Patchwork Panthers: How Florida built a perennial contender

Sam Reinhart scores OT winner for Panthers to even series (1:07)

Sam Reinhart scores a slap shot goal during a power play in overtime to give the Panthers a win over the Rangers in Game 4. (1:07)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Paul Maurice could tell his team was different.

The Florida Panthers' head coach joked -- at first -- that players this season compared to last didn't find him so funny. They'd lost a former appetite for schtick with a side of hockey talk. Florida had tasted greatness on a Cinderella run to the 2023 Stanley Cup Final. Falling short there was no laughing matter.

The Panthers' tone had shifted. Maurice saw it in training camp. The Panthers regrouped, expecting to be Cup contenders. One player in particular embodied the attitude adjustment.

"That's the value of [Aleksander] Barkov," Maurice said. "He will not stop, and he won't quit; how does anybody else? Because he is the face, the driver and the captain, he does set a bar for work. Your fourth-line guys are going to come out and work as hard as they can because they have to make the team. But how hard [Barkov] drives the team is the expectation of everybody else. He's not an aloof captain. He's part of the group. So he sets that tone."

If the Panthers were a house, then Barkov is the foundation. He's the franchise's longest-tenured player after Florida drafted him second overall in 2013 to be a cornerstone playmaker. Barkov is a rarity in more ways than one. The top-line center is one of just four players on the Panthers' current roster that the team drafted themselves -- and one of only three who've never dressed for another NHL club.

Compare that to Florida's opponent in the Eastern Conference finals. The New York Rangers have nine draftees in their postseason lineup -- plus Adam Fox. He wasn't technically drafted by New York, but the Rangers acquired his signing rights from the Carolina Hurricanes (who had previously acquired them from the Calgary Flames) before he had played in the NHL. So the Rangers basically have 10 players from the inside who have helped make them so potent.

Florida's roster was mostly constructed after -- and around -- Barkov. There have been strategic trades. Deliberate signings. Calculated risks. And plenty of patience.

These are the patchwork Panthers. Practically every piece was uniquely sourced, and the construction over time was complicated. But when Florida was finally sewn together, the result was a perfectly balanced final product.

How the Panthers were built is as compelling an off-ice story as the one Florida continues to write on it. It began with Barkov. Then the real work got started.

The draftees

Florida was the NHL's worst team when the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign ended. But due to the Colorado Avalanche winning the draft lottery, that earned the Panthers the second overall pick. Florida used it on Barkov.

The Finnish-born pro was the No.1 ranked European skater by NHL Central Scouting, a 6-foot-3 center who could easily define a franchise. Barkov has done exactly that in Florida.

The 28-year-old stands as the Panthers' all-time leader in every important category, from games played (737) to goals (266), assists (445), points (711), power-play goals (75), game-winning goals (48) and ... well, you see the pattern. His postseason stats have been equally strong, with 17 goals and 54 points through 62 games.

Florida named Barkov its 10th captain in team history on September 17, 2018. He was their youngest player to hold that designation. Now, six years in, Barkov has also held it for the longest time. Given his current contract runs through 2030 -- and he may well keep playing from there -- it's unlikely any future Panther will surpass his captaincy length.

Barkov hasn't just been brilliant compared to his own team. He's earned league-wide recognition as a two-time Selke Trophy winner (including this year) and has one Lady Byng on his resume.

Barkov has been better than ever this postseason, collecting six goals and 17 points while shutting down the opponent's top skaters (especially the Rangers'). He plays on both special teams while dominating at even strength.

Florida did, suffice it to say, turn their pain into power going from the NHL's basement to selecting Barkov. It's unlikely they anticipated doing that again so quickly. As in, the following season.

The Panthers finished marginally better in the 2013-14 standings, second-to-last, and this time captured a draft lottery win to open the door for selecting Aaron Ekblad first overall.

(Picked second overall that year? Sam Reinhart, by the Buffalo Sabres. But we'll get to him later.)

Ekblad was that season's top prospect for good reason. He'd been the first defenseman ever granted exceptional status in the CHL, and he won a slew of awards to put him atop any NHL team's wish list. The Panthers grabbed Ekblad to be the present -- and future -- of their blue line, and he has delivered over the course of his 676-game career (complete with 115 goals and 347 points).

Despite Ekblad's injury troubles over the years, he's been the jewel of Florida's back end. Throughout these playoffs he's averaged over 22 minutes of ice time per game, and tossed in four assists while taking on the toughest matchups.

When Florida's next high draft pick came along they were back on the offensive -- selecting forward Anton Lundell 12th overall in 2020. Like Barkov, Lundell was a big (6-foot-1), Finnish, left-shot center with excellent two-way potential. Lundell has grown thoroughly over his first two NHL seasons (putting up career-best totals this season, with 13 goals and 35 points), and it's paid off in the playoffs.

Lundell has been paired with different teammates and kept improving. His game-winning goal in Game 5 of the conference finals (his third marker of the postseason) on Friday reinforced why that "Baby Barkov" nickname has been well-earned.

"He's his own type. But there's similarities in our games," Barkov said. "Both players want to play a two-way game and he's elite at that. He's really good on every aspect of the game. So that's the similarity. But he's walking in this own path and learning from different guys every day ... and becoming better. I'm really happy to see that."

The trade additions

These days, Vincent Trocheck is leading the Rangers in playoff goals (eight) and points (15).

But for six and a half seasons -- from 2013-20 -- he was in Florida, right up until the February 2020 trade deadline when the Panthers shipped Trocheck to Carolina in exchange for a package that included Eetu Luostarinen. Their new arrival started with the Panthers' American Hockey League affiliate, but Luostarinen eventually found his NHL groove and has been a staple in Florida's bottom six through the playoffs, potting one goal and four points while skating over 15 minutes per game.

The Panthers' next trade addition was, well, somewhat more newsworthy.

Florida sent shockwaves through the 2022 offseason when they acquired Matthew Tkachuk from Calgary that July in exchange for the team's then-leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar.

Tkachuk has been worth every penny of his eight-year, $76 million contract extension. The matured winger can toe the line of sass and skill with ease, and that's already manifested on the Panthers' history book. After two seasons, Tkachuk holds the franchise record in assists per game (0.82) and points per game (1.24).

The 26-year-old was credited by teammates for single-handedly helping to will Florida into the playoff picture last season (and Tkachuk rightly earned a Hart Trophy nomination in that process). He played Game 4 of the Cup Final against Vegas with a broken sternum, rehabbed all summer and still started this season on time (finishing second on the club in points with 88 in 80 games). Tkachuk has carried that success to the playoffs again, where he's pacing the Panthers in points (19) and has two game-winning goals.

Florida went big bringing on Tkachuk (and extending others), which put the Panthers in some salary cap troubles. That forced Florida into trading Anthony Duclair to San Jose in July 2023, for forward Steven Lorentz. The latter has been a fine depth piece for the Panthers, and a staple on their fourth line throughout the playoffs, with two goals and three points.

Like most good teams, the Panthers identify quality role players when they're available. Florida felt on the cusp of another long playoff run this spring, and secured some complementary pieces before the March trade deadline to make it a reality.

First, the Panthers netted Vladimir Tarasenko from Ottawa. He's been like a rover in the lineup, capable of slotting in everywhere, and has had a solid postseason with two goals and five points. He's one of the only Panthers with a Cup on his resume -- from the St. Louis Blues' run in 2019 -- and is not shy about sharing his thoughts. Maurice credited Tarasenko for engaging with linemate Lundell on the bench during Game 5 and giving the young skater some quality attention -- right before Lundell scored the game-winning goal. Those intangibles are invaluable.

While Tarasenko has his name etched on hockey's holy grail, Kyle Okposo came to Florida hoping to do the same. The then-Sabres captain knew this team would offer him a chance to chase a title, and Okposo is game to do whatever he can to ensure Florida reaches its goal. Okposo has accepted being a healthy scratch when required, but has embraced the opportunities he does get, like entering midway into Florida's second-round series against Boston and leaving an impression on teammates.

"I think with us, [the key is] it's just a good group of depth," Ekblad said. "Big pieces like [Okposo] that come in and have an instant impact like he did in [Boston]. And I just think it's it's just a tight-knit group of guys; it's kind of hard to say [exactly] why it works."

The 2021 group

Florida made three moves in 2021 that warranted a second trade-related category of their own.

It was a late-starting season amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic so the deadline had been shuffled along to April. The change in time didn't affect Florida's urgency to target players who would be integral parts of the Panthers' current makeup.

First, Florida acquired defenseman Brandon Montour from Anaheim for a third-round pick in the 2021 draft. It was a classic buy-low-and-be-amazed scenario. The Panthers signed Montour to a three-year extension, and he responded with a breakout season in 2022-23. Montour finished as the league's fifth-highest scoring defenseman by doubling his own career-best numbers (at 16 goals and 73 points).

Montour was a difference maker for Florida during their Cup Final run last year, and he's been excellent again in these playoffs with three goals and nine points while averaging a team-high 23:46 of ice time per game.

That same April, the Panthers also got punchier when they landed Sam Bennett from Calgary for a second-round pick in 2022 and the rights to prospect Emil Heineman. Bennett, like Montour, immediately signed a contract extension with the Panthers -- and, like Montour, followed that with a personal-best season the following season, collecting 28 goals and 49 points.

Whatever is in the Panthers' water continues to work it's charm on Bennett, with another strong regular season and playoff stretch including four goals and seven points in 10 games. The feisty forward hasn't made friends along the way -- particularly in Boston -- but he is, as Maurice has noted, the "prototypical" Panther. Not a bad moniker to wear.

There are a whole host of superlatives for the season Sam Reinhart just had. The second overall pick in 2014, Reinhart was swapped to Florida for a 2022 first-round pick and Devon Levi in July 2021. It was a steep cost that Reinhart has repaid in full. Since Reinhart arrived in South Florida, he's scored 121 goals and 243 points through 242 games.

Reinhart's best work came this season, when he wowed the league with a 57-goal, 94-point showing (including 27 goals on the power play). Reinhart has had to answer questions all season about his impending free agency, but he's appeared unbothered by that in the playoffs, producing eight goals and 12 points.

It's not just what Reinhart does individually, either. He elevated linemates all season, including Barkov, who didn't forget to thank Reinhart after being named the 2023-24 Selke winner.

"The players I'm playing with, without them nothing would be possible," Barkov said. "I've got to give credit to [Reinhart]. I played with him the whole year. He helped me a lot."

Gustav Forsling on 3rd period success: 'We've done it all year'

Gustav Forsling joins Scott Van Pelt and breaks down the secret behind the Panthers' success in the third period this season following their 3-2 Game 5 victory over the New York Rangers.

The "castoffs"

Sometimes, things don't work out for a hockey player and a particular NHL team.

Lucky for the Panthers.

Carter Verhaeghe technically started his NHL tenure as a Toronto Maple Leaf. But before Verhaeghe ever played for the Leafs, they traded him to the New York Islanders in a multi-player deal centered on Michael Grabner. Verhaeghe never dressed for the Islanders either before they traded him to Tampa Bay in 2017.

It would take another two years for Verhaeghe to finally debut with the Lightning in 2019-20, the year Tampa won its first of two consecutive championships. Verhaeghe wouldn't be a part of that second title though, because the Lightning didn't offer the then-restricted free agent a qualifying offer and he was subsequently a UFA. The Panthers pounced with a contract offer, Verhaeghe accepted and -- stop if you've heard this one before -- he broke out the following season, with a 55-point campaign. Verhaeghe has been on a tear ever since, producing 72 points in 76 games this season, and pacing the Panthers in postseason goals (nine) to boot.

Gustav Forsling also knows about being a diamond in the rough. The defenseman was placed on waivers by Carolina in January 2021, the ultimate gut-punch for any young player. The Panthers were there to claim Forsling from the wire and offer him a fresh start.

Forsling responded by blossoming under the Florida sun. He's now the Panthers' top-pairing defender who inked an eight-year, $46 million extension this March. Forsling now leads Florida in points by a defenseman in the postseason (10) and will be patrolling its blue line through the prime of his career. Forsling's impact in these playoffs -- four goals and 11 points, while averaging over 23 minutes of ice time per game -- has garnered him serious accolades.

"In his style, he's the best defenseman in the world," Maurice said after Game 5 on Friday.

Oliver Ekman-Larsson didn't have to experience the waiver process. But being bought out by Vancouver in June 2023 likely wasn't a much better feeling. He was available on the open market as a UFA when the Panthers once again found what they believed to be an undervalued player.

The veteran has been revitalized on Florida's third pairing, and as the quarterback of Florida's second power-play unit. The opportunity to be in the hunt for an elusive championship is only further fuel for Ekman-Larsson's solid playoffs, and has shown the league he's not done yet.

"That he could come back and re-establish himself as a defenseman, that was the opportunity that we had for him," Maurice said of Ekman-Larsson. "And he certainly made the most of it."

The "choosers"

Players will wait their whole careers to personally pick a landing spot.

Sergei Bobrovsky's opportunity to do it came in July 2019. He took his talents to South Beach.

Florida invested in their new No. 1 netminder with a seven-year, $70 million contract meant to solidify the Panthers' goaltending for the foreseeable future. It hasn't always been smooth sailing, though. Bobrovsky -- who was a two-time Vezina Trophy winner with Columbus -- struggled to consistently establish that award-winning form for Florida.

In 2022-23, Bobrovsky began so poorly there were questions around whether he'd lose the net entirely to prospect Spencer Knight. That didn't come to fruition, but Bobrovsky was replaced by Alex Lyon late in the season while he was sidelined with an illness. Lyon played so well he was the Panthers' playoff starter -- but Bobrovsky was their hero. When Lyon stumbled, Bobrovsky stepped in to help Florida reach the Cup Final. And that momentum carried into this season, where he allowed the second-fewest goals by an NHL regular (behind Connor Hellebuyck) and was nominated for his third Vezina. Bobrovsky has given the Panthers confidence again in these playoffs, with a 10-5 record, .904 SV% and 2.29 GAA.

Belief is a critical factor not just in major signings but smaller ones, too. The Panthers have filled in the gaps with fourth-line forwards Ryan Lomberg -- who inked his first deal with Florida in October 2020 -- and Nick Cousins, who came on board in July 2022. They were textbook energy-drivers in the regular season, and have provided hard-working minutes when called upon in the postseason as Maurice shuffled the decks here and there to maximize the Panthers' matchups.

One skater not drawing out has been defenseman Niko Mikkola -- especially not against his former team. Mikkola was acquired by the Rangers (along with Tarasenko) ahead of last year's deadline to aid in their postseason quest, which ended abruptly with a first-round ousting. The blueliner didn't stick around with the Blueshirts and signed in Florida as a free agent in July. Mikkola skated in all 82 regular-season games for the Panthers, and has been on a strong pairing with Forsling throughout the playoffs, averaging nearly 20 minutes of ice time per game.

Anthony Stolarz was another July addition for Florida. Lyon had moved on to a larger role in Detroit, and Stolarz was an ideal journeyman to fill in the gap behind Bobrovsky. The veteran was terrific at that, posting a 16-7-2 record with .925 SV% and 2.03 GAA in the regular season.

Florida's last man in during the July signing season was Evan Rodrigues. The versatile forward has been a fixture in the Panthers' top nine, and can seemingly find chemistry with any linemate. That's how Rodrigues has enhanced his value in the playoffs, particularly when Florida lost Bennett to an injury early. Rodrigues' performances in Game 3 and Game 4 against Boston -- when he tallied two goals and two assists -- helped carry Florida through.

"I think that those are his two best games of the year for us," Maurice said after Game 4 vs. the Bruins. "I think Evan is the kind of guy that can elevate his play in the playoffs. He's a really good skater and he looks like he's getting into a lot of holes and getting pretty good offense off."

The bonus pair

Let's call this the re-return.

We've gone through the three Florida draft picks still in their lineup -- but mentioned there was a fourth draftee to be named later. That's Dmitry Kulikov.

Florida selected him 14th overall in 2009, and Kulikov played seven seasons for the Panthers (from 2009-2016) before he was traded to Buffalo. The blueliner bounced around between six other teams from there before accepting a one-year free agent contract from the Panthers in July.

Kulikov was home again. And while the years had passed, his ability to contribute had not. He's been a constant on their third pairing, and puts up reliable minutes at even strength and on the penalty kill. Like no time passed at all.

And that brings us to the final piece of Florida's puzzle.

Let's call this: The (unexpected) replacement.

The Panthers didn't look to be in the market for a new coach after Andrew Brunette -- as interim bench boss following Joel Quenneville stepping down -- guided Florida to a Presidents' Trophy winning season in 2021-22.

Turns out, the Panthers had someone else in mind for the full-time role: Maurice. Florida made it official with the 25-year coaching veteran in June 2022, months after Maurice had excused himself from the head role in Winnipeg after a slow start to the Jets' season.

It was Maurice's "experience" and "intellect" that drew GM Billy Zito in. Maurice has proven his worth by bringing out the best in Florida.

"He's the perfect coach for our team," Tkachuk said in September.

THE PANTHERS' 2024 STORY isn't finished yet.

They lead the Eastern Conference finals 3-2, with Game 6 on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN+). Florida has home-ice advantage with an opportunity to reach a consecutive Cup Final. The end of this chapter is still being written.

Florida's origin story is at the heart of it. The Panthers went from literal bottom-dwellers to collecting talent that's shaped them into a powerhouse. Not every team gets there. Not all of them can. There's something innate about the Panthers' culture though that makes players -- regardless of background or where they were before -- have faith in their own potential.

And you can't put on a price on that.

"They got me right into the group," Forsling said. "And I feel like I've played here my whole career. Everyone is very welcoming and friendly, you know? When I got here, everyone was just [making you feel good] that way."