The Florida Panthers are currently leading the Atlantic Division. I don’t know how many people predicted they’d be in this position, but they’ve been a great story all season, between the legendary Jaromir Jagr and the coming of age of their young players. The Panthers have made the playoffs just four times in their franchise history (1993 to now), which is pretty crazy when you think of it. (For the Oiler fans reading this, it might make you a little more appreciative of your team, despite the recent pain). They last made the postseason in the 2011-12 season while they part of the worst division in hockey. It has truly felt like a never-ending rebuild in Florida, and it’s almost hard to take them seriously this season. They’re one of those teams you can’t trust, because they’re so historically bad you’re just waiting for the wheels to fall off.
But the Panthers have been gathering some cornerstone pieces, and it’s finally starting to pay off. Stockpiling prospects is probably the most common way to rebuild, but it’s certainly no guarantee for success. Rebuilding is all about drafting the right players, and finding the right guys to surround them with. Panthers GM Dale Tallon has made some bad decisions (Dave Bolland), but he’s also made a lot of good ones, and it’s seems as though the patience has been worth it. Granted, it may be easier to have a bad team in a place like Florida, where the fans aren’t exactly rabid and the media pressure isn’t really a factor. (It makes you wonder if management regimes in hockey-mad cities feel like there’s a gun pointed at their heads and they need to try to accelerate the rebuild to get results and keep their jobs).
How were the Panthers built
To me, every championship team must have a top-notch centerman, and a number one defenceman. Having a superstar goalie is important too, but you can have a team that’s so deep and so stacked that all you need is a goalie who can make the key saves at the right time. A star goalie can carry you, there’s no doubt, but it’s the center-ice position and the blueline that’s make or break. In 2013, the Panthers selected centerman Aleksander Barkov second overall. In 2014, they had the privilege of choosing defenceman Aaron Ekblad at first overall. Those two guys are excellent pieces to build a team around. But they’ve made a lot of other key selections in recent drafts as well.
- Jonathan Huberdeau, Left Wing (2011, 3rd overall)
- Erik Gudbranson, Defence (2010, 3rd overall)
- Dmitry Kulikov, Defence (2009, 14th overall)
- Vincent Trocheck, Center (2011, 64th overall)
- Alex Petrovic, Defence (2010, 36th overall)
The Panthers have also made some key trades and free agent decisions, particularly in 2014, to set them up for success this season.
- Roberto Luongo, Goalie (Trade, 2014)
- Jaromir Jagr, Right wing (Trade, 2015)
- Brian Campbell, Defence (Trade, 2011)
- Willie Mitchell, Defence (FA, 2014)
- Brandon Pirri, Center (Trade, 2014)
- Derek MacKenzie, Center (FA, 2014)
Are the Panthers contenders?
So what exactly makes the Panthers different from the Oilers? Because while they sit in first place as we speak, Edmonton is again challenging for the draft lottery. Since the lock-out (and introduction of the salary cap) in 2005, these two teams have shared quite a bit in common. Both have had just one playoff appearance, and drafted in the top-3 multiple times. Both teams have gone through their share of head coaches (5 for the Panthers, 7 for the Oilers), and both have changed General Managers.
I have spent many an article going through the reasons for the Oilers struggles, and it entails a lot of bad scouting, failed personnel decisions, the wrong management, an inconsistent environment and poor player development. But it’s not as if Florida has been the model franchise all these years. So why is it that they’ve been able to take a tangible step forward in the standings? I will say this. As much as they are fun to watch, I still don’t trust this team. I wonder how far they can go this season, and if they will contend again next year. But that’s because they’ve done nothing to prove they are a true contender in this league. For the time being at least, they are competitive, and you have to love the young players they’ve got.
Why not Edmonton?
So when will it be the Oilers turn? I like to believe that they finally have the right coach and GM in place, and that’s a big step to success. They also have a generational talent and top-flight centerman in Connor McDavid. Is it going to take an Aaron Ekblad to put them over a top? Do they need to add a Jaromir Jagr to be a mentor and be an example? I say yes to both, not specifically those players, but rather what they represent. The Oilers young players needed more veterans to insulate them during their development. They needed a guy who’s been there before to show them the ropes. (And no, Andrew Ference isn’t that guy).
They also need a true number one defenceman. The luck of the lottery balls didn’t fall their way when Aaron Ekblad was available. (They’d probably trade the first overall pick in 2012 for the first pick in 2014 if it were possible). But in order for the Oilers to secure that key piece, they’ll likely have to make some kind of trade. (Unless Darnell Nurse becomes the guy). Oiler fans should be happy with their core pieces, because they are just as good if not better than what the Panthers have (save for top-D). The Oilers aren’t going to be bad forever, despite how bleak it looks, because they really are building with some great players. But it’s going to take just a little bit more. And in order to follow in the Panthers footsteps, they have some crucial decisions to make, particularly in the upcoming months.