It might seem improbable, but the Florida Panthers look like a playoff team. Yes, the same Panthers that never seem to draw more than 1,500 fans a game.
However, something is clicking in Florida and they quietly have become one of the NHL’s most exciting teams. The recent accomplishments start with the team’s core of young talent. Florida has acquired numerous lottery picks over the last few years and they finally look to be paying off.
Players like Aaron Ekblad, Nick Bjugstad and Johnathan Huburdeau, have all made an impact for the Panthers this season. Ekblad has probably been the biggest factor in Florida’s success thus far.
Selected with the 1st overall pick in the 2014 draft, Ekblad has amassed 17 points and has a solid +/- rating of +6, solidifying him as an offensive as well as a defensive threat. Panthers forward Shawn Thornton had plenty to say about Ekblad during a recent interview.
“My wife saw him and was like [no way] he’s 18. There’s no chance,” Thornton said after the Panthers’ win in Detroit on Tuesday night. “He’s one of the most mature 18-year-old kids I’ve ever played with.”
Ekblad and the other highly touted draft picks are not the only sparks giving this team life.
Florida has seen contributions from some other less visible young players including Vincent Trocheck (64th overall selection in 2011) and Jimmy Hayes (acquired via trade from the Chicago Blackhwaks) who together have combined for 23 points on the year, and have shown great chemistry on the team’s second line.
The most notable omission from Florida’s young successful nucleus has been Aleksander Barkov.
Barkov was the team’s top pick (second overall )in the 2013 NHL Entry Draft but injuries have slowed him down considerably during his beginning career years. The 19-year-old winger has only tallied 28 points in 73 games for the Panthers.
However, Florida still has tremendous faith in this young player’s potential.
“This guy is going to be a superstar in this league,” said Brian Skrudland, who served as an assistant coach for the Panthers for most of last season before returning to his post as director of player development. “I can’t wait to watch him. I had the opportunity of spending every day with him last year and his work ethic, both on and off the field, is unmatched. That is going to allow him to stay in this game a long time.”
While their young players are certainly playing beyond expectations, there is also a solid core of veteran athletes guiding this Panthers team. Brad Boyes, Thomas Fleischmann, Jussi Jokinen and goalie Roberto Luongo are no doubt leading the locker room and boosting the morale (and play) of the Panthers young NHL talent.
While the Panthers will most likely not be competing for a Stanley Cup this season, there is a lot of optimism going into the 2015-16 season and beyond. Hopefully, Florida fans will notice and support their NHL franchise as the Panthers continue to impress the rest of the league.
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