SUNRISE, Fla. — It was April 8, the first Monday after the NHL regular season. As 16 teams were getting ready for the playoffs, the Florida Panthers — as usual — were getting ready to begin an off-season. And as workers were smashing the team’s home ice to get the arena floor ready for summer, players were gathered in a big conference room.
They were listening to Joel Quenneville speak as Florida’s coach for the first time.
His message could not have been clearer: Going forward, things must be different.
“I want every one of you guys to remember where you’re at right now and remember the feeling that you have today,” Quenneville said. “Next year, we want to be coming off the ice right now with our skates on and preparing for our first-round opponent.”
Playoffs or Bust
It is a most interesting marriage — a team that hardly ever goes to the playoffs, and a coach who hardly ever misses them. Quenneville has won three Stanley Cups as a coach, his 890 wins are second-most in NHL history and he’s inheriting a Florida core that has seen its potential touted for years but still has yet to contend for a title.
“He’s energetic, easy to talk to and he means business,” Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck said. “He came in, is setting a precedent early and he’s getting the guys’ attention — which is great.”
Quenneville’s hiring in Florida reunited him with Panthers general manager Dale Tallon. Together, they put together the bulk of a team that would win three Stanley Cups in Chicago. Tallon wasn’t around for those hoistings after being let go by the Blackhawks, though Quenneville insists he should be considered a massive part of those titles.
In Florida, they’re looking to rekindle that magic and they have one of the NHL’s best top lines to lead the way in Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Evgenii Dadonov.
“It’s a special line,” Quenneville said. “They do a lot of things well together. They know where each other are around the ice. Their patience and play-recognition is high-end. They had such a strong year together and did some good things on the power play as well. So it works.”
Quenneville’s hiring was just one of many big moves by the Panthers in the off-season — with the biggest player splash being the signing of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who’ll replace the now-retired Roberto Luongo as Florida’s No. 1 netminder.
Tallon said he thinks Bobrovsky is the best goalie in the game.
“We’re happy to have him,” Quenneville said.
Here’s what to know about the 2019-20 Florida Panthers:
Coach Joel Quenneville, G Sergei Bobrovsky, D Anton Stralman, F Noel Acciari, F Brett Connolly.
G Roberto Luongo (retired), G James Reimer (traded to Carolina), coach Bob Boughner (fired after two seasons).
The hope for change hinges mainly on Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner who signed a seven-year, $70 million deal and will carry the load in net. Florida’s top six scorers last season — Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, Keith Yandle and Frank Vatrano — all set career-highs for points, and it still wasn’t enough for a post-season berth. The Panthers will need their offence, and perhaps even more.
The first 20 games might tell the story. Over the last 19 years, the Panthers have averaged only 17 standings points in the first 20 games — meaning they almost always fall back in the chase for playoff positioning early, and hardly ever recover. This year, 13 of Florida’s first 20 games are against teams that are coming off trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs. Survive those, and the Panthers could be off and running.
The Panthers went out and got who they consider the best coach in Quenneville, who they consider the best goalie in Bobrovsky, added more scoring and figure that they shored up a defence that was too porous too often last season. No more excuses. Not only will Florida get to the post-season for just the third time in the last 19 seasons, the Panthers will actually win a series for the first time since 1996.
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Tim Reynolds, The Associated Press