It’s been close to a quarter of a century since the Florida Panthers have won an NHL playoff series and it’s a drought the club is anxious to put a halt in 2020/21. The franchise has made several on and off-ice moves during the current offseason to address the streak of futility but only time will tell how successful they were.
To start with, longtime general manager Dale Tallon was released on September 2nd and replaced with Bill Zito who formerly worked with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The club then made NHL history by hiring 39-year-old Brett Peterson as the league’s first African-American assistant general manager and also named former Ulf Samuelsson as an assistant coach.
The 56-year-old Samuelsson of Sweden has 15 years of coaching experience in the AHL, NHL and in his homeland and won Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins as a player in 1990/91 and 1991/92. He also holds the record for most NHL penalty minutes by a Swedish-born player with 2,453.
As well as hiring Peterson and Samuelsson, new GM Zito has brought in several players in hopes of changing the team’s attitude and vibe for the upcoming season. The biggest move was acquiring two-time Stanley Cup-winning forward Patric Hornqvist from the Pittsburgh Penguins in exchange for rearguard Mike Matheson and forward Colton Sceviour.
Hornqvist helped the Penguins win the Cup in 2015/16 and 2016/17 and has racked up 238 goals and 242 assists for 480 points in his NHL career so far in 770 regular-season contests with Pittsburgh and the Nashville Predators. He’s also added 25 goals and 21 helpers for 46 points in 90 playoff outings. In addition, the Panthers signed forward Alexander Wennberg to a one-year deal worth $2.25 million after his contract was bought out by Columbus.
Unrestricted forward Carter Verhaeghe was signed for two years at $2 million after winning the Stanley Cup with Tampa this year and rugged defenceman Radko Gudas inked a three-year deal worth $7.5 million after leaving the Washington Capitals. Zito also signed Vinnie Hinostroza for a year at $1 million after being let go by the Arizona Coyotes.
However, the Panthers also lost quite a bit of offence in the offseason as the club didn’t re-sign Mike Hoffman and fellow free-agent forward Evgenii Dadonov jumped ship and signed with the Ottawa Senators for three years for $15 million. Hoffman led Florida with 29 goals in 69 outings last season while Dadonov chipped in with 25 goals and 22 assists for 47 points in 69 games.
Hornqvist will be depended on to replace some of the void left by Hoffman and Dadanov’s departures and the team will also need big seasons from Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov who posted 78 and 62 points respectively last season. Zito told the media he is looking for his players to compete on a nightly basis and wants them to approach their jobs in a professional and business-like manner. Most of all, he claimed he wants players on the squad that hate to lose and are hard to play against.
Most Panthers’ fans believed the club had turned the corner last year when three-time Stanley Cup-winner Joel Quenneville took over as head coach and unrestricted free agent goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky was signed to a seven-year deal from Columbus. Things didn’t really improve too much though as the team went 35-26-8 for a points percentage of .565 during the regular season. They managed to make the postseason but were ousted in five games by the New York Islanders in the best-of-five qualifying round.
Bobrovsky struggled in net during his first campaign with the Panthers by posting a 23-19-6 record with a 90.0 save percentage and a goals-against average of 3.23 in 50 games. This is one of the reasons Zito brought in the physical Gudas to help strengthen the blue line. Gudas posted just 15 points in 63 games in 2019/20 but dished out 124 hits to rank 12th among rearguards in the league.
Quenneville believes the club is on the right track by bringing in hard-working, competitive players and feels the roster is filled with players who will stand up for one another. He added that he thinks they’ll help produce a winning environment but admitted the expectations will be raised as well next season.
In the meantime, Florida fans will continue to hope that the next time the team wins a playoff set it will be a good omen since the last time they took won a series they also won the Stanley Cup.