The Florida Panthers Journey To The Stanley Cup

Paul Maurice hoists his first ever Stanley Cup. Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

Florida achieving its ultimate goal of winning its first Stanley Cup finally came to fruition in 2024 after a seven-game thriller of a Cup Final series. However, this success didn’t just happen in the 2023-2024 season; things started far earlier than this season, with Florida GM Bill Zito making massive moves to change things in the locker room and on the ice before finally making a change in the coaching staff. It took seriously surprising and bold decisions on Zito’s part to make everything possible. As for the team itself, all the players put in the work to make themselves better and buy into a system that was completely different in 2023 than what they had been playing in 2022. The Panthers proved once again that defense wins championships and having great depth is more valuable than being a top-heavy team, regardless of the star talent.

Big Decisions:

One of the first big decisions that Zito made was acquiring Verhagehe following his season with Tampa Bay which had won the cup in the 2019-2020 season. Initially offered a two-year deal at $1 million AAV, he then earned a three-year extension at $4.166 AAV, which Verhaeghe currently has one year left on. It’s worth noting that rumors of a six-year extension are swirling around following this year’s Cup win. Needless to say, Verhaeghe has been a big part of the Panthers’ post-season success as he holds the franchise record for goals scored in the playoffs at 26, game-winning goals at 10, and overtime goals with 5. An unexpected stat category that he also leads is the even-strength assists; while you’d assume it’d be Barkov, it’s actually Verhaeghe with 25. Barkov comes in just behind him with 24 even-strength assists. No one could’ve predicted that Verhaeghe would be that good in the postseason if given the opportunity when Florida acquired him, but he’s blossomed with the Panthers into a top-six forward with dangerous scoring ability. 

Zito then made the waiver claim of Gustav Forsling, an underrated defenseman who finally got his recognition during this season’s playoff run. Arguably the best waiver claim in history, Forsling has been an impact defenseman for the Panthers, who’s only gotten better the longer he’s been with the franchise. From his first season with the Cats, Forsling was playing nearly 20 minutes a game, and now he plays close to 23 minutes and averaged 26 minutes during the Cup Final. He doesn’t put up the impressive offensive stat numbers of Quinn Hughes or Cale Makar, but he has an incredible hockey IQ and sees the game second to none. This year, Forsling led the league in +/- at +56, which was head and shoulders above anyone else and was a big part of the Panthers being able to shut down Tampa’s power play and their top-line guys of Kucherov, Stamkos, Point, and Hagel, Boston’s Pastrnak, New York’s Zibanejad, Krieder, and Panarin. He also was a big part of keeping the Oilers’ McDavid, Hyman, Draisaitl, and Nugent-Hopkins in check. There’s this intangible to Forsling’s game that makes him as good as he is and the defensive backbone of the Panthers.

Sam Reinhart and Brandon Montour were the next big pieces added following the 2020-2021 season, getting traded to Florida from Buffalo. After the year Reinhart had, he needs no introduction, but some of his biggest accomplishments this year were being the NHL’s second-leading goal scorer, leading the NHL in power-play goals and short-handed goals, and, to top it all off, scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in Game 7 of the Cup Final. Montour had a breakout season in 2022-2023 and has quarterbacked the Panthers power play. A strong add to the blue line for the Cats his hard-working style fit in perfectly with the system eventual Head Coach Paul Maurice would bring in. Both players played big minutes for Florida during this year’s season with both being on the top power play unit and flexible to play wherever the coaches wanted to put them. 

Florida acquired Sam Bennett at the trade deadline in 2021, and the following summer, in July of 2022, his former teammate Matthew Tkachuk would join him down in South Florida. Arguably one of the most impactful trades, Tkachuk got traded to the Panthers in exchange for Huberdeau, Weegar, Schwindt, and a conditional first-round pick in 2025. It was a shocking trade, especially since Huberdeau was coming off a 115-point season, but Zito was looking for a change in culture in the locker room and felt Tkachuk was the player that could do that. And done that he has, since Tkachuk has come to Florida the Panthers have won two Eastern Conference Titles, made the Cup Finals twice, and won a Stanley Cup. Bennett and Tkachuk have been some of the most consistent playoff players for the Cats, along with Reinhart and Verhaeghe. Tkachuk was the hero of the 2022-2023 playoff run leading the team in goals scored at 11, assists at 13, and points at 24. This year, Tkachuk tied for a team-leading 22 points with Barkov and led the team in assists at 16. While Bennett had five goals and ten assists in the 2022-2023 run for 15 points, he had seven goals and seven assists for 14 points this season, and that’s with missing games due to a hand injury. 

Evan Rodrigues joined the Panthers this season, coming in from the Avalanche, and he’s been a fantastic plug-and-play guy for the team. He’s played up and down the lineup for the Cats, spending time on the top three lines and allowing for more flexibility with the Panther roster. He had a fantastic playoff, scoring seven goals with assists for 15 points. Rodrigues really came alive in the Cup Final with seven points, second only to McDavid, and had four goals with three assists. He was a great depth player who made every line he played on during the Final better. If the top line was struggling, Rodrigues played with those guys, and they had a great game. Needed more from the second line? Rodrigues jumped started those guys too. During the regular season, he played on the third line with Lundell and Luostarinen before the Panthers acquired Tarasenko. 

The Coaching Change:

The final big change came in the form of a new Head Coach. It was another shocking move by the Florida front office, given that under Andrew Brunette, the Panthers had won the President’s Trophy with a 122-point season, the best regular season in franchise history. However, a loss to Tampa Bay in the postseason prompted the change as they felt they couldn’t win a Stanley Cup relying on a high-goal-scoring team. Thus, Paul Maurice was brought in for the 2022-2023, and he brought with him a defense-first system that emphasized forechecking and quick transition offense. Year one brought in difficulties in the transition during the regular season. Going from 122 points to just over 80 was not what fans expected. The Panthers were fighting for their lives in the second half of the season and barely made the playoffs as a result. Going in as the eighth seed against the greatest regular season team in NHL history, the Boston Bruins. Things didn’t look good with the team down 3-1 heading into game 5, with elimination staring them straight in the face. But then something magical happened: the system that Paul Maurice had implemented started to click with the team, and the players were buying into what he was selling them. They won game 5, and then game 6, and then forced a game 7. They were still the underdogs, yet they managed to do the unthinkable, and they eliminated the Bruins with an OT goal to win the series, stunning the hockey world. And from there, Paul Maurice and his defense-first style took the Cats on a magical run all the way to the Cup final, defeating Toronto in five games and then sweeping Carolina in the Conference Finals. He said it best in his locker room speech following the Conference Finals this year that each win felt like an achievement. While they ultimately lost in the Cup Final to Vegas, Paul Maurice had laid a great foundation with the team in his first season as head coach and was able to silence his detractors by getting the Panthers to the Cup Final despite the points regression in the regular season.

Path To Redemption:

It was a heartbreaking loss in the Cup Final in 2023, the series wasn’t even close against Vegas with the Cats being decimated by injuries, the biggest one happening to Matthew Tkachuk as he suffered a broken sternum and missed Game 5. However, the team learned a lot during that run. They learned what it took to make it to the Final, how hard it was, and how much they had to work to get there. A short offseason passed by quickly with the Panthers eager to get back on the ice and start the long journey to try and make it all the way back there again. An 82-game regular season stood before them to prove that last season wasn’t a fluke. It was a bit of a mixed bag to start the season, with them having four wins and four losses in October. November, they faired better with nine wins and five losses, followed by December, where they had eight wins and four losses. However, December also boasted their first significant losing streak, where the Cats lost four out of five games in the middle of the month. But out of that losing streak came fans’ first look at the true potential of the team, starting with Vegas on December 23rd, the Panthers went on a nine-game win streak where they averaged 4.3 goals against their opponents including six straight games where they scored four goals or more. Within that stretch, the Panthers beat Vegas in Vegas for the first time ever, got gritty wins over Tampa Bay and the Rangers, beat Vegas a second time, and destroyed Colorado in an 8-4 win. Then another losing streak hit, with Florida losing four straight games to New Jersey, Anaheim, Detroit, and Minnesota. While two of those games were overtime losses, so they got points, none of those teams made the postseason, so it can be argued that they were bad losses. But once again out of that losing streak came magic, from the end of January to early March the Panthers lost just three games total. They lost two tight games to Philadelphia and 1-0 heartbreaker loss to Carolina where the Hurricanes scored in the last seconds of regulation, but in every game they won the Cats scored three goals or more and during this stretch, the power play was on fire lighting teams up left and right. Barkov to Tkachuk to Reinhart was a near-automatic goal on the man advantage at this point in the season. Things were clicking, and the team was operating at an extremely high level, and this was when talks of them being a Cup favorite started to swirl about. The final month and a half looked less promising as they lost nine of their last sixteen games, including another four-game losing streak, losing four out of five games, and a final OT loss to the Bruins. Florida did go into the playoffs on a four-game win streak, but that was against almost all non-playoff teams, Toronto being the outlier there. There was talk among fans that bringing in Tarasenko and Okposo at the trade deadline had ruined the team chemistry and there was worry about how the Cats would perform come the playoffs.

Unfinished Business:

That worry was unnecessary as the Panthers came out hot in Game 1 against in-state rival Tampa Bay, taking a 3-1 lead in the game before the Lightning scored during the late 6v5. Florida won again in OT in Game 2 before taking a 3-0 series lead by taking Game 3 in Tampa Bay. The Lightning pushed back in Game 4, showing their ability to fight, but the Panthers hit back harder in Game 5 with a 6-1 win to clinch the series best Tampa for the first time ever in the postseason. Florida’s defense stifled the Lighting at 5v5, and the PK shut down the power play merchants, which would be a trend through the rest of the playoffs. A big talking point following this series and all for the rest of the playoffs is that there was unfinished business. The players were letting the fans know not to expect that same level of celebration from the year prior when they won a series, this team had their eye on the prize and would stop at nothing to get it. After slaying the dragon in Tampa and Vasilevskiy, the Cats came face to face with rival Boston, who was eager for redemption for last season. Boston struck first, using the momentum of a Game 7 win to carry them into Game 1 of the next round, and Florida had a habit of playing poorly in their first game back following a long break. The Panthers would prove Swayman to be human as they scored six goals on him in back-to-back games to take a 2-1 series lead going into Game 4. No one’s had more success on Boston’s home ice than the Panthers and that continued with them taking Game 4 and ultimately Game 6 to clinch the series and move on to the Conference Finals. It was a physically demanding series mired in controversy from goal calls to penalties to player hits. HC Paul Maurice said it was as mean as any playoff series he’d seen. Boston wasn’t a power play merchant team, as it was the closest at being able to match the Panthers at 5v5 play during the playoffs. There was plenty of hype surrounding the Rangers going into the Conference Finals, plenty of talk from TV panelists about how they resemble the 1994 Rangers team and were a ‘team of destiny’. The Panthers weren’t intimated by any of that and skated circles around them as a result. New York hadn’t beaten Florida in regulation during the regular season and that didn’t change in the ECF either, their two wins came in overtime. Igor Shesterkin was the best player for the Rangers and played a great series against the Panthers, but hockey is a team sport, and one player isn’t enough to win a seven-game series. Even in the games that Florida lost, they still dominated much of the play and speed of the game. The Rangers were another power-play merchant team, but they hadn’t yet seen a penalty kill like the Panthers, and that was a beast they were unable to crack. New York scored just one power-play goal in six games and had a hard time 5v5 when their top players weren’t producing like they had in the previous two rounds. While each game, except one, was a one-goal differential that was mostly due to Shesterkin being arguably the best goalie in the league, the eye test would tell a casual fan that Florida was the far better team. Headed back to the finals, the Panthers were just four wins away from both immorality and redemption. The Stanley Cup Finals had the Cats facing off against the Oilers who came out on top out of the West. Both teams had an endearing story, but only one would get the storybook ending. It was an unusual series full of huge momentum swings, and just when one team looked down and out, the other stormed back with a vengeance. The Panthers took a shocking 3-0 series lead with a shutout win, a 4-1 win, and a 4-3 win, leading most to think that the series would be over in a straight sweep or five games. I personally never thought that sweeping Edmonton was a realistic expectation purely out of respect for that team’s personnel. Struggling to close out that final game, the Oilers dragged everyone back and forth between Edmonton and Sunrise before finally things would get decided by the definitive Game 7: either Edmonton completes the reverse sweep, or Florida gets their Cup Final redemption. When the Panthers needed them most, Verhaeghe and Reinhart stepped up offensively to score the two goals needed to seal the win, with Reinhart capping off his incredible season with the Cup Winning goal. The entire team put everything on the line defensively to keep the lead once they had it and hold Edmonton’s star players off the score sheet. Bobrovsky had an outstanding playoff with so many game-saving, series-saving, and highlight-reel-worthy saves. He showed that last year’s postseason run wasn’t a fluke but a playing gear he could access consistently, not to mention that he was a Vezina Finalist for his stellar regular season play as well. A team that took years to build and develop finally got the ultimate prize of winning the Stanley Cup. For most of the team, it was their first-ever Cup win; only Verhaeghe and Tarasenko had won it once before, and for the franchise, it was the Panthers’ first Cup ever. Paul Maurice finally won his first Stanley Cup after a long 30 years of coaching in the league. The Panthers even made a bit of NHL history with the first Finnish Captain and most Finnish players on a roster to win the Cup. It was a severely long journey for Florida to get to this point that took more than a couple ballsy decisions from Zito that had the chance of not panning out. In the end, it was the right players with the right coach on the right team at the right time that made magic happen for the fans in South Florida. This special team gets to live together forever on the Stanley Cup, and now the Panthers can go chase their second one because, after all, one Cup win would never be enough.

We Got The Jack Inside The Rink

In episode 8 of the Inside The Rink podcast, Matty and Smitty are joined by new co-host Conrad Jack. After the long hiatus, we get back to hockey with a PACKED episode!Matt Rempe & the Devils vs. Rangers Line BrawlCould the Vancouver Canucks squander a playoff opportunity? Have the Winnipeg Jets finally figured out their lines?Flyers Head Coach John Tortorella is a sound byte MACHINEOvechkin is on his way to 895, Who is next?McDavid joins elite company with 100 Assists in a seasonRyan Hartman was suspended 3 Games, was it worth 3 games??Can Auston Matthews hit 70 Goals this season?The Eastern Conference Wild Card race is heating up, who lands the two playoff berths?For all of your hockey news and more from the show, visit us at insidetherink.com and watch us on YouTube! How to support us and our sponsors:TicketmasterColumbia Sports ApparelESPN+ SubscriptionFanaticsDraft Kings – CODE ITR
  1. We Got The Jack
  2. Episode 7. Player Safety First!
  3. Episode 6. Early Trade Season
  4. Episode 5. Longing For The Chiarelli Years
  5. Episode 4. Ottawa’s On Fire

2 thoughts on “The Florida Panthers Journey To The Stanley Cup

  1. Incredible synopsis Kristie. One of the best that has been written, and with great insight to boot. Hope you continue to write a lot about the Panthers !

    1. I’ll be covering the Panthers for the foreseeable future. I’m glad you enjoyed the article, thank you for your readership.

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