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2024 Stanley Cup Final

After Years of Disfunction, Florida Panthers at Top of NHL Mountain

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Florida panthers
The Florida Panthers had a number of down years before turning things around. Florida will play in the Stanley Cup Final for the second straight year with Game 1 on Saturday in a building which once sat empty for NHL games.

Everyone nowadays is a fan of the Florida Panthers.

After so many years lost in the wilderness, the franchise and its long-suffering fans have finally found sustained success under Vinnie Viola’s ownership, Bill Zito’s superb managerial skills, and Paul Maurice’s coaching.

To sum it up, the team that reached the playoffs only five times and the Stanley Cup Finals once in its first 25 years has equaled that playoff total over the last five years and is about to play in its second straight Cup Final — and for the first time is favored to win.

Those first 25 years amounted to a long, winding, and rarely fulfilling journey. 

While their NBA counterpart, the Miami Heat, was winning title after title and sending out superstars like Dwayne Wade, Alonzo Mourning, and LeBron James, the Panthers produced a Stanley Cup finalist in only their third season, 1995-96, then all but faded into obscurity for almost 20 years.

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How could it go so wrong for so long? 

How could one franchise make so many glaring mistakes and missteps? 

Having had the longest continuous run of any Panthers beat writer (1994-2008) while with The Palm Beach Post, I’ve put together a list of five reasons why:

1. The Murray Brothers: Philadelphia icon Bobby Clarke put together the original roster of gritty overachievers in 1993, then left after one season. 

President Bill Torrey replaced him with Bryan Murray, whose acquisition of sniper Ray Sheppard and drafting of Ed Jovanovski proved pivotal in the 1996 Cup Finals run. 

Murray even won NHL Executive of the Year that season.

Then the tinkering began. 

After an 8-0-4 start in 1996-97, Murray traded second-line center Stu Barnes to Pittsburgh for Chris Wells, a gangly, uncoordinated center. Undersized but effective, Barnes played on the Pens’ first line alongside Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr and went on to play another 10 NHL seasons.

Wells never made an impact, scoring seven career goals, and might be best remembered for his collision with Pavel Bure during a practice that could have (but didn’t) result in serious injury.

Murray’s roster shakeups continued as he steadily traded away the core of the Cup team. 

After a slow start in 1997-98, he fired Doug MacLean and took over himself as coach, then hired brother Terry the following season.

Terry Murray had taken Philadelphia to the Cup Final against Detroit a year earlier but was fired after stating the team was in “a choking situation” after what proved to be a pivotal 6-1 loss to Detroit in Game 3. The Red Wings went on to sweep the series.

Led by Bure’s 58 goals, the Panthers made the playoffs in Murray’s second season of 1999-2000. Before the start of the following training camp, I wrote in a column that Murray’s poor communication skills constituted a problem, whereuponhe pulled me aside before the first practice and asked, “Are you trying to get me fired?”

When the team won only six of its first 36 games, that took care of itself and assistant Duane Sutter took over.

Bryan Murray himself was fired after that season, the first of 10 straight and 13 of 14 seasons that failed to produce a playoff berth.

2. Poor drafting: The old-fashioned way of building for success in pro sports is through the draft, and the Panthers had the opportunity to do so with three top-five picks in the 2001, 2002, and 2003 drafts. 

Those picks did little to change their fortunes compared to who they could have gotten.

  • Stephen Weiss, No. 4 overall, 2001: For some unknown reason, Weiss’ stock soared in a week or two leading up to the draft as he moved from the low teens into the top 5 on many draft boards. It wasn’t a great draft, but in taking the 5-11, 175-pound Weiss, the Panthers ignored Mikko Koivu, a 6-2, 200-pounder who went sixth to Minnesota and enjoyed a long, successful career there.
  • Jay Bouwmeester, No. 3, 2002:  The Panthers fell in love with the 6-4 Bouwmeester’s smooth skating ability and decided to ignore that he was a complete introvert with no leadership skills. They traded down to No. 3 and could have kept the top pick and gotten Rick Nash, who had ten seasons of 30 or more goals and was a five-time All-Star.
  • Nathan Horton, No. 3, 2003: Horton’s size, shot, and skating ability made him a coveted prospect coming out of junior. Still, injuries and what many perceived as an unwillingness to maximize those talents held him back until he moved on to Boston near the end of his career. Again, Florida traded down once it was assured it would get Horton, thus passing on Eric Staal, who spent seven years as a captain at Carolina and had six 30-goal seasons compared to Horton’s one.

3. Mike Keenan, coach and GM:  The man known as “Iron Mike” had taken three teams — Philadelphia, Chicago, and the New York Rangers — to the Stanley Cup Finals, winning the Cup with the Rangers in 1994, before coming to Florida in 2001. 

It wasn’t a good fit from the start and never got better.

Keenan had proven successful with veteran teams with strong leaders, such as Chris Chelios in Chicago and Mark Messier in New York.

His struggles with younger players surfaced early when he wanted to send Weiss, playing second-line center, back to junior early in his second season. He almost never practiced power play and penalty kill and the results showed.

The Panthers finished last in their division his first two years before he resigned 15 games into his third.

Less than a year later, in June 2004, owner Alan Cohen announced that Keenan would return as GM and Jacques Martin would take over as coach. 

After a lockout canceled the 2004-05 season, Keenan signed aging stars Joe Nieuwendyk and Gary Roberts to bring leadership, but the team totaled 84 points in his one season as GM. Both had moments in South Florida, but Nieuwendyk was forced into retirement due to back issues, and Roberts was traded to play with Sidney Crosby.

Keenan’s blockbuster deal, still regarded as one of the worst in NHL history, came during the 2006 NHL Draft. 

He was fired — and Martin took over as GM and coach — before the next season started.

The trade that got him fired?

4. Roberto Luongo trade: The best trade of Bryan Murray’s time as GM was in the summer of 2000 when he acquired Luongo and Olli Jokinen from the Islanders for Mark Parrish and Oleg Kvasha. 

Over the next five years, Luongo established himself as the best young goalie in the NHL

But Luongo and Keenan never hit it off, Keenan always demanding more of his young netminder. 

By June 2006, it was clear Luongo was on the block, and sure enough, Keenan dealt him to Vancouver for Todd Bertuzzi, goaltender Alex Auld, and defenseman Bryan Allen.

While Luongo backstopped the Canucks to the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and spent seven successful seasons there before being reacquired by Florida, Bertuzzi never warmed to his new role, playing only seven games and scoring one goal while dealing with a back injury before Martin shipped him off to Detroit. 

Allen became a second-pair defenseman for three years while Auld appeared in just 27 games as a Panther, famously getting punched by goalie Ed Belfour (Keenan’s final acquisition for the Panthers) while out late one night on Long Island.

5. The Gerard Gallant affair: After the turbulent Keenan years, the team achieved some stability under the coaching tenures of Martin (2006-08), Pete DeBoer (2008-11) and Kevin Dineen (2011-13) before Gallant arrived. 

After an impressive first year in which Florida improved by 25 points, Gallant coached the team to its first 100-point season in 2015-16, finishing with a 47-26-9 record and 103 points.

Shuffling and reshuffling in the front office left GM Dale Tallon without the power he had previously enjoyed and Tom Rowe as the decision-maker. 

After an 11-10-1 start, Rowe abruptly fired Gallant — so abruptly that he was left at the curb with his suitcase following a loss in Raleigh.

The image became the talk of the NHL for a time and left the Panthers looking like a second-class operation. 

Rowe went 24-26-10 the rest of the year and was replaced after the season by Bob Boughner. 

Gallant went on to coach the Vegas Golden Knights, guiding them to the Stanley Cup Final in their first season and winning the Jack Adams Award as the league’s top coach.

Things, as they say, have certainly changed in Sunrise. 

Almost all for the better. 

Brian Biggane covered the Florida Panthers for the Palm Beach Post from 1994-2008.

For More FHN Coverage of the Florida Panthers:

2024 STANLEY CUP FINAL
EDMONTON OILERS VS. FLORIDA PANTHERS 
GAME 1
  • When: Saturday, 8 p.m.
  • Where: Amerant Bank Arena, Sunrise
  • National TV: ABC
  • Streaming: ESPN+/Hulu
  • Radio: WQAM 560-AM; WPOW 96.5-FM2; WBZT 1230-AM (West Palm Beach); WCTH 100.3-FM (Florida Keys); WCZR 101.7-FM (Treasure Coast); SiriusXM
  • Panthers Radio Streaming: SiriusXM 932, NHL app
  • Series Schedule, All Games 8 p.m. on ABC — Game 1:Edmonton at Florida, Saturday; Game 2: Edmonton at Florida, Monday June 10; Game 3: Florida at Edmonton, Thursday June 13; Game 4: Florida at Edmonton, Saturday June 15; Game 5*: Edmonton at Florida, Tuesday June 18; Game 6*: Florida at Edmonton, Friday June 21; Game 7*: Edmonton at Florida, Monday June 24. (*) – If Necessary
  • How They Got Here — Florida: d. Tampa Bay 4-1, Boston 4-2, New York Rangers 4-2; Edmonton: d. Los Angeles 4-1, Vancouver 4-3, Dallas 4-2.
  • This Season (Florida Won 2-0) — At Florida: Panthers 5, Oilers 3 (Nov. 20). At Edmonton: Panthers 5, Oilers 2 (Dec. 17).
  • Last Season: Edmonton Won 2-0
  • All-time Regular Season Series: Oilers lead 23-16-0, 3 ties
  • Postseason History: First Meeting

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David B

Brian

Great looking back at the craziness of the franchise

Hope you are doing well

Ed Purchase

This is an exceptional article. I’m not a sadist, but there could be three more just like this one. How about the Yormark ‘slap an ad on anything flat’ effect? How about the Ray Whitney rise and fall in Sunrise? How about the attempt to draft Ovechkin a year early? How about the Olesz draft fiasco? How about ‘It’s a Ritual’? How about kicking Denis Potvin to the curb? How about the ‘video only’ amateur scouting? Oh my goodness…I could go on and on and on. Maybe I really am a sadist………….

Last edited 11 days ago by Ed Purchase
Dale Huber

Please, never type the word Yormark without giving people a warning first. For many of us it still too much to take.

Zeke1961

First, kudos to Brian for a superbly documented synopsis. Living in FLA for all those early years, PBP and Sun-Sentinel were mandatory reading. But to the point, I met Denny Potvin briefly, but was never apprised of what the deal was re his abrupt removal from the broadcast. Could you enlighten me ?

Brian Biggane

Michael Yormark (yes, the one referenced above) never cared for Potion and made that happen. Not exactly sure but believe that was when Bill Lindsay moved up to TV analyst and Randy Moller took over the radio call. I criticized the Moller decision whereupon he got me on the phone and called me every name in the book before hanging up. Have actually come to enjoy he and Goldie now. Sure they’re homers but that’s the job.

FM

Great historic summary. Thanks

Duke del Valle

Aside from the ’96 Finals run there has been little to no reason to support this team until Zito’s excellence kicked in — and it’s been one hell of a ride ever since. A well deserved one for everyone involved, too.

If folks are jumping on the bandwagon, welcome them, as some of the comments on other Panthers news sites are embarrassing. So what if you were a diehard fan of a lousy hockey team for 25 years? Just relax, be nice even to the newcomers, and enjoy the ride.

Go Cats.

Armando Perez

Great article! All on point. The only thing missing is that Jason Wooley and Stu Barnes were traded for Chris Wells. This was a fleecing and Penguins GM Craig Patrick had to pinch himself in order to stop laughing! I’m sure Murray was paid under the table to purposefully sabotage the team. To me there is no other explanation for this stupid trade!

Coop

Triggered! The years of suffering. UGH!

JM

Great article!
Missing the worst move in NHL history, when Dale Tallon gave away Marchessault and Smith. Made all the more terrible when those two beat us in the finals last year. For a franchise marred with incompetence no one came close to Dale Tallon in this respect.

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