Before the 2015 NHL season began, most hockey pundits predicted the Florida Panthers to merely compete for a playoff spot. Instead, they are fighting for the top spot in the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic division. As of February 19, 2016, the Panthers sit atop their division with 73 points, five more than the second place Boston Bruins. How did a team that has made the playoffs only twice since 2000 suddenly surge to the top of the standings?
The rise of the Florida Panthers began in 2010 when the team hired Dale Tallon as General Manager. Tallon had been instrumental in constructing the Chicago Blackhawks’ dynasty and was given the keys to rebuild the Panthers. Over the next few years, Tallon was able to infuse the team with new talent through the draft, trades and free agency. The team features players of all ages and backgrounds, but they have come together better than anyone could have expected.
The Cats are led by the ageless Jaromir Jagr. Still highly effective at age 44, he leads the team in goals and points. Jagr was acquired in February 2015 for two draft picks, and he has turned into a steal. Another veteran carrying the load for the squad is Jussi Jokinen. Signed as a free agent in 2014, the 32 year old is second on the team in assists and third in points.
While the team has its share of old timers, the roster is full of young talent drafted by the organization. The team currently has eight players drafted by Tallon, all under the age of 25, which are making a significant impact. Jonathan Huberdeau, the 3rd overall pick in 2011, is leading the team in assists and is second in points. Vincent Trochek, Aleksander Barkov and several other forwards have built the Panthers into a very balanced lineup. The last youngster to mention might very well be the best. Aaron Ekblad, the top pick in the 2014 draft, won the Calder Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year. The defenseman is not only strong in his own end of the rink, but also is a significant contributor on the offensive side of the ice.
The final component of this surprise team is the stellar goaltending of Roberto Luongo and Al Montoya. Luongo, one of the league leaders in save percentage, is in his second stint with the Panthers after a period in Vancouver. Tallon acquired Luongo in March 2014 via trade, and the goalie has been a revelation ever since. Montoya, Luongo’s backup, has posted an impressive 1.91 Goals Against Average so far this season and gives the team two solid goaltenders to rely on. The team is definitely greater than the sum of its parts and has a chance to surprise the hockey world this season.