Before the NHL paused on March 12, the Florida Panthers were in a race to make their first playoff appearance in four years. Their last appearance was in 2015-16 when they finished first in the Atlantic Division but fell in six games to the New York Islanders in the opening round.
Last season, the Panthers finished in fifth place in the Atlantic, 12 points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. General manager Dale Tallon signed four free agents in the offseason and hired a new coach. One of the players he signed brought plenty of experience to a team that was in need of a boost, while Tallon also hired a future Hall of Fame coach who has won many Stanley Cups to help change the culture.
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As the NHL gets ready to begin training camp and start a new playoff format in the next couple of weeks, the Panthers will be part of the postseason field. Moves by Tallon have allowed Florida to be in the hunt for the Stanley Cup starting with play-in series against the New York Islanders.
Tallon Signs Bobrovsky
Last June, Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo announced that he was retiring. With that news, Tallon didn’t waste time finding his replacement. Sergei Bobrovsky was signed to a seven-year, $70 million contract in July after seven years with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Bobrovsky won 213 games with the Blue Jackets with a 2.41 goals-against average (GAA) and a .921 save percentage (SV%). He backboned one of the biggest playoff upsets last spring when Columbus took down the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in a four-game sweep in the first round. Bobrovsky allowed just seven goals to an explosive Lightning offense.
Tallon’s biggest free-agent splash was the 31-year-old Russian goalie. In 50 regular-season games this season, Bobrovsky went 23-19-6 with a 3.23 GAA and a .900 SV%. At the time of the pause, the Panthers had 13 games remaining and sat three points out of the final wild-card spot. Matched up against the Islanders in the qualifying round, if Bobrovsky can recapture his 2019 Playoff magic, the Panthers could be dangerous.
Panthers Hire Quenneville
The day after the 2018-19 season, Tallon fired head coach Bob Boughner after two underperforming seasons in Sunrise. He didn’t have to look far to find Boughner’s replacement when he hired the former Chicago Blackhawks coach.
Hiring Quenneville was a no-brainer. In 11-plus seasons with the Blackhawks, he won three Stanley Cup championships (2010, 2013 and 2015). With Quenneville’s history and experience, he has the Panthers back in the postseason in his first season at the helm.
Quenneville has implemented a winning culture after just 69 games. This season has seen Florida limit the turnovers in their own zone, as well be more offensively aggressive and take more chances. In years past, the Panthers have been hesitant to do that, but Quenneville has instilled a new attitude.
This season, Florida got as high as second place in the Atlantic Division standings behind the Boston Bruins, before hitting a tough stretch around mid-March before the hiatus due to the coronavirus. Quenneville got his 900th coaching victory with a November win over the New York Rangers and won his return to Chicago in January against the Blackhawks, who fired him last season after 15 games.
Two Key Additions to the Franchise
Columbus and Chicago’s losses have been Florida’s gain. When the Panthers gets ready to face the Islanders in the best-of-five series next month, they have an experienced goalie who is capable of stealing a series, along with a champion head coach. If anyone is capable of getting a team ready to compete for the sport’s biggest prize after a four and a half month layoff, it’s Quenneville. The Panthers are a team worth keeping an eye.
Scott Roche covers the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. A frequent user of the Oxford comma, Scott has been a sports writer for 25 years for different sites and daily newspapers. Writing started out as a hobby, but it has become a passion for Scott over the years.