Panthers build a winner through camaraderie and competition

·4 min read

TAMPA — Forward Carter Verhaeghe spent his rookie NHL season last year battling for ice time, mostly relegated to fourth-line duty in a stacked Lightning lineup.

Verhaeghe became a restricted free agent in the offseason. Tampa Bay wanted to keep him, but its salary cap crunch wouldn’t allow it. The Lightning didn’t offer the 25-year-old a contract, and he signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Panthers on a modest two-year deal for $1 million a year.

Now he’s playing on the Panthers’ top line and is coming off an 18-goal regular season. He was one of several new faces in the Florida locker room, part of first-year general manager Bill Zito’s savvy roster overhaul that has made the Panthers into not only a playoff team but a Stanley Cup contender.

There is championship pedigree among some of the newcomers. Verhaeghe won the Stanley Cup last year in Tampa Bay. Forward Patric Hornqvist, an offseason trade acquisition, won back-to-back Cups in Pittsburgh in 2016-17. They joined second-year coach Joel Quenneville, who won three Cups in Chicago and is the second-winningest coach in the history of the game.

“I think a lot of teams’ attitude has changed towards us,” Verhaeghe said. “I think we had a great year this year. And we showed a lot of people that probably doubted us outside of here that we’re a good team. So I think a lot has changed.”

It has been 25 years since the Panthers won a playoff series — in their 1996 run to the Stanley Cup final — and this year’s postseason appearance, which begins tonight against the Lightning in a first-round series, is only their sixth since then.

Florida was expected to be competitive this season, but few outside its dressing room predicted it would be in the fight for first place in the realigned Central Division all season before finishing second to Carolina.

The transition started with an existing young core that had taken its lumps but grown into very good players: captain Aleksander Barkov, wing Jonathan Huberdeau, and defensemen Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar. Zito added complementary pieces such as Hornqvist and Verhaeghe. He also signed in free agency speedy forward Anthony Duclair and veteran former Lightning defenseman Radko Gudas.

“I think with the way this season went, we got to spend a lot of time together on the road, a lot of time in the buses, planes and hotels,” said Gudas, referring to the strict coronavirus protocols that limited players to the team hotel, arena and practice facility on the road. “And it was a lot a lot easier for us to get to know each other and was quicker in that way.

“You don’t really have a bad apple around. Everybody’s really comfortable being around each other, and it’s fun to get to the meal room and sit with whoever’s got the free space at the table. I think that’s one way that the management did very well, to get guys that want to compete, want to perform and want to win, and I think it goes a long way.”

Quenneville said that having more players on the ice this season with the taxi squad the league created to help with virus issues spurred healthy competition. And Quenneville showed he was willing to spread around ice time, which let players know they had a chance to contribute. Thirty-two players saw action in at least seven games this season.

“That incentive was something that the guys took the right way,” Quenneville said. “I thought competition was healthy in finding the consistency of our game. So many guys got a taste of the playing this year, and getting to know exactly who was who, they played with everybody over the course of the season, which can be helpful.”

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, a two-time Vezina Trophy winner with the Blue Jackets, rebounded this year after struggling in his first season in Florida after signing a seven-year, $70 million contract.

When Ekblad went down with a season-ending left-leg fracture in a game against the Stars on March 28, Weegar elevated his game. With the Panthers competing for the top seed in the division, they upgraded at the trade deadline, acquiring forward Sam Bennett and defenseman Brandon Montour, players who arrived energized from Calgary.

And Quenneville’s direct but calm demeanor has played well to the group. His message has been clear: Play simple, disciplined hockey. The Panthers did just that.

“He’s obviously one of the best coaches, if not the best coach in the league,” Weegar said. “And what he says is very impactful, and it’s very meaningful. It’s pretty special to hear what he has to say, and he does a great job at leading in our team. … I think this year, we truly have earned to be in the position we’re in.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at Follow @EddieintheYard.

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