The Hockey News — and many other similar publications — predicted the Florida Panthers would finish sixth out of the eight teams in the Atlantic Division this season, way out of playoff contention.
And, up until Jan. 30, all those fortune tellers were correct. The Panthers were even worse than predicted — 28th out of 30 NHL teams at that point.
Because of injuries, the Panthers were down to their third goaltender — a complete NHL novice named Harri Sateri. The coach, Bob Boughner, was and is in his first year running an NHL team, and no Panthers fan could be blamed for looking toward the draft.
But the Panthers have shocked the hockey world since then, going 14-3-1. With three games in hand on their main rivals, the Panthers are now favored to make the playoffs.
They have tied the franchise record with seven straight home wins, a mark that is now expected to fall on Saturday night when the wobbly New York Rangers visit the BB&T Center.
So, how have the Panthers engineered this amazing turnaround?
Goalie Roberto Luongo has one answer.
“Teams have trouble containing our speed,” he said. “That’s what we’re good at.”
The Panthers have used that speed to lead the NHL in shots per game this season at 34.4.
“As long as you’re putting volume up,” Panthers winger Nick Bjugstad said.
Clearly, it takes talent to play that fast-paced, up-and-back system, and that’s where Dale Tallon deserves credit. He was hired to run the front office in May 2010. Tallon built the Chicago Blackhawks team that won the Stanley Cup in 2010, and much of that core remained when they won again in 2013 and 2015.
With the Panthers, it has been a slow rebuilding process, but it appears as if much of the young talent acquired along the way is finally starting to mature.
It hasn’t happened overnight. But the Panthers have made key additions in the draft every year since Tallon arrived. Here’s a look:
▪ 2010: Nick Bjugstad was the 19th overall pick, and he’s a solid top-six forward. Defenseman Alex Petrovic and forward Connor Brickley were depth players added in the second round.
▪ 2011: Jonathan Huberdeau was the third pick, and this became a great draft when the Panthers stole Vincent Trocheck in the third round. Those are two of Florida’s top three forwards.
▪ 2012: Defenseman Mike Matheson was picked 23rd and has come of age this year.
▪ 2013: The Panthers drafted their MVP, Aleksander Barkov, second overall. Defensemen Ian McCoshen (second round) and MacKenzie Weegar (seventh) added depth.
▪ 2014: Aaron Ekblad (first pick) figures to anchor the defense for a decade.
▪ 2015: This was not one of Florida’s best drafts. Had they picked first like the previous year, they would have had superstar Connor McDavid, and we would be having an entirely different conversation about this team right now.
Instead, they drafted Lawson Crouse at No. 11, and he has since been traded. Available at that point in the draft was Mathew Barzal, who has 18 goals and 51 assists as a rookie this year with the Islanders.
To some extent, the Panthers salvaged a bit of this draft in the fourth round when they selected diminutive forward Denis Malgin out of Switzerland. Now 21, Malgin had 10 goals this year before getting injured and is due back soon.
The past two first rounds have brought in high-end forwards — Henrik Borgstrom in 2016 and Owen Tippett last year — who are due to arrive in the NHL with impact soon, possibly at the start of next season.
Aside from the draft, the Panthers have made two big-money splashes, trading for Luongo and his long-term contract in March 2014 and signing defenseman and power-play quarterback Keith Yandle in June 2016.
The Panthers traded Jacob Markstrom and Shawn Matthias to the Canucks to get Luongo. They traded a fourth-round pick to the Rangers for negotiating rights to Yandle, one of the top iron men in NHL history in terms of consecutive games played.
Those trades have worked out well. Just ask Bjugstad about the 38-year-old Luongo.
“He doesn’t seem to be getting any older,” Bjugstad said.
But it’s the smaller deals that sometimes go unnoticed that can really swing a franchise. The Panthers signed forward Evgenii Dadonov to a three-year, $12 million contract on July 1, 2017, and that looks like a heist.
The Panthers are hoping the same will soon be said about Frank Vatrano, who was acquired on Feb. 22 from the Boston Bruins for a third-round pick.
Certainly, there have been mistakes along the way.
Firing coach Gerard Gallant, kicking Tallon upstairs before bringing him back, losing Jonathan Marchessault in the expansion draft and watching him, Gallant and ex-Panther Reilly Smith take the NHL by storm in Las Vegas were all Panthers nightmares.
But the Panthers have made enough of the right moves, and the result is what the NHL has seen for the past six weeks of dominance.