When comparing the Florida Panthers team which had the most postseason success to the current one — which hopes to have a long playoff run of its own — only one person has intimate on-ice knowledge of both.
Jaromir Jagr, who has been the Panthers’ leading scorer much of this season, remembers the 1996 Stanley Cup finalist Florida Panthers very well.
As a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins that season, Jagr was at the Igloo in downtown Pittsburgh when the Panthers upset the Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals to advance to the championship round.
“We are totally different teams,” Jagr said.
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“We have a lot more skill here. Give them all the credit; they worked hard and they won and that’s what happens in the playoffs. They outworked everyone.”
The Panthers are back in the playoffs for only the fifth time in their history.
The 2015-16 version of the Panthers are a bit of a surprise not for being in the postseason, but for how they got here.
Although many pundits expected the Panthers to fight for a playoff spot after last year’s turnaround, no one figured Florida would spend a good part of the season atop the Atlantic Division standings.
No one could have seen the Panthers setting franchise records for wins and points in a season or being one of the top teams in goals for as well as goals against.
Yet here they are, going into the playoffs holding a top seed and ready to win their first postseason series since 1996.
“Our young guys have played a lot of meaningful hockey,’’ said coach Gerard Gallant, who in his second season is bound to get consideration for the league’s coach of the year honors.
“Last year we were battling for respect, and this year we earned a playoff spot. I don’t hear ‘are you for real’ a lot anymore. Our team and coaches from around the league know we’re a good team. We believe that. We didn’t sneak up on anyone. We’re a good team, we’re getting better every day, and it has been a lot of fun so far.’’
Scott Mellanby started the rat-throwing craze back then, yet now as the assistant general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, he appreciates how this Florida team plays from afar.
“This team has legs. This can be sustainable,’’ Mellanby said.
“They have a good team here. I like their size, they have some big-time players at big positions. ... They have some good pieces.’’
Unlike the 1996 Panthers, this team is built for the future and built to be good for a long time.
Sure, the Panthers have some real age disparity from veterans such as Jagr, Roberto Luongo and Shawn Thornton compared to youngsters Sasha Barkov, Aaron Ekblad, Vincent Trocheck and Jonathan Huberdeau.
While the 1996 Panthers were built with experienced players from the beginning, general manager Dale Tallon has been building this team through the draft since taking over in 2010 and taking Erik Gudbranson with the third overall pick in Los Angeles.
“The ’96 team won on defense and when this team wins, it’s scoring goals,’’ said Bill Torrey, who helped pick the original core of the Panthers at the 1993 expansion draft.
“We have much better offensive weapons now while 20 years ago we were very mature, very defensive.’’
Since drafting Gudbranson six years ago, Tallon drafted 18 players who have seen time with the Panthers this season.
Tallon also traded for the likes of 25-year-old Reilly Smith, who had a career season since coming over from Boston. Florida’s veterans have come over by trade or free agency, with the older players carrying some of the load so the kids didn’t have to do it all by themselves.
The Panthers wouldn’t be where they are today if not for their veteran players — and wouldn’t be here without their talented youngsters, either.
“We have plenty of veterans who have seen a lot and we’re going to help the kids along the way,’’ said Luongo, who was with the Panthers from 2000 to 2006 before being traded to Vancouver and subsequently being traded back in 2014.
“Who knows? Maybe it’s better to be young and just go out there and play and not think about it too much. We’re just excited about the potential of this group.’’
This season’s Panthers may be much different than the 1996 standard bearers yet they share DNA other than the leaping cat logo the two share (at least for now).
Both teams had strong goaltending, with John Vanbiesbrouck all but carrying the team on his back in 1996. Luongo, who turned 37 on April 4, is a veteran netminder who has plenty of postseason experience — even if it isn’t all positive.
“This is the promised land, the playoffs are right around the corner,” Vanbiesbrouck said when in town for the 20th anniversary of the 1996 team last month. “This team is strong in goal, strong on defense, strong up front and has a great coaching staff. This is fun, a fun time. This makes us all watch more closely. I think this team can go deep in the playoffs because they’re built to.”
The Panthers of 20 years ago had plenty of players who had been in the playoffs — as does this team.
Jagr and Thornton have won the Stanley Cup twice in their careers as has captain Willie Mitchell.
Brian Campbell, the first big veteran player Tallon talked into joining him in Florida in 2011, won with the Blackhawks in 2011.
“You want to compete for the Stanley Cup every year,’’ Campbell said after the Panthers clinched this year’s playoff spot. “There have been some lean years here which has been frustrating and it hasn’t always been easy. But we’re here in the present day and we have some exciting pieces.
“We feel like we can get this job done.’’
As for the 1996 team, they hope the Florida Panthers end up going one step farther than they did and bring the Stanley Cup to South Florida.
“Hopefully this team goes on a run that goes well into June,” said Brian Skrudland, the Panthers’ original captain. “We’re all a little tired of talking about a team that lost. You don’t talk about the teams that lose, but we do in Florida because it’s the best we’ve got. It’s time to bring in a winner and I think this team can do it. They’ve gone from zero to 100.”
Although the 1996 Panthers will always hold a special part of this franchise’s history, winning it all will complete the story.
The Panthers had a rally at Miami Arena in 1996.
Now, they want to have a parade down Las Olas Boulevard.
“I would love to see a great celebration down here,” Vanbiesbrouck said. “It’s going to be great when we’re in the arena and it’s happening right in front of our eyes. It’ll be electric. We love surprises and this town needs another surprise. They have the capabilities to do it.”