In 1996, the ‘Year of the Rat’ Florida Panthers made it to the Stanley Cup Final in their most memorable season in franchise history. Can the ‘Spacey in Space’ Panthers of 2016 top that?
Doug MacLean/Gerard Gallant
MacLean: The Panthers shook things up after their first two seasons following expansion and brought in the fiery Doug MacLean to coach them after firing Hall of Famer Roger Neilson before the 1995-96 season. MacLean coached the team for parts of three seasons and was behind the bench for two All-Star Games. He was fired after a rough start in 1997 and is now a TV analyst in Canada who commutes from his home in Delray Beach.
Gallant: Florida’s ninth coach since MacLean, Gallant is coincidentally from the same small town (Summerside) in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island as MacLean. MacLean also taught and coached a young Gallant in PEI, and the two remain close. Gallant is in his second season with the Panthers and coached the Atlantic Division team at the All-Star Game earlier this season. Gallant has an easy-going style and relates well to the players after playing more than a decade with Detroit and Tampa Bay.
Bryan Murray/Dale Tallon
Murray: Now the general manager of the Ottawa Senators, Bryan Murray took over for Bob Clarke, who returned to Philadelphia following Florida’s successful expansion season in 1993-94. The Panthers’ foundation was pretty much set by the time Murray came in before the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season as Florida didn’t add nor subtract many pieces (Ray Sheppard was one big acquisition) from 1993 to 1996. Murray did select Radek Dvorak in the 1995 draft, a key piece of the 1996 team.
Tallon: Unlike Murray’s 1996 team, Florida’s 2016 roster has been completely revamped since Tallon came on board in 2010. Of Florida’s current players, only defenseman Dmitry Kulikov remains from the Panthers’ previous management. Tallon helped build Chicago into Stanley Cup champions and followed the same blueprint in Florida: Stockpile plenty of young talent through the draft and supplement it with veteran players. So far, Tallon has constructed a deep roster which could be for a long time. Florida’s young core of Sasha Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Erik Gudbranson and Nick Bjugstad is the envy of many teams in the league.
1996: The Panthers weren’t known for having the most talented lines, but they took pride in how they would outwork opponents. Florida’s top three scorers were forwards Scott Mellanby, Rob Niedermayer and Ray Sheppard as they combined for 77 goals. Florida had plenty of other solid forwards such as Brian Skrudland, Johan Garpenlov, Stu Barnes, Jody Hull, Tom Fitzgerald, Billy Lindsay, Dave Lowry, Mike Hough and Radek Dvorak. All seemed to chip in and have their big moment in the postseason — none bigger than Lindsay’s Game 5 goal which beat Boston in the opening round.
2016: Florida has an odd mix of players with a lot of experience (Jaromir Jagr, Jiri Hudler) and extremely young players (Barkov, Bjugstad, Trocheck and Huberdeau). Yet there’s no questioning the talent Florida possesses. These Panthers have five players with more than 50 points for the first time in franchise history as the team is in the top third of the league in goals scored. Trocheck got hurt near the end of the season, but his progression helped fuel Florida’s season. The Panthers are also deep with a third line of Bjugstad, Hudler and Teddy Purcell considered pretty dangerous, with veteran Derek MacKenzie centering the fourth line.
1996: Florida’s strength in its run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996 was its defense. Led by Robert Svehla and Paul Laus, the Panthers’ blueline was tough to play against. Jason Woolley and Gord Murphy — who came back to the Panthers as an assistant coach under Kevin Dineen in 2011 — moved the puck well. Florida also had rookie Ed Jovanovski (who was traded away as part of the Pavel Bure deal yet returned in 2011) and Terry Carkner, with Rhett Warrener and Geoff Smith playing smaller roles.
2016: Even without captain Willie Mitchell for half of the season, the Panthers are deep on defense. Veteran Brian Campbell has yet to miss a game since joining the Panthers in 2011 and leads a talented group. Ekblad is a rising star in the league after winning last season’s rookie of the year award; Dmitry Kulikov and Gudbranson continue to get better and are very solid defensively. The Panthers also have Steven Kampfer, Jakub Kindl (brought in from Detroit in February) and Alex Petrovic.
John Vanbiesbrouck/Roberto Luongo
“The Beezer:” John Vanbiesbrouck was Florida’s all-time leader in every goaltending category as he opened the franchise’s first game at Chicago Stadium in 1993 and led the Panthers into their final game at Miami Arena in 1998. Vanbiesbrouck — who came to Florida in the expansion draft — put the Panthers on his shoulders in 1996 and carried them all the way to the Finals.
“Louie:” This is Roberto Luongo’s second stint with Florida and first trip to the postseason with the Panthers. Luongo spent five seasons with Florida after coming over in a trade with the Islanders in 2000. He was shipped to Vancouver by Mike Keenan in 2006. Luongo had some postseason success with the Canucks and helped them to the 2011 Finals before losing a 3-2 lead in the Cup Finals to the Bruins. Luongo is hungry for another shot at a ring and seems ready to put his postseason past behind him.
H. Wayne Huizenga/Vinny Viola, Doug Cifu
1996: Huizenga and his Blockbuster Video empire were surprisingly granted a franchise the day after the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers played at Miami Arena in 1992. After putting the expansion Marlins on the field in 1993, Huizenga figured he could do it again, and the Panthers were on the ice less than 10 months after being conceived. Huizenga was beloved by his players and employees for creating a first-class work environment. Huizenga’s group sold the team in 2000 by a consortium led by Alan Cohen.
2016: Viola and Doug Cifu, who run the Wall Street trading firm Virtu Financial, bought the team from Cliff Viner and his partners in 2014. The two immediately began putting their stamp on the Panthers as Viola’s West Point values became a big part of the team’s identity on and off the ice. Florida’s new owners spent money on new players, got the team its own plane and they are in the process of completely redoing the logo and uniforms. Most importantly, the owners were able to redo the arena lease agreement with Broward County to offer stability (and almost $90 million in tourist tax dollars) as the franchise will remain in Sunrise for the foreseeable future.
Miami Arena/BB&T Center
1996: The Panthers spent their first five seasons sharing the Overtown arena with the Miami Heat and had much success there. Florida went to the playoffs twice in five years, and the tight confines of the arena led to a great advantage. Fans seemed to be stacked on top of each other, which led to great crowd noise even if the amenities and creature comforts were lacking.
2016: The BB&T Center seems to have had more names than hosted playoff games as this is just the Panthers third trip to the postseason since opening the 20,000-seat barn in 1998. The large arena on the edge of the Everglades doesn’t lend itself for being a tough ticket, but when it’s full, it’s loud. The Panthers are expected to sell out every playoff game this year as attendance is up more than 30 percent over last season.
Year of the Rat/Spacey In Space
1996: Just before the 1996 home opener, a lost rat wandered down a hallway at Miami Arena toward the home locker room. With a lot of yelps and screams in the background, Florida forward Scott Mellanby sized the rodent up, pulled back his stick and one-timed the poor creature into the wall. On the ice later that night, Mellanby scored twice, leading John Vanbiesbrouck to dub it “a Rat Trick.” One day, a fan tossed a rubber rat onto the ice following a goal and a phenomenon was created. Soon, thousands of toy rats — sometimes even live ones — were hurled from the far reaches of Miami Arena following goals. It got so bad, Pittsburgh’s Tom Barrasso famously sought refuge by crawling into his goal cage.
2016: Although this year’s version of the Rat Trick led to a pair of delay of game penalties in a win over New Jersey after the team handed out 10,000 rubber rats, the 2016 Panthers are best known for their wacky association with actor Kevin Spacey. As the story goes, the Panthers were holding their rookie dinner in New York City; Spacey happened to be there and joined in on the fun. The next night, the Panthers beat the host Islanders and ended up going on a 12-game winning streak. Soon, Shawn Thornton reportedly created a sweatshirt with Spacey’s face on it, the actor’s head suspended in space. The sweatshirt is given to a team’s MVP after wins. The story went viral after the Miami Herald spotted it on Sasha Barkov for the first time after he scored twice in a win over Montreal on Dec. 29. Spacey made headlines by recognizing the sweatshirt on Twitter, then got one of his very own on NBC’s Today show, saying he had become the team’s “good luck charm.” In March, Spacey came to a game to visit the team and was greeted by thousands of fans wearing cardboard-type masks with his face on it.
Known simply as “The Architect” on Long Island after building the New York Islanders from expansion team to four-time Stanley Cup champion, Huizenga talked Torrey into coming to South Florida and constructing another new team. Little did Torrey know, but he would never leave. Torrey, and his trademark bow tie, has been around for just about every game the Panthers have played since holding their first training camp in 1993. Torrey has served the Panthers in just about every position in hockey operations, from team president to general manager. A member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, the Panthers retired the number “93” in Torrey’s honor in 2010. Torrey has a banner with his name on it in Sunrise as well as in Brooklyn. His Islanders banner has a bow tie on it.
Thursday: Islanders at Panthers, 8 (FSFL, CNBC)
Friday: Islanders at Panthers, 7:30 (SUN, NHL Network)
Sunday: Panthers at Islanders, 8 (FSFL, NBCSN)
Wednesday: Panthers at Islanders, 8 (SUN, USA)
*April 22: Islanders at Panthers, TBD
*April 24: Panthers at Islanders, TBD
*April 26: Islanders at Panthers, TBD
*— If necessary