When he arrived at training camp in January, Aleksander Barkov didn't know what to expect.
After all, in the months that followed Bill Zito taking over as general manager of the Panthers, the organization had undergone wholesale changes both on the ice and within the front office. Everywhere he looked, there were new faces. But with those faces came a fresh perspective.
Right off the bat, it became clear that nothing from past seasons mattered anymore. Good or bad, the past was the past. That was then, and this was now. Sure, the logo on the front of the jersey was still the same, but the ideology behind what it meant to wear it was about to change.
Presented with a clean slate, players weren't going to let it go to waste.
"Lots of changes on our team -- new players, new management, everything was new," Barkov said following Friday's exit meetings at BB&T Center. "It was the same organization, but everything was new on the ice and off the ice, too. We just started from a fresh page and then just kept going from that. We played fast, skillful hockey."
From that blank page, the Panthers would go on to pen statistically their best regular season in franchise history. Easily one of the most consistent teams in the NHL, they didn't lose back-to-back games until six weeks into the season. They also never dropped more than three in a row.
Posting their best points percentage in franchise history, their 37-14-5 record helped them claim second place in the Central Division and was also the fourth-best mark in the NHL. Of the seven teams they played within their division, they owned a winning record against all but one of them.
Finding success through a strong possession game and relentless pace, they owned 53.48% of all shot attempts, 53.96% of all shots on goal and 54.04% of all expected goals at 5-on-5 during the regular season, with all of those numbers placing them within the top-5 among NHL teams.
For head coach Joel Quenneville, that consistency was the team's key to success.
"I think we made significant progress with being hard to play against, being way more competitive game in and game out, way more consistent in that type of our game," Quenneville said. "We gave ourselves a chance to get points every single night, knowing that that was our standard of play. Knowing the expectations from the staff, by teammates, the accountability from the players went to a different level, which we appreciate."
In terms of individuals, Jonathan Huberdeau, who has assumed the mantle as one of hockey's most-underrated players, led the team in scoring for the second consecutive season with 61 points (20 goals, 41 assists), while Aleksander Barkov, who could end up taking home the Selke Trophy as the league's top-defensive forward, sat second with 58 points (26 goals, 32 assists).
Helping keep the team on track after Aaron Ekblad's season came to an abrupt end due to a lower-body injury in late March, MacKenzie Weegar went on to post one of the best seasons ever by a Panthers blueliner, recording a career-high 36 points while playing a shutdown role.
As far as newcomers, it's hard to know even where to begin.
Making as much of an impact in the locker room as he did on the ice, veteran Patric Hornqvist, who served as one of the team's alternate captains, netted 14 goals, with a team-high eight of them coming on the power play. Fresh off a Stanley Cup win in 2020, Carter Verhaeghe was a revelation during his sophomore NHL season, racking up 18 goals while playing on the top line.
Re-discovering his scoring touch, Alex Wennberg notched a career-high 17 goals, including netting not one, but two hat tricks. Anthony Duclair recorded 32 points and a career-high +27 rating, while Gustav Forsling also tallied a career-high 17 points while manning the blue line.
With too many players to name, we'll dive deeper into more than a few of these exceptional individual performances a bit later in the offseason with our annual "Season Rewind" series.
"There was a lot of things that were put in place, whether it was Horny [Hornqvist] coming in with his enthusiasm, each guy had a different kind of look to what he brought to our team," Quenneville said. "There was a lot of individual contributions that added up to being harder to play against and way more consistent in the work department."
In the playoffs, that hard-working mentality was on full display for the hockey world to see.
Heading into the postseason as bonafide contenders, the Panthers might've come up just short in their first-round series with the Lightning, but they also made a lot of noise. Not backing down, they took the defending Stanley Cup champions to six games, and possibly could've been the ones moving on if just a few more bounces had gone their way during the exhilarating series.
Huberdeau once again led the charge with 10 points (two goals, eight assists) against the Lightning, while rookie goaltender Spencer Knight when from top prospect to legitimate NHL starter within the blink of an eye, finishing the series with a .933 save percentage in two starts.
Regardless of the outcome, just the experience of being in those games was invaluable.
"I can say we learned a lot from Tampa," Barkov said. "They won the Cup last year, they know how to do it, they have a good team. We learned from them how to win those games. The way they played, the way they kept winning games, you've got to learn from those teams and put that in your own game and do that the next time you're in the playoffs. But getting in the playoffs is really hard and we did that. Playoffs are a different world, and we got a lot of experience from that, lots of learning from that, so we'll get some rest and get back at it even stronger next year."
With the franchise turning a sharp corner and heading in the right direction, the Panthers now have a clear road ahead of them as they work to build off this foundational season. Still looking to win a playoff round for the first time since 1996, they now know what it'll take to get that done and are itching at the opportunity to get right back on the ice with the home crowd behind them.
It might be cliché to say, but is it October yet?
"We changed our culture around," Huberdeau said. "We won a lot of games. Every game that we were in, we had a chance to win. That's what we need to bring next year, the same thing. The confidence is higher and it's on us, the leadership, to do these things. Now we know what to expect from our team. It's promising and we're excited for next year."
MORE CATS QUOTES:
"The way we played this year, it was special. I've said it a couple times, it was the most fun I've had. When you know what you can do on the ice, there's less stress. You come in and do your job. That's what the guys did." - Jonathan Huberdeau
"I feel like that's the thing that hurts the most about losing, we did have a really good team. I feel like we could've done some damage in the playoffs here." - Mason Marchment
"[The playoffs] were a great experience. I think for everyone it wasn't the ending we wanted, but it was good to get that little taste. Coming back next year, it's going to definitely be in our heads." - Owen Tippett
"All year long we weren't really concerned with outside opinions. I think we proved it to ourselves, especially. In that room, that's really all that matters. We know that we're among one of the top teams. Obviously, we don't have the playoff results right now, but there's definitely a lot of confidence in that room moving forward." - Ryan Lomberg
"I think we grew as a team. From what I remember about how this team looked last year, we had a lot of new guys. I think we did a great job of getting to know each other and getting the chemistry going right away. This whole team had a great year. We're really sorry about the ending, but I think there's a lot of things we can learn from." - Radko Gudas
"I think the sooner the better for us. We finished the season two days ago, but I feel like we just want to keep going. Get some rest first, get better physically, mentally, and come back even stronger." - Aleksander Barkov
"Everyone works so hard. I think it's an emerging market for hockey. This past playoff series could maybe be a kickstart to it. I've only been here for a couple of months so can't really speak for what it was like before, but I think things are going in the right direction." - Spencer Knight
"I think expectations are healthy. Creating a higher standard of expected play is where we're at. I think that started to be in place going into the playoffs. The consistency that we were getting from lines, the rotation of four lines, the way we had the puck, the way we were attacking off the rush. That standard of starting from square one is where we're going to take off from. Easier said than done, but that's what we're looking forward to. Off of that, pushing each other and whatever changes we can do to improve our team. Bill [general manager Bill Zito] has done a great job in a short amount of time. That's what we'll be looking at." - Joel Quenneville