out 3 assists for four points on the night.
Florida would only send one representative to the State of Hockey for All-Star Game in '04 but it was a doozy of a selection in Roberto Luongo, earning his first career selection. Lu was on fire that season and would end up earning a Vezina nomination as he set the NHL single season record for shots faced and saves in a regular season. Luongo would also have a career best .931 save percentage and was clearly the only person that kept the Panthers from being the worst team in the league as they finished 16 points out of a playoff spot. Florida won 28 games that season and Luongo earned an incredible 25 of those victories.
Lu made it known that he was one of the NHL's elite goalies as he won the Goaltenders Competition. The NHL All-Star Game finished with a win for the East, 6-4.
The 2005 All-Star Game was cancelled due to the 2004-05 NHL Lockout and the 2006 game was not held as the NHL players participated instead at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy. The 2007 game in Texas saw blueliner Jay Bouwmeester make his first-ever appearance as an All-Star. Bouwmeester was having a solid season for a defenseman and played all 82 games for the Panthers in 2006-07. The West defeated the East, 12-9, but Bouwmeester contributed with an assist.
The departure of Luongo via trade to Vancouver during the summer of '06 leaves a sour taste in Panthers fans' mouths as it was another sign of the scorched-earth situation in South Florida. Yet once again the Cats found a way to import a goaltending gem, this time in the form of Tomas Vokoun who played well enough to head to the ATL for the ASG. The East defeated the West, 8-7.
Bouwmeester would go to the All-Star Game once more for Florida, which was in a rare playoff push in 2008-09. Michael Frolik, a rookie forward now with Calgary, would represent the Cats in what would be the final YoungStars competition.
The game would become another win for the East, 12-11 ending in a shootout. Bouwmeester made more of an impact on the score sheet as he had a goal and two assists.
The 2009-10 season saw no All-Star Game due to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. The 2010-11 season had no representation from Florida for the All-Star Game for the first time since 1998-99. Brian Campbell would head to Ottawa for the ASG in 2011-12 in a surprise season for the Florida Panthers, who took advantage of an under-performing Southeast Division and later winning their only Southeast title. Campbell played every game that year and was instrumental in providing opportunities for an otherwise weak offense in Sunrise.
The All-Star format had changed in 2011 to have two captains select from the pool of All-Stars to create the two teams facing off in the All-Star Game. Brian Campbell was chosen by Boston's Zdeno Chara; "Soup" participated in the Fastest Skater Competition but Team Chara lost that event to Team Alfredsson.
The game itself saw Team Chara defeat Team Alfredsson 12-9. Campbell would earn a point on an assist.
The 2013 All-Star Game would not be played due to the (just-ended) '13 lockout and the 2014 season saw the NHL players head to Sochi, Russia for the Olympics. Enter 2015 and the Panthers had a couple of representatives sent to Ohio's capital. Roberto Luongo returned to Florida mid-season in 2014 to solidify the defense as their young core needed a true number one goaltender to clean up their defensive mistakes. Florida's unique mix of the youngest and oldest players in the league saw them in the midst of a playoff chase in 2014-15.
Aaron Ekblad, 2014's first overall draft selection and eventual Calder Trophy winner, made his impact quickly as he was in the middle of a historic season, chasing the record for most points by a rookie defenseman. Ekblad was chosen to take part in the SuperSkills competition as NHL rookies could be part of the events even if not on the All-Star roster. An injury to Erik Johnson of the Colorado Avalanche opened an opportunity and Ekblad would be promoted to the big game. Ek joined Luongo as part of Team Toews.
Luongo would be in net for parts of the shootout competition and although the Goaltenders Competition had been discontinued for years, he showed why he won the last two.
Luongo would start the All-Star Game for Team Toews and played out the first period. Ekblad would show his prowess for smartly moving the puck and nabbed four assists in a 17-12 win for Team Toews over Team Foligno.
Now to the present and the Florida Panthers have invaded the Music City with four representatives to the All-Star Game. The format has changed once more as the implementation of 3-on-3 overtime has inspired the NHL to make the game a tournament of four teams representing each division. Fans voted on their choice for captains of each division and the Cats' own Jaromir Jagr will lead the Atlantic (despite his own understandable pleas - at nearly 44 years old - to the contrary).
Fans-I appreciate your votes for All-Star game, but 3 on 3 would kill me,and i don't want to die yet:)Thank you for understanding. Too old:)— Jaromir Jagr (@68Jagr) December 2, 2015
Ekblad did not need an injured veteran to make the All-Star squad this time around. Ek is already making it known that he is one of the best defensemen in the NHL and his value to the Panthers is immeasurable - witness the recent four-game losing streak; all matches were minus The Ek. Florida is guaranteed at least one All-Star representative for the next decade-plus (and we haven't even mentioned Aleksander Barkov).
Gerard Gallant marks a return for a Panthers head coach to the game since the "glory years" at Miami Arena. Though he never secured an ASG invite as a player, his effort behind the bench has the Cats atop the Atlantic, thus helming the division's 2016 entry.
The Skills Competition will see Aaron Ekblad in the Hardest Shot competition and the Skills Challenge Relay; Jaromir Jagr will be a passer in the Accuracy Shot competition along with being a one-time passer in the Relay; and both Jagr and Ekblad will join Roberto Luongo in the Shootout competition.
The All-Star tournament on Sunday will see the Atlantic Division facing off against the Metropolitan Division for the opportunity to represent the Eastern Conference in the final round against the West.
Festivities in Nashville are ongoing, and we'd suggest checking out our buddies at On The Forecheck for a little local flavor from the host city. And do give us a peek while we discuss the Skillz Komp tonight (NBCSN) and All-Star Game itself tomorrow in Open Threads at 6:30 & 4:30 pm, respectively.
(Why is Jagr hesitant to play?)