After they were founded during the 1990s, the expectation was that the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers would become the marquee rivalry of the NHL’s Sunbelt expansion. While there were several teams added to bring in new audiences across the American South, Florida and Tampa Bay shared the Sunshine State, which would bring with it interstate competition that creates so many memorable sporting matchups.
Disappointingly, this rivalry never really developed as neither Florida nor Tampa Bay managed to be good at the same time. This meant that they rarely played meaningful games against each other, which gave their four to five matchups each year a stale taste instead of an exciting pop.
However, after nearly two decades of competition, the Sunshine State finally saw their NHL franchises meet each other in the postseason when they faced off in Round 1 of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs. This was an incredible matchup between two teams that really hated each other after facing off eight times throughout the historic 2020-21 season. While it ended with a six-game series victory by the Lightning, it felt like this was finally going to be the next great rivalry for the NHL.
This hype reached new levels in 2022 when the President Trophy-winning Panthers made it to the second round of the playoffs for the first time in 16 years to face off against the Lightning, who were the two-time defending Stanley Cup Champions. This was a match between two goliaths, who were expected to put together a series that would go down in the history books as one of the best in NHL history.
Dominant Lightning Victory Changed Panthers’ Future
Instead, the Lightning rolled through the Panthers, sweeping them out of the playoffs while only giving up three goals.
After this victory, the Panthers went into the 2022 offseason looking a bit disheveled. All of the regular-season success was meaningless when a team that went all-in at the trade deadline failed to make it past their cross-state rivals for the second-straight season. This was an incredible team on paper, but it also became clear that changes needed to be made.
It started behind the bench, where interim head coach Andrew Brunette was not offered the full-time position, despite being named a 2022 Jack Adams Award nominee. Instead, Florida hired former Winnipeg Jets skipper Paul Maurice to take over the mantle of head coach.
Next, they were forced to let go a number of their free agents, including deadline acquisitions Claude Giroux and Ben Chariot, along with breakout forward Mason Marchment. This is the nature of any great team in the cap era, but no franchise wants to see so much talent leave for nothing, especially when they traded prime picks for some of these players earlier in the year.
However, the biggest move was still to come, as the Panthers acquired Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames in a blockbuster trade for long-time franchise star Jonathan Huberdeau, MacKenzie Weegar, Cole Schwindt, and a protected 2025 first-round pick.
This deal felt unprecedented, as it completely reshaped the Panther’s core. Suddenly, Huberdeau was gone, who was one of the few Panthers players that Lightning fans feared for the better part of the decade, along with a solid top-four defenseman who was coming into his own. In return, they added a rising star, who is known for being one of the best power forwards in the league that you simply hate playing against.
Did the Panthers Get Better With Major Changes?
As someone who follows the Lightning, I have mixed feelings about all of this change for Florida. On one hand, you have to respect a team that is willing to make difficult decisions in order to improve a team that is ready to win now. The 2022 postseason was an unacceptable outcome, and Panthers’ general manager Bill Zito is showcasing that he will not tolerate unacceptable results.
On the other hand, these moves also feel like a bit of an overcorrection. Oftentimes, great teams will win the Presidents’ Trophy, get eliminated in disappointing fashion, then come back with many of the same players and win the Stanley Cup the following year.
Overall, when you look at the Panthers’ roster as they are constructed right now, you see a team that is clearly a playoff contender, but not a group you would expect to win the Presidents’ Trophy. However, this may be exactly what Zito was hoping for, as he isn’t looking to build a team that is going to find unabashed regular season success but still only make it to Round 2 of the postseason.
The Panthers featured one of the best offensive cores in the league, but once they met a defensively sound team like the Lightning over a full playoff series, this scoring dried up as they lost key battles on all ends of the ice. So, by adding a player like Tkachuk but giving up Hueberdeau and Weegar, the Panthers appear to be trading some of that raw scoring potential to build a core that will be harder to play against in the postseason.
Time will tell if this was the right choice, but overall, the Panthers are a team that no one will look forward to playing in the postseason, assuming they are still able to clear a spot in 2023. If they make their way in, they will be a team that I hope Tampa Bay avoids, as I doubt they will be eliminated in a four-game sweep again.