The Florida Panthers are on top of the world. Okay, they’re on top of the Atlantic Division — same thing, right? The point is, such a scenario was almost inconceivable just a few weeks ago.
To be clear, the “inconceivable” part wasn’t that the Panthers would be good. Or that they’d stage a nice run up the standings. No, the notion that seemed borderline impossible to imagine in early December was that anyone other than the Montreal Canadiens would be in first place. But here we are with everyone looking up at Gerard Gallant’s club.
How did we get to this point? Here are a few of the factors that have pushed the Panthers to head of the class…
We have to start here, simply because none of this would have been possible if the Habs didn’t stumble through pretty much all of December. Remember, they began this season 9-0-0. That marked the best start in franchise history and — just as a friendly reminder — this is one of the most storied franchises in all of organized sports.
In fact, they found themselves at 18-4-2 after knocking off the Devils in New Jersey on Nov. 27. That was the best record in hockey at the time, and they had the biggest cushion of any division leader in the NHL.
But the injury to Carey Price finally caught up with them last month. And the (somewhat overlooked) loss of Brendan Gallagher for an extended stretch was huge. How huge? They’re 17-4-2 with him in the lineup this season, and 5-11-1 without him. That’s not a coincidence.
The Hot Streak
Of course, Montreal losing would have meant very little to Florida if the Panthers didn’t go on a nice run themselves. Fortunately for Gallant’s group, they’ve caught fire of late. Since Nov. 27 (apparently everything in the Atlantic happens on Nov. 27), they’re 15-3-0. And they’ll enter Tuesday’s matchup with Buffalo in the midst of a nine-game winning streak. Opportunity knocked, and Florida answered.
The Panthers have been stockpiling gifted prospects for a while now, and it’s paying off. True, guys like Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad were making an impact before this season (two of them won the Calder Trophy, after all), but they’re really taking off now. Huberdeau’s 22 assists rank No. 14 in the entire league, and have him on pace for a career high.
Meanwhile, Barkov closed out December with five goals and five assists in seven games and Ekblad continues to do Ekblad things on the back end. His presence as a relatively polished blueliner at just 19 years of age is a constant reminder of how quickly a top-tier defenseman can swing a franchise’s fortunes.
Then throw in some impressive production from the likes of Vincent Trocheck, Brandon Pirri and Reilly Smith — all of whom are 24 years old or younger — and it’s easy to see why this group should only get better.
No seriously, he leads the team with 13 goals in 36 games. At this rate, he’d post 30 goals if he played a full 82-game slate. He turns 44 in a month. Another 20-goal season would be the 19th of his career. He is not human.
One of the smartest things Dale Tallon ever did was swing that deal for Roberto Luongo back in March of 2014. At the time, it looked like a bold move, considering the Panthers were pretty much out of the playoff picture for that season. Tallon was thinking big picture though, and it has really paid off.
In bringing Luongo back to Florida, he immediately gave the franchise a face again. Not only is the outspoken netminder an asset on the ice, he’s someone the fans were already very familiar with because of his first stint with the club from 2000-06. More importantly though, he’s one of the better goalies in the league — a valuable weapon at the most pivotal position in hockey.
With Luongo in the crease, the Panthers were in almost every game. So even when they were losing, the youngsters were gaining vital experience by playing in key situations. It’s one thing to log minutes at the NHL level, it’s something else entirely to log those minutes in close contests with the outcome hanging in the balance.
That addition almost certainly accelerated the developmental process for a number of the young guns on the roster. To the point where the organization’s bright future is already coming into focus.