|Forwards Tomas Kopecky (trade), Sean Bergenheim (signing) and Marcel Goc (signing) were all brought in to help turn around the Panthers and have helped the team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2000. (Getty Images)
Panthers General Partner Cliff Viner makes it a point to stay behind the scenes, but he was on hand for that memorable press conference at the BankAtlantic Center last July.
It was the day the Panthers introduced all the newcomers they had brought through free agency and a couple of astute trades. The packed table of new faces was actually without two new Panthers because Sean Bergenheim
was on his honeymoon and Marcel Goc
was busy with his newborn son.
Viner listened to what General Manager Dale Tallon, Assistant GM Mike Santos and the players had to say, and then offered his thoughts on the possibility of a quick turnaround to a small group of reporters after the end of the press conference.
“I’m not as astute at hockey, but let me put it to you this way: Dale and Mike and Kevin (Dineen) and Craig (Ramsay) all think so. I believe in Dale, in what he’s done. I believe in Mike. I believe what they’re doing for us and they believe this is a quality enough team to get to the playoffs.”
They were right.
After 10 frustrating playoff-less seasons, one year removed from finishing last in the Eastern Conference, with a first-year head coach and an overhauled roster, the Panthers are in the playoffs.
There were some who believed it couldn’t be done, not with that many changes.
ESPN analyst Barry Melrose was among those, saying, “I’ve got to think they’re going to be the worst team in the Eastern Conference.”
The Panthers, though, had other ideas.
While the blueprint for Tallon and Santos always has been — and remains — building for the long term, the players believed from the start they had the makings of a playoff team this season.
When the Panthers found themselves in first place in late November, Kris Versteeg
remembered what had been said about them.
“It hasn’t surprised us at all,” he said of the team’s good start. “We talked about it before the season. I hear a guy like Barry Melrose talking and he’s bashing our team. It’s something that you take with a grain of salt, but at the same time you get mad at those things. You don’t really want to prove people wrong but you want to go out there and prove yourself right, prove that we have a pretty darn good team.”
The Panthers indeed proved they had a good team, leading the Southeast Division for most of the season and returning to the playoffs for the first time since the spring of 2000.
So how did the Panthers do it?
As is always the case in an 82-game season, success depends on a lot of factors.
The first is talent. The Panthers didn’t just bring in a lot of new players last offseason, they brought in a lot of quality players.
The list includes defensemen Brian Campbell
and Ed Jovanovski
, goalie Jose Theodore
, and forwards Tomas Fleischmann
, Tomas Kopecky
, Versteeg, Bergenheim and Goc, among others.
Getting Campbell to waive his no-trade clause to go from Chicago to Florida was the biggest transaction — in more ways than one.
On the ice, Campbell is among the best defensemen in the game, which he proved again this season when he earned his fourth All-Star invitation.
Just as importantly, more than one free agent mentioned the arrival of Campbell as playing a significant role in their decision to sign with the Panthers.
The Panthers not only added talent to their roster, they also added veterans and winners — Campbell, Versteeg and Kopecky, plus mid-season addition John Madden
, all were members of the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup winner that Tallon assembled.
The newcomers joined a group of holdovers that included solid two-way center Stephen Weiss
, and emerging defensemen Jason Garrison
and Dmitry Kulikov
The Panthers also continued to add pieces throughout the season, picking up veterans Mikael Samuelsson
and Marco Sturm
from Vancouver in an October trade, and then adding Wojtek Wolski
and Jerred Smithson
shortly before the trade deadline.
“They brought in some personnel that have been part of winning teams, from Samuelsson, who was around the Detroit organization, to Campbell and Versteeg that have won Stanley Cups,” Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff said before a mid-March game at the BankAtlantic Center. “Some of it is the maturing of some of their younger guys. It’s a lot of different things. They brought some people that have come from winning environments, which is always good, and their young players now have been around a winning experience for a good part of the year and it’s shown up in their play.”
It wasn’t just Ruff who was impressed with the Panthers throughout the course of the season.
“You’ve got to give them credit,” Jaromir Jagr said after the Panthers beat the Flyers 2-1 at Philadelphia on March 20. “They know how to win.”
Never was that more evident than during a five-game winning streak in March. It was the Panthers’ longest streak since March of 2008.
More importantly, the streak helped the Panthers stay ahead of the surging Capitals in the Southeast Division.
One of the most impressive aspects of the Panthers’ playoff season was that it was accomplished despite a rash of injuries. Scottie Upshall
, Goc, Bergenheim, Kulikov, Jovanovski, Jack Skille
, Versteeg. They all took their turns missing significant action.
Through all of it, the Panthers just kept plugging.
For that, a large dose of credit has to go to Kevin Dineen, who proved just as good a hire as head coach as many players did as free agents.
“A terrific job,” is how Tallon succinctly put it. “With all the new players and all the injuries we’ve accumulated, to stay in the hunt and be in the position we’re in, a fantastic job by all our coaches.”
Dineen said on a few occasions that a major objective heading into the season was for the Panthers to be relevant in March and April.
For some of the players, though, this season shaped up as a great unknown because of all the new faces.
“I don’t really know if anyone had any expectations coming in,” Weiss said. “With all the new guys, we were just going to take it one day, one practice and one game at a time and just try to get better as a group and see where we are.”
For Theodore, the tone was set during training camp.
“As soon as training camp started, we could feel there was something special,” he said. “We saw right away that all the players were all here to change the Panthers’ tradition and we all had the same goal. We could tell from the start of training camp that the players really wanted to make a difference, especially the new players.”
The new players sure made a difference. So did the old players. So did Dineen and his assistants. So did Tallon and Santos.
This was a total team effort, and the reward is playoff hockey.