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Florida Panthers 2015 Year in Review

by Jameson Olive / Florida Panthers

It’s almost time to close the book on a spectacular year of resurgence for the Florida Panthers as accolades, milestones and wealth of unforgettable moments defined the franchise in 2015.

Whether it was Aaron Ekblad’s historic rookie season, or the addition of future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr, the Panthers never had trouble capturing headlines as they continued to make great strides in their quest to return to the playoffs.

After finishing last season as the league’s most-improved team, the Panthers have shaken off a slow start to their 2015-16 campaign and currently sit atop the Atlantic Division after winning 12 of their past 15 games.

Will this be the year that the Stanley Cup playoffs finally return to South Florida?

Honestly, it’s too soon to tell.

In the mean time, however, let’s take a look back at the moments that made 2015 a year to remember for the Panthers.

Jan. 25, 2015: Ekblad, Luongo shine at 2015 NHL All-Star Game

For the first time since 2009, the Panthers had two participants at the NHL's All-Star Weekend when rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad and goaltender Roberto Luongo were both named to the 2015 NHL All-Star game in Columbus.

Ekblad, who was a late addition to the All-Star Game roster after Colorado defenseman Erik Johnson opted to skip the event while recovering from a lower-body injury, notched four assists to help lead Team Toews to a 17-12 victory over Team Foligno in the highest-scoring All-Star Game in NHL history.

The highest-scoring defenseman in the game, Ekblad's four-point performance matched that of former Panthers Olli Jokinen (2003) and Pavel Bure (2000) for the most points at an All-Star Game in franchise history.

Luongo, meanwhile, played the entire first period for Team Toews, stopping 13 of 17 shots to help lead his team to victory.

Feb. 26, 2015: Panthers acquire Jagr from Devils

In an effort to bolster both their present and their future, the Panthers acquired forward Jaromir Jagr from the New Jersey Devils in exchange for a second-round draft pick in 2015 and a conditional third-round pick in 2016.

"I think it brings stability to our young team," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said shortly after the deal was finalized. "It gives us an opportunity in the next 20 games to make a good run to make the playoffs. I'm excited about it. I think it's a great move for our franchise."

Jagr, 43, had notched 11 goals and 29 points in 57 games at the time of the trade.

March 18, 2015: Panthers announce AHL affiliation with Portland Pirates

After a four-year partnership with the San Antonio Rampage, the Panthers announced that the organization would be bidding farewell to the Lone Star State at the end of the 2014-15 season and entering into a four-year agreement with the Portland Pirates.

"We are very excited about this partnership," Pirates COO Brad Church said at the time of the announcement. "Florida is a great organization, headed in the right direction in the NHL's Eastern Conference. With an exciting roster built around promising young players, our fans will have the chance to see their prospects complete the full development process which will begin here in Portland."

Established in 1993, Portland is the fourth-longest tenured AHL franchise operating continuously in its current market. The Pirates have qualified for the Calder Cup Playoffs a total of 15 times, winning a championship in 1994.

April 2, 2015: Luongo wins 400th NHL game

Roberto Luongo became just the 11th NHL goaltender to record 400 career wins when he stopped 31 of 32 shots in a 6-1 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes.

“I don’t take it for granted,” Luongo said after the game. “I’m blessed to have played this long in the NHL and doing something that I love.”

In honor of his achievement, the Panthers presented Luongo with a commemorative silver stick before his final start of the 2014-15 season.

Luongo, 36, currently sits in eighth place on the NHL’s all-time wins list with 416 career victories.

April 12, 2015: Panthers re-sign Jagr to one-year deal

Less than 24 hours after defeating the New Jersey Devils in their regular-season finale, the Panthers made what would end up being their biggest move of the offseason when they re-signed future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr to a one-year deal.

"It's great for this franchise to get a superstar of his ability," Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon said at the time. "You can see how much the young guys look up to him [and] how the locker room respects him."

In 20 games with the Panthers last season, the 43-year-old Jagr recorded five goals and 16 points with a plus-7 rating while playing alongside 19-year-old Aleksander Barkov and 21-year-old Jonathan Huberdeau.

"I'm thankful I had a chance to play the last 20 games here and give me a little bit of life," said Jagr, who finished the season with 17 goals and 47 points in 77 games split between New Jersey and Florida. "There were a lot of people that thought I was done and those young guys gave me extra energy, extra life… I'm glad I can continue to play."

June 24, 2015: Ekblad Wins 2015 Calder Memorial Trophy

Coming off an historic rookie season, Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad beat out Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau and Ottawa Senators forward Mark Stone to win the Calder Memorial Trophy, given annually to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL.

Ekblad, 19, received 71 first-place votes from the 157 ballots cast to become the youngest defenseman to win the award since Hall of Famer Bobby Orr in 1967.

"The entire Florida Panthers organization congratulates Aaron on being awarded the Calder Memorial Trophy," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said at the time. "He is a highly skilled and dynamic young player who displayed tremendous work ethic, professionalism and dedication throughout his rookie season and is most deserving of this honor. He is an important part of our young nucleus of talent that will be counted upon to lead our organization to future success."

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NHL Draft, Ekblad's 39 points were not only a franchise record for a rookie defenseman, but also the third-most points in NHL history by a defenseman who remained 18 years old through at least Feb. 1, finishing behind Orr (41 points) and Phil Housley (66 points).

A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ekblad became the second Panthers player in the past three years to be voted the league's top rookie, following winger Jonathan Huberdeau's Calder Trophy win in 2012.

June 26, 2015: Panthers select Lawson Crouse at 2015 NHL Draft in Sunrise

The No. 4 overall player in ISS Hockey's final pre-draft rankings, 18-year-old Lawson Crouse was expected to be selected within the first 10 picks of the 2015 NHL draft, but instead fell to the Panthers, who happily scooped up the tenacious winger with the 11th-overall pick.

"We are thrilled to have selected Lawson in front of our fans at BB&T Center," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said at the time. "He is a strong, skilled and physically mature forward who possesses excellent character and led Kingston in points last season. Lawson is another building block for our team and we are confident that he will fit well with our young core of talented players.”

At 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Crouse was considered to be one of the more NHL-ready skaters in the draft. He led the Ontario Hockey League's Kingston Frontenacs in goals (29) and points (51) in 56 games during the 2014-15 season while also helping lead Canada to a gold medal at the 2015 World Junior Championship.

In addition to Crouse, the Panthers also selected goaltender Samuel Montembeault (third round, 77th overall), defenseman Thomas Schemitsch (third round, 88th overall), center Denis Malgin (fourth round, 102nd overall) forward Karch Bachman (fifth round, 132nd overall), forward Christopher Wilkie (sixth round, 162nd overall) center Patrick Shea (seventh round, 192nd overall) and goaltender Ryan Bednard (seventh round, 206th overall).

July 1, 2015: Panthers acquire Smith from Bruins

In an effort to add a new dynamic to their offense, the Panthers acquired forward Reilly Smith and the contract of forward Marc Savard from the Boston Bruins in exchange for forward Jimmy Hayes.

“We are pleased to welcome Reilly to the Panthers,” Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon said at the time. “Reilly is a young talented forward who adds skill, speed and versatility to our team. We thank Jimmy for his contributions to the Panthers and wish him the best of luck in Boston.”

Smith, 24, had appeared in 203 National Hockey League games for the Boston Bruins (2013-15) and Dallas Stars (2011-13) at the time of the trade, recording 36 goals and 100 points.

In the midst of his first season with the Panthers, Smith has scored a team-leading 11 goals to go along with nine assists in 36 games.

Dec. 20, 2015: Jagr passes Dionne for 4th in all-time goals

Jaromir Jagr moved into fourth place on the NHL's all-time goal scoring list after netting his 732nd career goal in a 5-4 shootout victory over the Vancouver Canucks at the BB&T Center.

The future Hall of Famer had been locked in a tie with Marcel Dionne since netting his 731st career goal in a 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals on Dec. 10. He is currently nine goals behind Brett Hull for third, 69 goals away from Gordie Howe for second and 162 goals away from Wayne Gretzky for first on the all-time list.

“It’s special,” Jagr said shortly after achieving the milestone. “I’ve played with a lot of great players. That’s made it a lot easier for me. I started in Pittsburgh with great players and hopefully I’m going to finish here with great players.”

Jagr, 43, currently leads the Panthers with 25 points in 33 games this season.

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