The Florida Panthers finished with the most points in the NHL last season.
They want more.
They want to do more than dominate the league in the regular season, want to advance past the first round of the playoffs, want to hoist the Stanley Cup for the first time since the franchise started in 1993-94.
Which may explain why general manager Bill Zito made several major changes to his high-scoring roster in the summer, even though the Panthers are coming off a season in which they went 58-18-6 and accumulated a franchise-best 122 points.
Florida was a goal-scoring machine in 2021-22, averaging 4.11 goals per game. That was the highest NHL output since Pittsburgh in 1995-96.
Yeah, it had been a while.
But Florida flopped in the second-round of the playoffs, getting swept by Tampa Bay in four games. The Panthers managed just three goals, total, in the four games. Three.
Zito took it to heart. He stunned the hockey world with several eye-opening moves in the summer.
He sent two franchise pillars, Jonathan Huberdeau—a 29-year-old left winger who led the team with 115 points last season—and highly respected defenseman MacKenzie Weegar to Calgary in the blockbuster trade that brought power forward Matthew Tkachuk to Sunrise. Florida also dealt a prospect and a lottery-protected, 2025 first-round draft pick to Calgary in the July deal.
In addition, the general manager didn’t bring back interim coach Andrew Brunette, even though he was the Jack Adams runner-up as the NHL coach of the year.
Paul Maurice was named his replacement.
Did Zito overreact?
Or will his moves propel the Cats to their first Stanley Cup?
Adding the high-scoring right winger Tkachuk (104 points), Zito told reporters, “allows us to keep that core. Now we have a 24-year-old that fits right in there with Sasha (Barkov) … and allows us to keep a younger core of high-end players together—hopefully to grow together and win together.”
Tkachuk, who grew up in St. Louis, said it was “unbelievable” to be in Florida. “It seems like a very close group, and a solid group that is close to winning,” he said.
He said he will bring “a certain swagger” to the Panthers, and wants to increase the fan base in South Florida. “I’m excited for the chance to grow the game here, and I hope in a couple years, nobody on the team can walk outside without someone saying something to them, like it is in some other cities.”
Tkachuk, who brings both scoring and tenacity, had Florida on the top of his trade list. He immediately signed an eight-year extension with an annual cap hit of $9.5 million.
“First and foremost was winning, not just winning now, but in the future,” he said at his introductory news conference. “No. 2 is the lifestyle… and No. 3, they have a bunch of elite players I can play with.”
As Florida’s 2022-23 season opener approached, this was the Panthers’ tentative lineup, along with their stats from last season:
Line 1: Barkov (team-high 39 goals, 88 points) centering Carter Verhaeghe (24 goals, 55 points) and Tkachuk (42 goals, 104 points).
Line 2: Sam Bennett (28 goals, 49 points) centering Rudolfs Balcers (11 goals, 23 points) and Sam Reinhart (33 goals, 82 points).
Line 3: Anton Lundell (18 goals, 44 points) centering Nick Cousins (nine goals, 22 points) and Colin White (three goals, 10 points in 24 games).
Line 4: Eetu Luostarinen (nine goals, 26 points) centering Ryan Lomberg (nine goals, 18 points) and Patric Hornqvist (11 goals, 28 points).
Defense 1: Gustav Forsling (10 goals, 37 points, plus-41) and Aaron Ekblad (15 goals, 57 points, plus-38)
Defense 2: Lucas Carlsson (three goals, nine points, plus-3) and Radko Gudas (three goals, 16 points, plus-27).
Defense 3: Marc Staal (three goals, 16 points, minus-1) and Brandon Montour (11 goals, 37 points, plus-15).
Goalies: Serge Bobrovsky (39-7-3 record, 2.67 GAA, .913 SP) and Spencer Knight (19-9-3, 2.79, .908).
Tkachuk, White, Balcers, Cousins, and Staal are among the players added by Zito since last season.
Among the departures: Huberdeau, Weegar, winger/center Claude Giroux, left winger Mason Marchment, and defensemen Ben Chiarot, Noel Acciari and Robert Hagg.
Yes, Zito had a busy off-season.
The off-season also saw winger Anthony Duclair need surgery on his Achilles tendon while working out. He had a career season with the Panthers in 2021-22, collecting 31 goals and 51 points while playing primarily on the top-6. Duclair will probably miss around half the season.
Without Huberdeau, who set an NHL left-wing record with 85 assists last season, and Duclair (for a while), the Panthers will huff and puff to repeat last year’s remarkable scoring pace.
A year ago, the Cats had four 30-goal scorers, six 20-goal scorers, and 13 players in double figures.
The X-factor is Tkachuk, who will try to duplicate a superb year without Calgary linemates Johnny Gaudreau and Elias Lindholm.
He should mesh well with two other multi-talented forwards, Barkov and Verhaeghe.
Last season’s four-game sweep against the Lightning jolted the Panthers, their fans, and Zito.
Tkachuk can relate.
“I personally haven’t been on any teams that have had playoff success,” he said. “I have a bitter taste in my mouth, just like (these Panthers) teams have had the past few years.” Tkachuk said. “I think that’s a good thing. Part of the fit. … I have that hunger to win, and I know everyone else here does, too.”
Maurice has that hunger, too. When he was named the new coach in late June, it added to an odd turn of events for him. On Dec. 17, he stepped down as the Winnipeg coach, saying the team “needed a new voice.” He was in his ninth year with the Jets, and also was the head coach in Toronto and Hartford (at age 28)/Carolina.
Now his job is to get the Panthers to close the deal, something they failed to do last season.
“To be given this opportunity is humbling,” Maurice said. “They’ve got a lot of really strong pieces here.”
Maurice said he was invigorated to get the Panthers to the next level, that management had done “some tremendous work to get to where they are.”
He ranks seventh in NHL history with 775 wins. Maurice is 775-680-130-99, and his career playoff record is 41-51. In 2002, he directed Carolina to the Stanley Cup Final, where it was beaten by Detroit in five games.
Maurice said the team’s focus will be to outwork every team.
“Certainly there’s enough talent here that you think we can get going in the right direction,” he said.
“Hopefully once we get there,” he said of the playoffs, “we take each series as it comes. You can’t look ahead. Take care of the team you’re playing against. You play hard. You play in their face. You have great goaltending. We have all the tools here. We have the players. We have a great coach. Unbelievable owner, from what I’ve heard. Great owner. Spends to the cap. There’s no reason why this can’t work here.”
Maurice said it’s “very difficult to blast through the playoffs if you just think, ‘You play your game,’ right? The other team is getting paid, too. So we invest every single day in our future by our work ethic that day.”
Besides having a talented group, Maurice was fortunate to land a job close to his son, who is attending the University of Miami.
This would make Maurice’s new job perfect: Removing last season’s disappointing finish by leading the Florida Panthers to their first Stanley Cup.