It’s been a while since we’ve had hockey. It has been a while since we have had Florida Panthers hockey. It’s been a while since I have written about Panthers hockey.
But after the year 2020 became one many of us would like to forget, especially the Florida Panthers, we all now turn towards 2021 as the National Hockey League season is upon us come January 13.
Many, including myself, have lost track of what has happened in the NHL’s offseason and what our beloved Cats have done to rectify the poor showing they had in 2020 while at the NHL’s Toronto bubble.
Let’s see what big moments happened during the Cats’ offseason. Buckle up, it’s a crash course to get me and you reacquainted with the Florida Panthers.
After the New York Islanders ousted the Panthers from the bubble in the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, the Cats chose to end their decade-long relationship with Dale Tallon. Tallon came to Florida with a “Blueprint” to institute changes to Florida’s entire hockey operations in order to replicate the success he had in turning the Chicago Blackhawks from a laughingstock to the 2010 Stanley Cup champions.
Unfortunately, the Gatos never came close to achieving that level of success. In relative terms, Tallon did succeed in making his decade with the Panthers better than the prior 10 years in team history as evidenced by their surprise Southeast Division title in 2012 and the team’s best-ever regular season performance in 2016 yielding them the Atlantic Division title. However, both playoff appearances ended in the first round with Florida making some of the poorest draft and roster choices in the NHL after 2016 (Vegas expansion draft comes to mind).
It was time. Tallon did do good things in Florida, but the Panthers need better than good at this point.
The lottery ball did not bounce the Panthers’ way as the New York Rangers won the draft lottery.
Defenseman signed to a two-way deal after making an appearance with Florida in the bubble.
After an extensive search the Florida Panthers named Columbus Blue Jackets vice president of hockey operations Bill Zito as their next general manager effectively starting a new era of Panthers hockey.
Zito, a lifelong hockey man and former attorney, cut his teeth with Columbus by moving up their ranks helming their AHL roster in Cleveland from 2013-2015 before becoming VP of hockey ops in Columbus.
The Jackets in that timeframe have made the playoffs four times, although only making it out of the first round once, and losing to the eventual Eastern Conference champion each time.
Florida and the Springfield Thunderbirds part ways after five seasons (including the final one when the AHL franchise was the Portland Pirates). Florida found a new partner closer south in the Charlotte Checkers, the defending Calder Cup champion and prior decade-long affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes.
The Checkers would later sign two Florida 2019 draft picks to entry level AHL contracts.
Bill Zito added some well-seasoned senior advisors to his staff, an assistant, a vice president of player personnel and development, and a scout. Florida also parted ways with assistant coaches at the NHL and AHL level.
Later on Ulf Samuelsson came on board.
Shane Churla comes in from Montreal to be the new Director of Amateur Scouting.
Bill Zito’s first major trade of his tenure is one that Florida fans have been loudly asking for for a while.
Colton Sceviour was part of the wave of heavily analytics-influenced moves that the Panthers made following their 2016 division title season that led to no playoff appearances. Sceviour himself was a serviceable winger in his time with Florida.
The same cannot be said about Mike Matheson’s development as a defenseman. After showing some early promise in his rookie season, Dale Tallon rewarded Matheson with a $39 million dollar contract extension that quickly became a bad idea once everyone including Matheson realized the expectations he had to live up to.
Zito got rid of Matheson a season before his contract activated a modified no-trade clause before 2021-22.
Winger Patric Hornqvist comes back with a couple Stanley Cup rings in tow. He’s older but still put up good numbers in the shortened 2019-20 season.
Zito dealt away another defenseman this time being Josh Brown who had spent two seasons in Sunrise for the 95th overall pick from the Senators.
Panthers at the NHL Draft
The Gatos added nine prospects in Bill Zito’s first draft as the big man in charge. Finnish forward Anton Lundell was their first round pick and Florida hopes he blossoms into yet another offensive juggernaut from Finland.
The other eight picks saw Florida add four forwards, three defensemen, and a goalie.
Zito begins trying to fix the Panthers’ defensive woes by trading a minor league forward for Markus Nutivaara of Zito’s old Blue Jackets. The Finnish defenseman was a popular locker room presence in Ohio and should serve as a useful bottom pair guy.
2020 Free Agency
Bill Zito already had his work cut out for him when he took over the job to fix the Panthers and free agency would allow him to begin finding pieces to begin the repair.
Gudas proves that Zito is very serious about fixing Florida’s fractured defense. Gudas is tough and has a history of going overboard with that toughness. But the Panthers, who are often seen as a pushover in the league, wanted to ensure that notion would begin to change.
Adding some center depth is Verhaege, fresh off a Stanley Cup championship with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2020. The Cats hope that Verhaeghe can add depth scoring after leading the AHL in scoring in 2019.
Duclair had a career-year in 2020, making his first NHL All-Star Game, and will be expected to produce in Florida’s top-six.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NHL, expecting a shortened season with a late 2020-21 season start date, cancels the All-Star Weekend which was set to be held at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. Florida will likely be awarded the game again come a return to normalcy.
The Cats come to terms with their defenseman who will stay in Sunrise for another three years. Weegar had a career year in 2020 and will help shore up Florida’s defense as he has since coming up in 2016.
In an effort to bring some flair to the NHL, Adidas created the Reverse Retro line of uniforms to bring modern twists to old classics. The Panthers, as expected, harkened back to 1996 with their uniforms featuring palette swaps to their stripes on a navy base with the original Leaping Cat logo and Stick & Tree logos making their return.
Florida decided to stay within the Carolinas and affiliated with an ECHL team for the first time since 2015. An important move if the Panthers want to truly improve their player development program.
The Cats young goalie will continue honing his craft with Florida.
Hockey goaltender is one of the most important positions in all of sports. The Panthers, after a rough 2019-20 season, have decided to create a team to ensure that pucks are not hitting their mesh at alarming rates.
Headed by future Hall of Famer Roberto Luongo, Florida hopes this will benefit their young goalies like Spencer Knight and Sam Montembeault or anyone else who will eventually replace Sergei Bobrovsky.
The Panthers start their season on January 14 against the Dallas Stars. And now you and I are all caught up and ready for the puck to drop.