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Colby Guy: Florida Panthers should bring back Brunette



Andrew brunette
Florida Panthers coach Andrew Brunette, center, gives instructions during overtime of the team's game against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Nov. 11. — AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

After their best season in franchise history, the Florida Panthers are actively working the market for a new head coach.

Despite leading the Panthers to their first Presidents’ Trophy in franchise history, the most goals a team has scored in a season since 1995-96, and a 51-18-6 record, interim coach Andrew Brunette’s position appears to be up for grabs.

Among the names general manager Bill Zito has reportedly talked to include two-time Jack Adams Award winner and Stanley Cup Champion Barry Trotz, ex-Panthers coach and two-time Stanley Cup Finalist Pete DeBoer, and longtime Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice.

But is it fair to Brunette?

Even though Trotz is arguably the best coach to hit the open market since the Panthers hired Joel Quenneville in 2019, it is not.

Brunette took over under some of the toughest circumstances possible.

Florida players and staff found themselves in a tough spot when Quenneville’s inaction in Kyle Beach’s sexual assault scandal came to light in the Jenner & Block report in late October.

A lot of people around the team valued as a mentor and friend — most notably Brunette — found out that a man they respected and looked up to valued a championship over the wellbeing of one of his players.

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After a meeting with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, which was attended by Zito and team president Matthew Caldwell, Quenneville resigned.

It is not every day a 7-0 team coming off of its best season in franchise history would need a new head coach.

”It has been a crazy few days with all the information and all that has happened,” Aaron Ekblad said on the day Brunette took over as coach.

“We’re a team that’s a bit raw right now but we have to come together. It’s tough to see it all. We understand the decision … Ultimately that interview gave me a tremendous amount of respect for Kyle Beach and what he went through. I’m not sure about my feelings right now. I’m trying to gather them.”

Less than 24 hours after Quenneville’s resignation, the team had back-to-back games in Detroit and Boston. The Panthers needed someone to bring the room back together and continue the momentum.

Zito knew Brunette could be that guy and offered him the job.

But why Brunette?

For one, he knew the system the team was running pretty well.

He played for Quenneville in Chicago in 2011-12 and later joined him in Florida in 2019 after working a variety of positions with the Minnesota Wild after retiring as a player.

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Brunette knew the team did not need to change much on the ice to keep being successful — and he kept things status quo.

But the biggest reason why Brunette was the guy for the Panthers was that he was well-respected by the players.

He was a ‘players’ coach’ by all accounts.

Brunette held a very close bond with the team from his time as an assistant coach and his guidance helped the team navigate what was an emotional time for all involved.

“It wasn’t an easy time in our locker room,” Radko Gudas said. “I think the way he acted, the way he prepared us for the game, made us focus on the things that were in front of us and didn’t really give us a chance to think of the other things.

“He made sure that we were on the same page and I think that’s what we needed and we responded to his challenges and to his words and I think that was the main part as to why we kept the success and we kept rolling even in those difficult times. It was very difficult for him, but he handled it very well.”

In his first game as an NHL head coach, Brunette led the Panthers to an emotional 3-2 overtime victory on Oct. 29 and things just built from there.

Brunette answered a number of questions along the way. After the team held a sub-.500 road record in January, it went on to have the best road record in the league from Jan. 7 on, going 20-7-1 in their last 28 road games.

A foundering power play in December, albeit, mostly caused by the absence of Sasha Barkov?

The Panthers had the best power play percentage in the league from Dec. 29 (the day Barkov returned to the lineup) until the season’s end, working at a 30 percent clip.

By the time the NHL Trade Deadline rolled around, Brunette had the Panthers looking like the class of the league and earned the respect of many.

That included Claude Giroux as Florida was the only team he would waive his no-movement clause and accept a trade to.

Brunette played a big role in Giroux’s decision. When former Panther Keith Yandle talked to Giroux about Florida, he spoke highly of Brunette.

“The group of guys in that locker room are also not only great players, but they are also tremendous guys off the ice,” Yandle said.

“Same with the coaching staff between [Brunette] and management. They are all in to win.”

After Giroux was granted his trade to the Panthers, there were no surprises for him.

“When I came in, I heard he is a player’s coach. He’s played the game, he’s played a lot of games in the NHL, so for him to have that experience as a player, I think that’s helped him as a coach,” Giroux said.

Even after Ekblad missed the remainder of the regular season with a lower-body injury, the Panthers finished the season with a 16-4-0 record and won the Presidents’ Trophy.

Brunette also earned himself a Jack Adams nomination, eventually finishing second to Calgary Flames coach Darryl Sutter.

Then the playoffs came.

The Panthers found themselves down 2-1 to start their first-round series against the Capitals and their power play was pitiful.

Florida was 0-9 through the first three games and watched as Washington throttled them 6-1 in Game 3.

It sparked the Panthers to have a players-only meeting that helped regain their focus and Brunette aided them to their first playoff series victory since 1996.

But still, the power play sat at 0-18 heading into the second round.

It did not get much better.

Not only did the power play remain cold, but the entire offense went with it.

After the Panthers went the entire season only being held to fewer than two goals four times, the Lightning held them to three goals in the entire second round.

It took Florida until Game 3 to score its first power play goal, but by that point, it was too little, too late.

Andrei Vasilevskiy secured the best save percentage a goaltender has ever had while starting all games in a playoff series (.981) and Tampa Bay sent their crosstown rival with a sweep.

When it was all said and done, Brunette shouldered the responsibility for the Panthers’ 1-31 performance on the power play.

“I take a lot of the blame for the power play. That was my fault,” Brunette said. “It should be better, has to be better, and I’m really disappointed in myself for that.”

And of course, mistakes come with a rookie head coach and after all he did, Brunette deserves a chance to learn from them.

With the majority of Florida’s core around the ages of 25-27, their window will be open for a long time and Brunette has the capabilities to lead them to a Stanley Cup.

At the end of the day, Brunette did something no Panther coach has done save for Doug MacLean: Win a playoff series.

Not even Quenneville, DeBoer or Gerard Gallant have done that here.

Of course, winning a playoff series is not the end goal.

At the end of the day, all efforts will be forgotten if this Panthers core does not win a Stanley Cup and maybe Trotz gives them a great chance to do that — but so could Brunette.

Florida has a chance to build off of the momentum from the 2021-22 season and learn from the lessons of their eventual playoff defeat.

And why not let them do so with the man who helped lead them there?

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