Florida Panthers coach Joel Quenneville looked ready for summer as he stepped to the team’s makeshift Zoom conference arraignment for the final time on Friday afternoon.
Wearing a red golf shirt, his voice still a little raspy from yelling over the din of sold out crowds throughout this playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Quenneville looked back on the 2021 season and what is ahead for the Panthers.
One message sent to players on Friday’s exit day was that they are close, but the Panthers are not there yet.
Quenneville said he was encouraged by the way the Panthers kept a consistent game throughout the season and in their playoff loss to the Lightning.
Tampa Bay may have played its best game in Wednesday’s 4-0 victory, but the Panthers did not let up throughout the series either.
The Panthers play this season was encouraging and they need to build off of this next year from the start.
Quenneville said expectations have been raised within the fabric of the organization — and that’s not a bad thing.
Among the topics discussed: Dealing with Covid-19, how he plans to address the goalie situation next season after making Sergei Bobrovsky a healthy scratch in the final two playoff games and why sometimes teams have to lose in the playoffs to learn how to win in them.
Here is what Joel Quenneville had to say in his final meeting with the media in 2021:
You wanted to see this team get tougher to play against this season. Did you accomplish that?
I think we were made significant progress in being hard to play against, being way more competitive game-in, game-out. There was way more consistency in that type of our game. Game-to-game, we gave ourselves a chance to get points every single night. Knowing that was our standard of play and expectations from the staff, by teammates, linemates that was in place, accountability from the players went to a different level which we appreciate.
So there was a lot of things that were put in place, whether it Horny coming in with his enthusiasm or … each guy had a different kind of look to what he brought our team. There was a lot of individual contributions that added up to us being harder to play against and being way more consistent in the work department.
Do you feel the Panthers have closed the gap between your team and the best in the NHL?
I think we had a heck of a year in a lot of ways. It was a big improvement in our overall team game. (We played a) playoff-ready team that knows how to win. There are some things we can take out of that series because I thought we played them at least even and gave ourselves a great chance. We lost a couple of games that maybe we could have been playing a Game 7. But they know how to win and their best game was Game 6.
I think our game was pretty consistent from start to finish. Playing the right way and from that there’s little lessons along they way. You need a lot of things to go right to win a round and to try to do that four times is the biggest challenge of that you faced in your hockey career.
I still thought we made significant inroads of learning that lesson. You saw Carolina last night, the division is, you got to go through that to be champions. It’ll be a great and interesting next round. It’s a something we certainly learned from and I think that there’s real valuable lessons that we look forward to playing.
Do you agree sometimes teams have to lose and learn before they take that next step in the playoffs?
Obviously our regular season put us in a better spot this year as far as we knew what to expect game-in, game-out from our guys. When we got to the playoffs, we were ready. We were at the playoff pace. Their power play was lethal in some key moments.
Look at Game 1, Game 2 and the last game, we had our chances. I think the regret is that a lot of things have got to go right. We believe we can do it and that’s a step in that direction as well.
What were most proud of this season?
I think the pace of our game and the consistency that we played it at. You could say we were hard to play against, our work ethic was good. But the pace and sustaining it from start to finish was probably a step in the right direction for sure.
How do you improve on that next season?
I think our rush game was good, I think defending the rush we can be a little bit better. I think our defensive zone coverage improved to a level that can get the job done.
Our special teams had good stretches, OK stretches. But overall, I can’t really say there was one area that really was our nemesis. I think for the most part that brought more predictability and consistency.
Do you feel everyone on the team is on the same page moving forward?
Expectations are healthy Creating a higher standard of expected play is where we’re at. I think that happened and we started to be in place going into the playoffs and I think that was the consistency you’re getting from lines, four lines. The way we were attacking off the rush.
That standard is starting from Square One. That’s where we’re taking off from. Easier said than done but that’s what we’re looking forward to. We want to push each other and whatever changes we can do improve our team, you know, Bill has done a great job in a short amount of time. That’s what we’ll be looking at.
Surprised the NHL got all the way through this Covid-19 season?
I think the doubt for me was last year in the bubble. That gave me some encouragement that this can happen and this can get done. I think that was probably even more amazing in that type of environment that we were able to get through a playoff run.
Knowing that in this type of a situation, it is doable. A lot of things were going on across the board, whether it was the league organizing everybody in the protocol that had to be in place and our local compliance officer who was implementing the rules and having fun with it along the way. Guys adapted to it and did not stray from it. A lot of things happened in an unusual year but I was pretty proud of the guys and the job they did.
Having the squad and the team and everybody getting a chance to play and then being a part of it, knowing how competitive it is to be in the lineup, and then showing the right support. That was probably the thing that was really helped our team.
Did seeing all the fans at games serve as a reminder that sports really do matter?
I think everybody loves sports. They love it from all ways whether it’s the excitement or a hit or a fight, a goal or a save, a close call. There’s this and that which gets you excited about watching hockey which makes it so great.
But it’s really really unusual when you don’t hear the appreciation or the excitement from the fans in those empty buildings. All of a sudden it returns and now you have playoff hockey.
You watch our games here, go to Tampa, watch last night in Nashville and the pitches keep getting higher and the crowds are keep getting bigger. The excitement, which makes hockey and playoff hockey so exciting, it’s a whole different game and they get to see how important it is to win and I think people appreciate that type of passion.
On that note, going to miss wearing a mask on the bench?
That’s why I’m can’t talk right now.
Feel good about the future of this organization and your role in that moving forward?
I think we’re excited. I think talking to all the players today and talking to our staff, and we haven’t really, really summed up the whole season, but I think we made significant progress in the consistency of our team. We played at a high level, a predictable level and expectations changed internally.
Now I think that going into a start of a season all of a sudden we have different goals. The goal will always be to make the playoffs and then there’s the next plan. There was a lot of belief that went along going into this playoffs. I think we all felt that if things changed a little bit here or there, we could be having a different conversation here today.
How do you handle the goalie situation now after what happened the past two games — starting Spencer Knight while scratching Sergei Bobrovsky?
They’ll get talked about. With Bob’s situation here, he handled it like a pro. I commend him for, being in a tough situation, he was just trying to be a good teammate. He was getting himself ready to come in as soon as possible. In talking with him, going forward as well, it was a situation where he wants to play and I think he has an understanding of the situation we have now.
So, we’ll sort the goalie stuff out over the course of the summer. We haven’t talked about the players with Bill and the plans, but certainly it was different.
Having three goalies around who could all play and were all successful. I’d say that was unique in its own way and the decision making was something that you had to trust guts and experience as well.
Was there one common message sent to the players in their exit meetings?
I think there was a message that you can take out of the Tampa series as far as you’re close but you learn from a heck of a hockey team. Know how hard it is to win one playoff round and then try to do that four times. That’s the process you’re getting yourself ready for.
We feel their consistency, they played their best in Game 6 so you have to improve over the course of a series. I thought we didn’t slow down at all in any of the games which is encouraging.
Knowing that you face a top team like that and give them something to think about, maybe it’s something for us to think about as well when we find a way to get the job done. There are some improvements to be had and knowing that we played pretty good hockey to go forward off of that.
Is their a final update on Aaron Ekblad?
That was a disappointment that he didn’t get a chance to play. If that would have happened, we would have been in a pretty good spot. He was disappointed as well coming off a great year and he has more than enough time to get himself ready for the next season. That’s what we’re all looking forward to.