Since joining the NHL in 1993 the Florida Panthers have had some trouble creating a successful culture at a sustainable level. Recently though, the organization has taken the right steps, and are moving towards such an environment.
Last season, Florida won the Atlantic division, and after a very bumpy start to this year’s campaign, are only two points behind the New York Islanders for the final Wild Card spot. The obvious reason for the team’s recent success is the development of their young players, with Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, and Jonathan Huberdeau of course being the first to come to mind. However, the franchise’s success is also due to their ability to mix the youngsters with veterans such as Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo, Jussi Jokinen, and former Panther Brian Campbell.
But the true key is that the team has been doing a much better job developing players that weren’t highly touted prospects, as well as being patient with other prospects, and even signing the right guys to fit into their plans. This is the true formula for sustainable success in every sporting realm and Florida has numerous great examples of these under-the-radar guys.
The Panthers drafted Huberdeau with the third overall pick of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft, and he has obviously lived up to expectations. But what many people don’t know is that Florida selected Vincent Trocheck in the third round of the same draft. Unlike Huberdeau, who immediately made the Panther’s roster, Trochek went through the entire developing process: after being drafted, the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native played two more years in the OHL and spent the majority of one season in the AHL.
The Panthers eased him in, and more specifically, did not rush his development. Eventually, in his third season with the team last year, he got the chance to play top-six minutes and broke out with 25 goals and 53 points in 76 games. This season, while offensive studs Huberdeau and Barkov were out, the Panthers relied on the centreman to lead the charge, which he did and continues to do. Trochek leads the team in goals (22) and points (43). In addition, the 23-year-old’s average ice time per game of 21 minutes and 16 seconds ranks third among all centres in the NHL.
Trocheck’s future and potential are both bright, as so far he only has four fewer career goals than Huberdeau, having played 75 fewer games. Recognizing this, the Panthers inked him to a six-year, $28.5 million dollar contract last summer. That same summer the team also signed Barkov to a six-year deal. One could now argue that Florida may just have one of the best one-two punches at centre in the league moving forward.
We have seen time and time again that key free agent signings can put a team over the top, while in the process giving players opportunities that they were not given with their old squad.
Last summer on July 1st the Panthers signed Jonathan Marchessault to a two-year deal worth $1.5 million. This wasn’t a blockbuster signing in the slightest, since last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning he had just seven goals and 18 points in 45 games. And before that he only played four NHL contests.
The move to keep the undrafted player down south has paid off immediately. The 26-year-old currently has career highs of 19 goals and 38 points in only 57 games and has seen his ice time jump by almost five and a half minutes compared to last season with the Lightning. The Cap-Rouge, Quebec native offers versatility by playing both center and winger.
He took advantage of his opportunity when the injury bug hit the team earlier in the year, and has shown that he can be a dependable depth forward on an emerging young squad. Marchessualt also has playoff experience from his time on Tampa Bay’s roster when they made the conference finals last year and the Stanley Cup the year prior. Most importantly, he has the work ethic that screams ‘successful culture.’ After going undrafted he played five years in the AHL before getting a real chance at the next level.
When a player is selected in the first round pressure is instantly put on them, and rightly so. Some players can jump right into the NHL as early as a couple of months after being drafted, while others need a bit more time to develop properly. Defenseman Michael Matheson is a perfect example of the power of patience.
The Pointe-Claire Quebec native was selected 23rd overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. But instead of rushing to the pros, Matheson spent three years playing for one of the best NCAA hockey programs at Boston College. After that, the Panthers decided to put him in the AHL for a year to play with grown men and get his feet underneath himself.
In his rookie season with the Panthers the 6’2″ defenseman has quietly put in a successful campaign. He’s a smooth skater, has offensive abilities and plays with an edge. Matheson has seen time on both the power play and penalty kill, and his ice-time per game (20:37) ranks fourth on Florida and sixth among all rookies.
Like all rookies he still needs to improve on a couple aspects, but continues to progress and develop. There have been instances when rushing a player to the pros has affected their progression negatively. In the case with Matheson, the Panthers made the right choice in taking their time. He’s a piece that can help solidify their defensive core for years to come alongside Ekblad. Patience was, and remains, the key.
A successful culture comes down to everyone buying in from the top down and being smart in all aspects, arguably with a significant amount of it coming down to each player and doing what is right for them as individuals. The Panthers have been getting better at it and it shows in the product on the ice. The future looks incredibly bright for the cats down south.