“Hey, we’re relevant again. We’re not in the B pool anymore. How good are we? I know we’re better, but we’ll find out how good.” – Panthers Assistant GM Mike Santos last July.
Months later, months after they went on a spending spree for the ages to completely overhaul their roster and build a bridge between now and the future, the Panthers are indeed relevant and much, much better.
The Panthers are arguably the greatest feel-good story of this NHL season.
The Panthers, after 12 years of pain, after 12 years of sadness and disappointment, will be playoff participants for the first time since 2000.
It’s the culmination of the stability owner Cliff Viner has brought to the Panthers and the vision and plan carried out by executives Dale Tallon, the Panthers’ old-school, straight shooter of a GM, and Santos.
“It’s a huge moment for us,” said President and Chief Operating Officer Michael Yormark. “It’s a big moment for us and a big moment for all of our fans. We’re just looking forward to what’s ahead.”
As Yormark says, since 2000, the Panthers have “given no reason for hockey fans in South Florida to fall in a love with us, but we’ve given them reason this season.”
Last summer, when the Panthers added Brian Campbell
and Tomas Kopecky
before free agency and Ed Jovanovski
, Scottie Upshall
, Jose Theodore
, Kris Versteeg
, Tomas Fleischmann
, Marcel Goc
and Sean Bergenheim
on July 1, nobody could have envisioned the Panthers could assimilate their players so quickly.
The neat thing is, this was all supposed to be a bridge toward tomorrow as the Panthers buy time for the mass of talent on the horizon -- kids like Jonathan Huberdeau
, Nick Bjugstad
, Alex Petrovic
, Drew Shore
and Quinton Howden
“Having a changeover that this organization did, it could have gone either way,” Jovanovski said. “Trying to get guys to gel together and feel good about it could have been tough, but it’s worked. We’ve maintained that consistency throughout the year. We rode the highs. We tried to shrug off the lows as quick as possible.”
The Panthers gained a cushion early, overcame a slew of injuries and put together a terrific season under first-year coach Kevin Dineen.
He’s proud he’s at the helm for the end of the sad era.
“We can sit here and try to downplay things, but it’s part of our history and it’s not a proud part of our history,” Dineen said.
Starting last trade deadline when the Panthers cleared a ton of salary-cap room, Tallon and Santos had a blueprint and executed it to perfection.
A cool part of the story is the fact that Jovanovski, who helped lead the Panthers to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals as a rookie, is back for the end of the streak.
But the neatest part is that Stephen Weiss
will get to taste playoff hockey.
There’s been a revolving door of people entering and exiting BankAtlantic Center over the past decade.
But Weiss has always remained, loyal beyond belief. When Tallon took over as GM two Mays ago after building the Chicago Blackhawks’ Stanley Cup winner, he sat down with Weiss and gave him every opportunity to say, “Trade me.”
Weiss’ response as player after player asked out?
“I said, ‘I want to be here. I believe in you and what you did in Chicago and I want to see this team turn around,’” Weiss said.
Since the Panthers last made the playoffs, they’ve had eight coaches and seven GM’s. Dozens of players have come and gone since Weiss was selected fourth overall in the 2001 draft.
But Weiss remained committed and is finally seeing it pay off. Weiss has played 637 games without a playoff appearance.
“I’ve come full circle,” Weiss, 29, said. “I’ve been through all the trials and tribulations. The turnover, a lot of players have been in and out, a lot of coaches, assistant coaches, GM’s in and out. It has been tough. There’s never really been a familiarity with anything here.
“You meet new, good friends and all of a sudden they’re gone. And it hasn’t been one or two guys. We’re shipping out six or seven guys a deadline.
“So to be here through all of that, it’s hard not to think about the moment of my first playoff game. I try not to. I try to focus on one game at a time, you know, that old cliché. But it’ll be a nice moment for sure to finally get in and look back at all the crap that’s gone on and that I’ve been the one to stick it out.
“It’ll be worth it.”
Weiss has played more games in a Panthers’ uniform than anybody in history and he’s their second-leading scorer. He’s lived through extraordinary moments, like when he got a front-row seat to the power struggle between Keenan, when he was coach, and Rick Dudley, when he was GM, during his first full season.
On the night of Oct. 15, 2002, the Panthers lost to the Wild, 4-1.
“I think I had an assist and Keenan came and sat with me on the plane from Minnesota to Chicago. He said, ‘If you’re not our best player in Chicago, I’m sending you back to junior.’ I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Weiss said. “I came in the next morning for practice and before I even got in the dressing room, he pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re going back.’
“Then I get a call from Mr. Dudley and he goes, ‘Don’t go anywhere.’ I said, ‘Oh God, here we go.’”
Dudley sped in a rental car from St. Louis to Chicago to save the day.
“I came in for the morning skate on game day and all the boys were in the locker room laughing. It was an interesting 24 hours, for sure,” Weiss said.
Yeah, Welcome to Florida! Weiss ended up staying and has never left.
He’s excited for the fans who have stuck by the Panthers.
“There’s a core group there that are awesome,” Weiss said. “They’re there every night and they want it really bad. It’ll be great for them to see some playoff hockey because they deserve it. I’m excited about the position we’re in, but we’re not throwing any parties yet.”
Michael Russo covered the Florida Panthers from 1995-2005 for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and now covers the Minnesota Wild for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.