Whether you were a Miami Heat or basketball fan or indifferent, it was difficult to avoid the news that Dwyane Wade decided to leave to play for the Chicago Bulls after spending his first thirteen years with the Heat. The South Florida sports landscape was changed so much because of his presence as the Miami Heat actually did what many people thought was impossible, replace the Miami Dolphins as the pro sports team that was king of South Florida.
For my generation, those still in their twenties, the Heat were the stars and darlings of the region. I am not infatuated with the Dolphins' back-to-back Super Bowls including the perfect season because I was not around for them and they happened more than forty years ago. The Marlins two championships were fleeting and soul-crushing once the players were disbanded shortly afterward. And the Florida Panthers have mired in the muck for two decades with the brightest moment being a Stanley Cup run that ended in failure after four games.
Meanwhile , the Heat have represented what a model sports organization is. An owner who is willing to be involved, but also willing to let the most qualified people make the right decisions for the betterment of the franchise. A team president who has a distinct plan in place to build a championship contending or competitive team most seasons rather than less. A front office and staff that understands the game, the marketing aspects of the game, and what an entertaining product is. A group of players that fans can identify with and attach to for years on end. And of those players, one who is the crown jewel of the organization, the one player that people across the country or world can instantly identify as the guy that represents that team alone or that region alone. This is something the Florida Panthers have tried to replicate and mold to fit the NHL.
From the the early 1980s until the end of the twentieth century, the face of South Florida sports was Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino. When Marino retired there was a massive void left in South Florida for the new face of the region's sports. Marino's last game was a 62-7 playoff shellacking by the hands of the Jacksonville Jaguars.
At that time in 2000, the Marlins were still reeling from the quick disbanding of their 1997 championship team with a group of young, talented players that struggled mightily for a franchise that was suddenly being placed in talks for league contraction.
The Miami Heat had a new downtown arena and a fantastic front office, led by Pat Riley, who had assembled a series of successful years from 1995-2001 anchored by star Alonzo Mourning but that group of teams failed often in the playoffs.
The Florida Panthers were in the midst of their most successful regular season ever to that point with Pavel Bure, an absolute superstar, dazzling crowds in the Panthers' still sparkling National Car Rental Center in Sunrise. From what it looked like, surely the new face of South Florida sports would arise from either Sunrise or downtown Miami. But that did not happen. And for the Florida Panthers it would have serious implications in the coming decade.
Fast forward to June 26, 2003 when the Miami Heat selected Dwyane Wade with the fifth overall pick in the NBA Draft. No one would have any idea that this would usher in a new era for South Florida sports that would see the Heat gain immense success while the rest of the pro teams suffered in mediocrity or worse. And there was still no face for South Florida sports at that time. What happened in between that time for the Panthers?
The Panthers have only had two playoff appearances in the past 13 years. The team has changed ownership a few times in that time span. The management and team personnel was a revolving door that never seemed to end and never seemed to stabilize. Michael Yormark positioned the events other than hockey as the hot tickets for the building that also had a revolving door of names (National Car Rental, Office Depot, BankAtlantic, and BB&T).
For most of that time, until recently, most of South Florida had largely forgotten the Florida Panthers even existed. The Panthers of the new millennium endured 10 straights seasons of playoff-less hockey, the cancellation of the 2004-05 NHL season due to a lockout, and constant personnel turnover. A brief, surprise division championship in 2012 did much to restore faith in the team but was quickly dashed with the 2012-13 NHL lockout.
Throughout this constant losing there actually were players of note that played for the Panthers and the team had some pieces to put good teams together. Roberto Luongo, Olli Jokinen, Nathan Horton, David Booth, Stephen Weiss, Jay Bouwmeester, Tomas Vokoun, and many other players showcased tremendous talent in Sunrise. One can only look at the tragic finish in the 2008-09 season as the epitome of the Panthers of the early 2000s. Close but yet so far.
Dale Tallon's reconstruction of the Cats back into relevancy has been met with the ownership support to keep the Panthers' best players. The time is ripe for a Florida Panther to be the new face of South Florida sports. It will not be easy. The NBA is a league in which one breakout player can change a team's fortunes quickly as evidence by Wade. The Marlins currently have Giancarlo Stanton, the strongest player in baseball, and currently playing under the highest paid contract in baseball history, despite his numerous injuries. And any player who can turn the fortunes of the Miami Dolphins around will instantly become a local darling overnight.
The Panthers now have a young core of players who each in their own right can become the face of the team and maybe the face of South Florida sports. The team has 9 players signed through at least the 2021 season meaning fans will have a chance to invest and connect with these players for a long time.
So who would be the new face? Let's take a look at the youngest of the 9 players.
Reilly Smith is the only member of this young core that was not originally drafted by the Panthers. However, he is a product of a shrewd decision by the Panthers' brain trust headed by Dale Tallon. Jimmy Hayes, a big-bodied forward, had just come off the best season in his career and it left many people believing he would be in Panther red for quite a while. However, Hayes was traded away to Boston for Reilly Smith (and Marc Savard's contract) in the 2015 offseason.
Fans were shocked, but the fancy stats folks (which the Panthers seem to be hoarding lately) believed this was a better deal for the Cats. Reilly Smith had come up with the Dallas Stars to begin his career before being included as part of the blockbuster deal that dealt Tyler Seguin away from Boston to Dallas.
In Florida, Smith did not disappoint as he had one of his best seasons ever with the highlight being 25 goals scored. Smith also stepped up his game in the Cats' short 2016 playoff appearance with 4 goals and 4 assists in 6 games played. The Panthers rewarded Smith with a 5-year contract extension and an opportunity to be a candidate for the face of South Florida sports.
Aleksander Barkov was a huge question mark for many Cats fans when he was drafted in 2013 as the 2nd overall pick. The two most talked about young players at the time were Nathan MacKinnon, a Canadian who lit up the QMJHL, and Seth Jones, an American defenseman from Denver, CO, who was the son of a former NBA player and was showing great promise in the WHL. The Colorado Avalanche held the first-overall pick and chose MacKinnon over the native son. Many assumed Florida, at number 2, would take Jones but the Panthers instead chose Barkov out of the Finnish professional league.
Barkov was a big-bodied centerman that Tallon absolutely loves to stack his teams with. Barkov did not take long to show his potential as he performed well enough for Florida to be selected for the Finnish national team competing in the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Barkov suffered an injury cutting his Calder chances short.
Barkov's star really began to shine after the Panthers acquired Jaromir Jagr at the trading deadline in 2015. Jagr was the perfect teacher and was included in a line centered by Barkov. In 2015-16, the line combination of Barkov-Jagr-Huberdeau became Florida's definitive first line and Barkov had his best season of his brief career. Midway through the 2015-16 season, Florida rewarded Barkov with a contract extension showing that the franchise believes in Barkov's potential to be one of the NHL's best centermen.
Nick Bjugstad was one of the first players selected in the great hard reset Tallon initiated when he arrived in Sunrise in 2010. Bjugstad was only in high school when he was selected 19th overall in the 2010 NHL Draft but he was committed to play for his home state school, the University of Minnesota. Bjugstad joined the NHL ranks in 2013 and showed great promise in his first full season in 2013-14.
Amidst a career year in 2014-15, when he scored 24 goals, Bjugstad received a contract extension that will see him stay in Sunrise through 2020-21. Bjugstad has good speed for a player of his size, 6 foot, 6 inches, and is still learning to use his size to impose his will on opponents.
Big Nick has been unfortunate in that he has suffered from various injuries over the course of his short time in the NHL, but the Panthers are banking on him to breakout if he can string together a healthy season. Bjugstad is also a supremely nice person and is often seen at team events and doing publicity for the club.
Aaron Ekblad is already being primed as being "the guy" for the Florida Panthers. Ekblad is already gracing local magazine covers, has been selected to two all-star games, and won the Calder Trophy. The Panthers had only one choice when they won the NHL Draft Lottery in 2015 and that was to use the pick to select Ekblad. Defensemen like him do not come around very often and Ekblad is already playing at a veteran level.
With the early success Ekblad has created for himself and the Panthers, the franchise awarded him with a contract extension that sees him in a Florida uniform for at least the next 9 seasons. Ekblad has embraced South Florida and actually has a chance to thrive here. Many fans already believe he is a prime candidate to become the team captain, seeing as he roomed with previous captain WIllie Mitchell during his rookie season.
Maybe something better than a face of the region could come about from this. Maybe the Florida Panthers as a whole can become the pride of the region as the Miami Heat once were and the Dolphins before that. If anything, the team would prefer it that way, instead of having everyone pin all their hopes on one solitary player to carry everyone's hopes and expectations on their shoulders. The Panthers act as one unit.
Plus, the Panthers are projected to do great things according to advanced statisticians and old-school experts. The team has placed their expectations high as well and see anything short of the Stanley Cup as a disappointment. That's a way of thinking the Miami Heat have cultivated in downtown Miami over the years and it seems that the Cats have picked up the torch and will be running with it now for South Floridians.
One can say that the Blackhawks are Chicago's team with their recent run of success. The Red Wings are historically the best team in Detroit. And right now the Lightning have truly made Tampa into a hockey town. I, for one, would welcome our new Panther overlords.