During the 2011-2012 NHL season, the Florida Panthers made an improbable run for the Southeast Division title and qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time in 12 years. However, the team has since been unable to recapture that magic and fans are hungry for another exciting year.
Fortunately, it’s looking like the Panthers are on the comeback trail thanks to several changes that were instituted over the summer. Most notable among them is the appointment of Gerard Gallant, former Columbus Blue Jackets head coach and Montreal Canadiens assistant coach, as the new Florida Panthers head coach.
“I’m really excited about [joining the Panthers]; being the head coach before in Columbus … was my first time being an NHL coach and I really enjoyed that experience,” Gallant explained. “Getting a second opportunity to come to Florida with a very good hockey team – we really improved our hockey club this summer during the free agency period – I’m really looking forward to it.”
Within the first 90 minutes of the NHL’s free agency period, the Panthers had also signed five new players, ending the day with a total of six.
“It has been a great day for our franchise and we exceeded expectations,” Dale Tallon, Panthers GM, told the Miami Herald. “We identified a number of players and we got them all, basically … we had needs we had to address.”
The new players picked up from the free agent-free-for-all include:
Jussi Jokinen: The former Carolina and Pittsburgh winger scored 58 points for the Penguins last year (nearly 20 more points than the Panthers’ leading scorer, Nick Bjugstad, last year).
“He has a lot of class, a real pro,” Tallon said. “He has great skills and can score. He wanted to come here because of [Aleksander] Barkov and the other young players in the system. He did his homework. He knew this team inside and out.”
Willie Mitchell: Mitchell is a top four defenseman who will bring a wealth of experience to the Panthers. He played three seasons with the LA Kings prior to joining the Panthers and was instrumental in the Kings’ Stanley Cup wins in two of those three seasons.
Shawn Thornton: Twelve years after Thornton played for the Blackhawks under Tallon, he has the chance to play under him again. After being released from the Bruins, the enforcer was picked up for two years. Boston’s loss is certainly a huge gain for the Panthers.
“It was pretty disappointing when [Boston] said I wasn’t coming back, I’m not going to lie,” Thornton told Canada’s Sportsnet. “I spent a great seven years [there]. But I’ve had a few weeks to get over it. The focus then became to find somewhere I would fit and [my family] would be happy. Honestly, Florida was at the top of my list.”
Derek MacKenzie: This Canadian center has spent the past seven seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets; he has 31 goals and 71 points under his belt in the 307 games he has played.
Dave Bolland: Bolland comes out of Chicago (he was also signed to the Blackhawks by Tallon in 2004) and Toronto – where he had a frustrating one-year stint with just eight goals and four assists in 23 games before leaving mid-season with an injury – and is well-known for his cup-clinching goal in 2013.
Al Montoya: A solid backup goalie to Roberto Luongo, Montoya is the NHL’s first Cuban-American player. He has spent the past four years playing for the NY Islanders and Winnipeg Jets, but is looking forward to joining the Panthers in sunny South Florida after the Panthers missed the chance to draft him in 2004.
“I have had the ‘what-if’ in my head for a long time, wondering where my career might have been,” Montoya said. “I’m very excited because this is somewhere I want to be. I want to help the franchise grow. I’ve seen hockey grow in the non-traditional climates.”
This year’s big roster changes for the Panthers are sure to translate onto the ice, so you won’t want to miss out on all the action. The first preseason game is scheduled for September 24, when the Dallas Stars visit BB&T Center. The first regular season game will be October 11 against the New Jersey Devils.
“The first game will be fun. I mean, it’s a long season – it’s an 82-game season,” Gallant said. “But something about taking over this team and coaching your first game with a new hockey club is extremely exciting.”
For more information about the Panthers’ upcoming schedule or to purchase tickets to a home game, please visit www.floridapanthers.com/pbglifestyle.