It takes more than a group of individuals wearing the same jersey to make a team.
The mentality of togetherness, the connection between a group of people, the desire to push each other for the greater success of the collective is what makes a team. A team becomes your second family.
“You build relationships in hockey because we are around each other nonstop,” said Florida Captain D Willie Mitchell on locker room clean out day. “There’s no work environment like that, where you’re traveling together, staying at the same hotel, working together, training together. There’s nothing like it.”
With many new faces in the Florida locker room early in the year, a preseason trip to the United States Military Academy at West Point helped bring the Panthers together through a series of team-building activities. It was during a hike on Torne Mountain that Mitchell was named the Captain of the Panthers.
Upon returning to Florida, the Panthers brought back with them a little piece of West Point. Honoring the Military Academy’s tradition, the Panthers players awarded a Dress Grey jacket each game to the member of the club they felt displayed the qualities of the team’s most valuable player of the night.
After a slow start to the season, earning a 3-2-3 record in the month of October, the Panthers began to find their rhythm in November, before taking bigger strides in December. The Panthers finished December with 17 points (7-4-3), their highest point total in a month for the season until March (8-5-2, 18 points) came around.
With standout performances from F Nick Bjugstad, D Aaron Ekblad and G Roberto Luongo, the Panthers continued to climb the standings and into playoff territory. The young Bjugstad emerged as a top goal scorer, Ekblad played at a level few 18-year old defensemen in history have and Luongo continued to climb the all-time goaltending list as he gave the Panthers a chance to win every night.
In the second half of the season, many of the Panthers youngsters began to come alive. F Aleksander Barkov and F Jonathan Huberdeau offensively erupted for Florida and developed solid chemistry with one another. The acquisition and addition of F Jaromir Jagr to their line helped propel the unit as the team’s top offensive weapon, recording a combined 54 points (19-35—54) in only 21 games.
Huberdeau completed the third season of his career with Florida this year and feels that the team not only has taken great strides just in the standings, but great strides as a team. The St. Jerome, Quebec native harkens back to Florida’s 4-2 win against the Boston Bruins on April 9, as an example of that stride personified.
After Huberdeau was roughed up by the Boston net , 22-year old D Alex Petrovic intervened, dropping the gloves in defense of Huberdeau.
“I like the way the guys came in, like Petrovic . That’s a team right there,” said Huberdeau. “We’re going to stick up for each other and it’s fun to see that. I mean, we are out of the playoffs, but we still wanted to work hard and finish the season the right way.”
In the midst of their playoff race in March, the Panthers did not allow a season-ending injury to Bjugstad, the team’s leading goal scorer slow them down.
With adversity comes opportunity.
F Brandon Pirri stepped his game up to another echelon, scoring 19 goals over his last 29 games of the season. In his first full season with Florida, the 24-year old forward lit the lamp 22 times, proving to be a scoring threat whenever on the ice.
Playing in a league-leading 48 one-goal games, the Panthers took their opposition to the limit. The Panthers assured that when their opponents saw “Florida” on their calendars, it wasn’t going to be an easy night. The Panthers finished fourth in the NHL for second period goals (90), eighth in one-goal game wins (22) and eighth in wins after trailing a team first (15).
Just wrapping up his first season with the Panthers, Mitchell looks back at the season like many of his teammates, upset that the team did not make it to the postseason, but knows that things are heading in the right direction in for the Panthers.
“Just like my four years in LA, I look back on it and I say, ‘man, did I make the right decision?’”, said Mitchell. “After year one here, I’m saying the same thing and I’m so happy that I came here. Being around these young guys is really motivating. Seeing the growth of the organization; anytime you’re part of something that’s growing and becoming something great, there’s a sense of satisfaction for everyone.”
Becoming a team on the verge of the playoffs after two previous seasons as the 29th and 30th ranked team in the NHL, is no easy task. It takes a group determined enough to make a change, it takes individuals with the mindset to change the culture. It takes a team.
Finishing the year as the league's most improved team shows that things are just beginning to heat up in South Florida.