After five years of inept roster moves, failed head coaching hires, and falling just short, the Florida Panthers have clinched a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. With a 7-4 win against the Nashville Predators on Wednesday, April 27, the Panthers clinched a playoff spot during the regular season for the first time since 2015-16.
It’s different this time, too; this is arguably the deepest roster Florida has had in their franchise history, and they have the culture set in place to finally win. With Joel Quenneville and Bill Zito at the helm, South Florida finally has itself a winning hockey team.
This wasn’t just a singular effort. There have been a lot of key components to the Panthers’ roster that have gotten them to this point. Here are just a few of those key components that brought Florida to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Panthers have arguably as good of a one-two punch as any team in the NHL, featuring superstar duo Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. Florida’s duo ranks fourth in the league for combined points between two teammates with 109, only trailing Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen, Toronto’s Mitchell Marner and Auston Matthews, and of course, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
The crazy thing about this duo is that they are the only one of the top four that usually plays on separate lines, meaning the points have been mostly spread out. Huberdeau’s most frequent linemates are Patric Hornqvist and Alex Wennberg, although newly acquired Sam Bennett has been his new battery mate since his arrival, while Barkov is typically alongside Anthony Duclair and Carter Verhaeghe.
The spreading of the wealth on the offensive side of the ice has worked wonders for the Panthers offensively. They currently rank fifth in the league in goals for (165) and first in shots on goal per game (34.6).
Florida has been able to suffocate opponents offensively because of the sheer amount of depth on their team, and a lot of it has to do with their decision to split up Barkov and Huberdeau. Opposing teams can’t simply throw out their top defense pairing for one line; they’re going to have to deal with two first-line worthy units.
Their bottom six isn’t something to scoff at either, especially given the additions of Bennett and Nikita Gusev at the trade deadline. When at full strength, the Panthers would, in theory, have a third line full of top-six worthy players, with noted perennial 15-20 goal scorer Frank Vatrano also on that line, by the way.
Goaltending, and a Lot of It…
A huge issue for a lot of teams on the outside looking in has been a failure to find a reliable goaltender, but Florida is on the opposite end of the spectrum. With Sergei Bobrovsky, Chris Driedger, and now Spencer Knight in the fold, the Panthers now have three quality goaltenders.
While Bobrovsky and his 7-year, $70 million contract make him Florida’s starter for the foreseeable future, it has actually been Driedger who has stolen the show and become their most reliable option. While Bobrovsky has a record of 17-8-2 with a .905 save percentage (SV%) and a 2.94 goals against average (GAA) in 28 starts, Driedger has been having a much better season.
In 22 starts, Driedger has a record of 13-6-3 with a .923 SV% and a 2.17 GAA. The unrestricted free agent proved himself to be a worthy goaltender at the NHL level and has been a huge anchor for the Panthers when Bobrovsky fell inconsistent, but Florida isn’t done yet.
After inking his entry-level deal in March, Knight has emerged as yet another quality goaltender for the Panthers. In two appearances, including a clutch performance in the game that clinched Florida their playoff spot, Knight boasts a record of 2-0-0 with a .977 SV% and a 0.75 GAA. For a 20-year-old, those numbers are insane for the start of a career, and it’s likely that he gets more opportunities.
Driedger is currently out with a lower-body injury until at least the end of Florida’s road trip, which wraps up in Chicago on May 1, so perhaps Knight gets more reps. Either way, the Panthers have a gold mine in the crease.
Culture and Resilience
If there is one thing that this Panthers team has proven, it’s that they’ve been able to work through adversity and have a winning culture. The team has proven it with this next-man-up mentality, as they keep pushing through the massive injury bug they have faced.
For the past month, the Panthers have been without their best defenseman, Aaron Ekblad. Since then, the team has not lost one step, going 9-5-1 in April, which is good for the 7th-best record in the league in that span. But the injuries haven’t even stopped at Ekblad.
Verhaeghe is currently week-to-week with an upper-body injury, and Duclair missed multiple games in April as well with an upper-body injury of his own. When one guy goes down, the next guy steps up, and it has a lot to do with the winning culture that Zito and Quenneville provide.
The players have bought into the culture that the front office has instilled in this team, and it shows on the ice and in the locker room.
“You could just tell in training camp,” Huberdeau said to the media following the Panthers’ win over Nashville. “We were having fun and ready to go. We didn’t know what was going to happen in the season, but right from the get-go we started playing well and playing the right way. That’s our team and our identity. We were trying to find the identity of our team, and we found it this year.”
Zito brought in the right players to fit that mold of playing for each other and fitting that identity, while Quenneville instilled that winning culture that won the Chicago Blackhawks three Stanley Cups during his tenure there.
With those components in mind, it’s easy to see how Florida found themselves in the playoffs, and maybe, just maybe, they have a good shot at winning their first Stanley Cup.
Colby Guy is a writer for the Florida Panthers department here at THW. He’s a senior at Florida Atlantic University and currently serves as a social media manager and photographer for FAU Owls Nest. Previously, Colby has written for FanSided as a New York Islanders, Florida Panthers, and Nashville Predators writer. He also served as Editor-In-Chief for FAU’s University Press.