There's not very much to say about the Florida Panthers. They've mostly been living an existence that's as unfortunate as it is inauspicious. This was after they began with more promise than most expansion teams, in any sport. Since then, though, even Miami has forgotten the Florida Panthers exist, and there's a good reason for that.
It was 1992 when H. Wayne Huizenga was given an NHL team. He was the magnate behind Blockbuster Video at the time. He named the team the Panthers, after a species of big cat native to Florida. And at first, everything about these guys went so right, they seemed like the southern expansion team of Gary Bettman's dreams: The team's first general manager was Philadelphia Flyers icon Bobby Clarke, a legend who had also acted as senior veep to the team when he was done playing for it and, oh yeah, guiding it to both of its Stanley Cups. The Panthers' first draft yielded ten players who would bring the Prince of Wales Trophy to south Florida not very long afterward.
Florida hit the ice with a couple of folks who turned into big stars: One was John Vanbiesbrouck, a onetime Vezina Trophy winner during his years with the New York Rangers. Another was rookie Rob Niedermayer, who became a star, and then there was 30-goal man Scott Mellanby. In the 1994 season, the Panthers rolled to the best year any first-year NHL team ever had, finishing but a single point below the .500 mark. Unfortunately, they did that largely by playing a version of the playing tactic the New Jersey Devils would ride to their first Stanley Cup the following year: The Neutral Zone Trap. So the Panthers were already being given credit for ruining hockey, though they missed the playoffs that first year. In the 1995 season, the Panthers went 20-22-6 - that was a lockout-shortened season - for 46 points, again just out of the playoffs. To celebrate their near-success, the Panthers decided to celebrate the way most expansion teams do: By holding their first-ever coach firing! Roger Neilson was let go and replaced by Doug MacLean.
MacLean produced immediate results. His team went 41-31-10 for 92 points, good enough for the fourth playoff seeding. His Panthers then upended the Boston Bruins in the first round, winning in five games. Yeah, it was only five games, but given that the Panthers are such a young team, the image of Bill Lindsay scoring the series-clinching goal is still an iconic image to Panthers fans. In the second round, they faced a real test: Their opponents, the Flyers, held the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Somehow, the Panthers found a way to take them out in six games. After that, they moved into the Eastern Conference Finals to face the second seed Pittsburgh Penguins, beating them in a full seven game series to visit the Stanley Cup Finals in just their third year of existence. Now, the NHL playoffs have a habit of weeding out the wimps, and the Panthers had gotten there by wiping out the two top seeds of the Eastern Conference, so no one was up to write them off. They were, however, up against the Colorado Avalanche now, and back then the Avs were so good that saying the Panthers were playing against the Colorado Avalanche required putting the team name in all caps so it read COLORADO AVALANCHE. The Stanley Cup Finals played out like a chorus line for the Avs: One, two, three, KICK! In four games, the Avalanche hammered the Panthers, easily winning the Stanley Cup.
That loss to Colorado comes off as more than just a loss. It also appeared to act as a little bit of a reminder to the NHL: Dear National Hockey League, the Florida Panthers stood a very real chance of winning the Stanley Cup. They're an expansion team from south Florida. They still haven't paid their fucking dues. Don't let them intimidate you. It's perfectly alright to walk all over these guys. Yours Truly, the Colorado Avalanche. The Panthers started the 1997 riding a 17-game unbeaten streak, but in the second half, they made the mistake of trading their fearless center, Stu Barnes, to Pittsburgh. They faded, and while they made the playoffs again, the New York Rangers made their postseason a very short one. The Panthers hit the downward spiral by the 1998 season. MacLean was fired after the team started with a 7-12-4 record and replaced with their then-general manager, Bryan Murray. It didn't help. During the year, the Panthers endured a 15-game winless streak. During that streak, John Vanbiesbrouck took a hard shelling during a game against the Chicago Blackhawks, after which he never played another game with the Panthers.
After making a huge trade with the Vancouver Canucks in 1999, the Panthers reeled in The Russian Rocket himself, Pavel Bure! Bure's acquisition helped a little, and the Panthers were back in the playoffs in 2000. They also got swept in the first round by the eventual Champion New Jersey Devils.
After that, the Florida Panthers slumped. Man, did they EVER slump. In 2001, they ran a 22-38-13 record for 66 points. They tried to rectify that situation the following season by bring in Valeri Bure, Pavel's brother, hoping they would bring out each other's best. It didn't work, and at the 2002 trade deadline, Pavel Bure was traded to the Rangers. The Panthers then moved on to fuck up the 2002 draft the same way the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers fucked up the 1984 draft. The first overall draft pick that year was projected to be a defenseman named Jay Bouwmeester, and Florida wanted him. But then-GM Rick Dudley decided to send their first draft pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who used it on Rick Nash. Then they sent two more draft picks to the Atlanta Thrashers, who took them for only the promise that Bouwmeester would still be there by the time Florida's turn came around. Florida DID get to take Bouwmeester, but looking at that process of events, one gets the impression that they could have gotten a lot more had they just let him go. Bouwmeester is a very good player, but he's not, well, great. He is far from shoulder-the-team good, and after a few years the Panthers traded his negotiating rights to the Calgary Flames, who signed him and, a few years after that, traded him to the St. Louis Blues.
In 2006, the Panthers made another big-deal trade with Vancouver. They sent star goalie Roberto Luongo along with Lukas Krajicek and a draft pick to the Canucks for Todd Bertuzzi, Alex Auld, and Bryan Allen. The two obvious names jumping out at NHL fans here are Luongo and Bertuzzi, both stars, but this trade turned into a one-sider. This wasn't quite the Minnesota Vikings trading an entire team to the Dallas Cowboys for Herschel Walker, but it's at least on the level of the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals exchanging Ernie Broglio and Lou Brock. It's true that Luongo is a spectacular choker, but he's still in his prime as one of the best goalies in the league. Bertuzzi, on the other hand, was hurt after only a few games for the Panthers. By the trade deadline, Bertuzzi was sent to the Detroit Red Wings.
In 2008, the Panthers traded their Captain, Olli Jokinen, to the Phoenix Coyotes for Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton, and a second round draft pick. This wouldn't seem to be a good move at first, especially not after the team had been out of the playoffs since 2000. But something the Panthers were doing was starting to pay dividends. In 2009, the Panthers finished with a very strong 41-30-11 record for 93 points, second best in their history, but missed the playoffs due to the league's fuck-up methods of deciding playoff standings. Then they slumped again. It wasn't until 2012 that the Florida Panthers were finally a playoff team again. Hell, they were more than that now; they were also division champions for the first time ever, with a 38-26-18 record for 94 points. While they were eliminated from the first round by the eventual Eastern Conference Champion Devils, they gave the Devils all the fight they could, and the series ended with a seventh game double overtime.
Bill Torrey had his number retired by the Florida Panthers for his position as the team's president and general manager for their first eight years. Their all-time list of players really doesn't spring out, though. They had John Vanbiesbrouck in his later career days; Jay Bouwmeester was very good but not capable of carrying the team; Roberto Luongo was great in Florida but totally thriving in Vancouver; and currently, Brian Campbell is adding bullet points to a great career resume, but has yet to really reach the heights he found with the Buffalo Sabres and Chicago Blackhawks yet. They also had Ed Belfour at the very tail end of his career.
It's tough for hockey teams in the south to have strong rivalries at the moment. Most of the teams are still quite young, and the league itself is still looking for a foothold. The fans don't quite have that inter-generational fan resentment of one team for another yet. Their geographical rivals are the cross-state Tampa Bay Lightning, who have had considerably more success. They used to be rivals to the Atlanta Thrashers, but I don't think that one really held over to Winnipeg. Their big defining moment of identity so far is easily the 1996 Prince of Wales Trophy, which was completely unexpected and which served as the team's breakout, even though they were whomped by the Avalanche in a one-sided Finals. Other than that, they're identified by an incredible streak of non-playoff years. They missed twelve years in a row. The NHL playoffs are easier to get into than Boise State, so missing playoffs for THAT many years is simply inexcusable.
While the Panthers are named for a native animal to Florida - also, while I've always liked their colors - I would be kidding myself if I tried to say anything other than their colors, name, and sweater logo having a definite origin in the ridiculous marketing hubris of the 90's. They have an emphasis on in-your-face EXTREME!!! attitude (forgive me, we're talking about the 90's, so: XTREME!!!), and overly complicated and loud graphic design. The colors probably resonate with the people of the Miami area, though. I can't get a grip on how popular they are down there. Everyone is swooning over the NBA's Miami Heat, who are looking to run away with another Championship right now, so a hockey team that just came out of the basement isn't going to get tons of attention. However, whenever someone brings up the latest team to move to a new market coveted by the NHL, the Panthers are rarely in the conversation, so that must mean they're doing fairly decently.
The Florida Panthers are the definite losers of the NHL's Florida derby. The Tampa Bay Lightning have better players, a better overall record, the backing of NHL legends, and a Stanley Cup. The Panthers were faster to make the Finals, and even getting flattened by the Colorado Avalanche wasn't something to be ashamed of - back then, the Avs did that to EVERYONE. Hell, the Panthers even seem to have stability and a decent fanbase to offer. Outside of them, though, it's tough to sell them on a twelve-year playoff missing streak, especially with all the stars over in the Tampa Bay Area.