A storm is gathering in Sunrise. A force brimming with anticipation about ready to burst. Is it another explosive concert at the BB&T Center? The venue is right but it’s not a concert. It’s hockey. The Florida Panthers are awakening from their 2 decade long hibernation and they are ready.
The pack is led by Joel Quenneville. One of the most storied coaches in NHL History, Coach Q is 2nd in all time wins and has 3 stanley cups under his belt. His 3 cup winning team in Chicago set the benchmark for excellence in the decade in the NHL. His surprising ouster from Chicago in a power coup d’teat full control move by GM Stan Bowman has given Florida a gift. A teacher that can lead this team to the promised land.
Coach Q’s arsenal is loaded. His star weapon is Aleksander Barkov. The Finnish Captain proved himself to be a top 15 player in the NHL last year scoring 35 goals and 61 assists in the greatest single season seen by anyone in South Florida. Barkov is a package deal. The two for one package also includes Jonathan Huberdeau. Huberdeau alongside Barkov posted 30 goals and 62 assists last year. The forward cast is supported by goal scoring machines Mike Hoffman and Evengii Dadonov, along with Frank Vatrano who broke out last year with a 24 goal campaign. Vincent Trocheck looks to return to form and Brett Connolly returns to the Sunshine State to help the Cats capture Lord Stanley’s Cup.
The defense is led by Keith Yandle. A dynamic playmaker, Yandle has been one of the league’s best on the powerplay. Combined with the electric shot of Mike Hoffman and the talents of Barkov and Huberdeau, the Panthers powerplay hypnotized the rest of the league, the lone bright spot in their flawed game under Bob Boughner’s careless system. Yet Yandle has often struggled on the defensive side of the puck. Aaron Ekblad, a once promising young gun has faded. However, Q brings him a rare new third chance. Can Coach Q finally corral Ekblad’s penchant for off ice distractions (his numerous endorsements), his anxiety over concussions, his bad temperament, poor discipline and weak defense and finally turn him into the stud he can be? Q has done a good job keeping the players from being distracted from off ice antics, including a smart phone ban. Can Q also help Mike Matheson? Matheson, the team’s resident genius is a phenomenal puck mover but like all geniuses, he overthinks. His overthinking of his mistakes and trying to force plays have proven costly for the Panthers.
Quenneville’s arrival was greeted with a fully attended reception by every single player on the team, just 36 hours after the team’s dismal season ended. When Q sat down, he looked to his players and said “Right now, next year we will be practicing for the playoffs”. Q’s strategy of practice like we play has rubbed off. Almost the whole team showed up a week before camp.
Aleksander Barkov and his entourage of Finnish prospects were among the first to show up. Henrik Borgstrom and Aleksi Heponiemi trained with Barkov this offseason. Mike Hoffman and Evengii Dadonov also showed up early. Slowly, everyone showed up finally culminating in the arrival of new star goalie Sergei Bobrvosky.
Excitement around the Panthers has not been this high since 1996 when the Panthers and their menagerie of rat tossing obsessed fans took the East by storm only to run into the brick wall of Patrick Roy in the cup finals. The Panthers enter this year the dominant force in a weak Miami sports market. The Marlins are in the middle of a long term rebuild following the tragic passing of Jose Fernandez. The Dolphins are exercising the most blatant use of tanking in NFL history. The Heat will contend but aren’t expected to do much in a packed east. The Hurricanes are a couple years away. Can the Panthers finally get their act together? If this team is not playing hockey come May 1st, this will be a failure of epic proportions. The Time has come. It’s now. It’s time to win!