If not now for the Florida Panthers, then when?
It feels like ages since the Panthers last made the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Really, it’s been four seasons. That team had it all en route to an Atlantic Division title. Jaromir Jagr led the Panthers in scoring, Sasha Barkov was a 20-year-old prodigy, and Gerard Gallant was the head coach long before the infamous cab photo surfaced the following season.
But firing Gallant, who would soon lead the Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, wasn’t the only bad move that sent Florida into a downward spiral — cue giving Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith to Vegas for basically nothing in the expansion draft.
Florida decided to go with the youth movement led by Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. The result was three consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance, proving Bob Boughner is not Gerard Gallant.
Is the fourth year the charm? General manager Dale Tallon is going all in with the hopes that it is.
Joel Quenneville was hired to take the reins of such a promising team. The three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach with the Chicago Blackhawks was fired 15 games into last season, ending an 11-year run of 452 victories. Quenneville would still be the Chicago coach had Stan Bowman not lost his mind and hit the panic button so soon.
Quenneville is the perfect coach for this young team. It helps to have quality center depth, and the Panthers have that. Barkov, the reigning Lady Byng Trophy winner and Florida captain, had an NHL career-high 96 points last season and has become one of the top two-way players in the league. He should be challenging for the Selke Trophy this season.
Huberdeau also had a career year in 2019 with 92 points and has not missed a game in the past two seasons.
It wouldn’t be fair to expect Barkov and Huberdeau to replicate those outputs, but it helps to have scorers across the board like Mike Hoffman (36 goals in 2019) and Evgenii Dadonov (28 goals). Keith Yandle continues to be one of the best offensive defensemen in the league after a career-high 62 points a season ago.
But if the Panthers are to get anywhere, it’s on the goaltending. The Roberto Luongo Era has reached its end, and Florida is banking its immediate future on Sergei Bobrovsky becoming anything like the two-time Vezina winner he was in Columbus.
Bobrovsky is the biggest free agent fish the Panthers may have ever reeled in, signing a seven-year, $70 million contract after seven seasons with the Blue Jackets. A reminder that Bobrovsky is 31 years old and this contract could be troubling if results aren’t imminent.
The Panthers have put together the right model to compete in a very tough Atlantic Division. Tampa Bay and Boston are the top two teams, but that third place spot could be a blood bath, and it’s not certain the Atlantic could take one of the wild card spots in the Eastern Conference.
Third place could be decided by Florida, Toronto and maybe Montreal. It depends on if the Panthers are ready to put it all together and make the jump. That’s been the hope for the past three years, and now that Quenneville and Bobrovsky are in the fold, the honeymoon phase is over.
A Stanley Cup Final appearance should not be expected this year in Sunrise, Florida, but there’s a reason the Panthers have made the playoffs only four times since reaching the Final in 1996.
The time is now for the Panthers. Anything less than a playoff appearance would be disastrous.