Coach Paul Maurice hoists the Stanley Cup for the first time in his career after the Florida Panthers defeated the Edmonton Oilers in Game 7. (Craig Davis)

Pressure Point: Zito, Maurice show Panthers the way to joyous Stanley Cup win

Watching the newly champion Florida Panthers posing with their kids with the Stanley Cup and beginning a summer fling with the most tradition-rich sports trophy, I was reminded of looking down on this same sheet of ice in 2013.

Nobody was skating. It was preseason. But Lord Stanley’s ornate punch bowl was a focal point of the gathering.

The Panthers were introducing new owner Vinnie Viola, who was making bold promises. Like new team owners always do.

“We are committed to provide the resources to the Florida Panthers necessary to win the Stanley Cup,” Viola vowed.

He concluded by saying, “We’re going to win. Put the word out, we’re going to win.”

Viola makes championship vow a reality

Eleven years later, Viola proved to be a man of his word Monday night after the Panthers somehow protected a one-goal lead over the final period to hold off the resurgent Edmonton Oilers 2-1 in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The keys were that Viola did provide the financial resources and he ultimately found the right leader when he hired Bill Zito as general manager in 2020.

Never mind that the Conn Smythe Trophy went to Edmonton’s Connor McDavid in a losing effort. That’s a rarity, but the award is for MVP of the entire playoffs. So, well, fine.

The award travesty of this NHL season was that Bill Zito got snubbed again as top GM. Dallas’ Jim Nill got it for the second year in a row. Inexplicably, Zito wasn’t even second in the voting.

What an absolute joke.

In four years, Zito, a first-time GM, reshaped a sad-sack franchise into a champion.

Zito dramatically transformed Panthers into champs

The ballsy trade to acquire Matthew Tkachuk from Calgary for cornerstone Panthers Jonathan Huberdeau and MacKenzie Weegar in 2022 was the turning point.

But the volume of personnel moves that Zito got right is staggering. Acquiring high-scoring forwards Carter Verhaeghe and Sam Reinhart, who scored the goals in the Cup clincher, were among the most important.

Others weren’t as obvious. Such as the waiver claim for defenseman Gustav Forsling, who had the NHL’s best plus-minus rating this season and is signed through 2031-32. Zito hit on trades for Sam Bennett and Brandon Montour, who have been significantly more productive with the Panthers than they were with previous teams.

After the Panthers were blown out of the 2023 Cup Final by Vegas, Zito added a number of role-player types – defensemen Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Dmitry Kulikov and Niko Mikkola, forwards Evan Rodrigues and Kevin Stenlund, goalie Anthony Stolarz, – who filled remaining needs that led to Monday’s celebration. The trade-deadline additions of veterans Vladimir Tarasenko and Kyle Okposo helped as well.

The other vital move was hiring Paul Maurice as coach after the 2021-22 Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy but got swept in the second round of the playoffs by Tampa Bay.

Maurice instituted a defense-first approach best suited to success in the playoffs. Perhaps more important he was able to bring the right balance of tough love and humor – as he famously said about one outburst, he felt the players “needed some profanity in their life.”

Championship void ends for Maurice, Panthers

Recalling the call he received from Zito about the Panthers’ coaching vacancy, Maurice said he sensed “something different about these guys.”

There was something similar about the Panthers franchise and Maurice’s coaching career before they came together for what culminated in Monday’s ultimate hockey achievement. Both were star-crossed.

Monday’s win means Maurice no longer has to answer to having coached the most games in the NHL without winning the Stanley Cup.

The Panthers spent much of their 30-year history lost in the woods. There was the remarkable Year of the Rat in their third season of existence that began with forward Scott Mellanby killing a rat in the locker room before the home opener and ended in a run to the Cup Final before getting swept by Colorado. Plastic rats rained on the ice after goals and wins that season and it seemed like every other car in South Florida had Panthers flags flapping from the rooftops during the playoffs.

And then nothing. For way too long.

After that 1996 season, star center Stu Barnes was traded for Chris Wells, who flopped, and futility followed. Worse was the trade that sent future Hall-of-Fame goalie Roberto Luongo in his prime to Vancouver for forward Todd Bertuzzi in 2006.

Viola’s ownership had its share of blunders

While a loyal corps of fans remained, the euphoria of 1996 faded and was mostly forgotten. The arena many nights was a dead zone, except around the holidays when visiting Canadians and New Yorkers showed up to cheer when their teams visited. Calls to move the team to Canada persisted.

The effort by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to facilitate Viola purchasing the Panthers probably saved the franchise for South Florida. The previous owner didn’t have the resources to keep the team afloat and needed to bail.

But it wasn’t a smooth ride to success under Viola. The first season they were seventh of eight teams in the Atlantic Division.

Maurice is the eighth coach under Viola, and at times this ownership appeared as clueless as its predecessors. That peaked with the shameful firing of Gerard Gallant on a road trip and ill-fated stint of Tom Rowe as interim coach as well as general manager while Dale Tallon was shoved aside.

Eventually Tallon was restored to command and got the Panthers back on track. But in 10 years Tallon never produced a playoff series win. He did leave a foundation for Zito, including captain Aleksander Barkov and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky.

Zito faces challenge as players wait to get paid

It is said that the Stanley Cup is the toughest trophy to win in sports. Barkov, Bobrovsky, Maurice and the whole sordid history of the Panthers franchise can be cited as evidence.

Somehow Zito, in his fourth year as general manager, put all the pieces in place to get it done.

A case could be made for Bobrovsky for the Conn Smythe, and Zito certainly was the most effective team architect of this season in this league.

But both of them got what they wanted most Monday night. Bob, who figuratively – and at times literally – stood on his head throughout the playoffs, got to hoist the Cup over his head. Zito, who is emotionally driven, wept openly in celebration.

With only $20 million in cap space and 11 unrestricted free agents, Zito faces another big offseason challenge in keeping as much of the team together as possible and finding replacements as needed. Reinhart, who scored 57 goals in the regular season and 10 more in the playoffs, including the Game 7 winner, will be a free agent.

Panthers begin summer fling with Cup

But none of that matters right now. The Panthers began their summer fling with the Cup by taking it to the beach Tuesday morning. A parade is scheduled for Sunday morning along Fort Lauderdale Beach.

There is a fine line between joy and despair in sports. One shudders to think of the long-term impact on the franchise if the Panthers had lost the Cup Final after winning the first three games. They ended up thwarting the McDavid-led Oilers by the slimmest of margins.

Maurice managed to get them back to playing without fear at just the right time.

“At no point did we say, ‘We better win this one or we’re gonna suck forever,’ ” he said.

Instead, plastic rats showered down amid the frenzy on the ice after time expired. They were shoveled aside and could be seen massed together along the boards as players took turns skating with the Cup.

Maurice got to lift Lord Stanley’s unwieldy trophy over his head for the first time after 29 years of coaching. He recounted the experience in an interview with ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt late Monday:

“I closed my eyes and I wanted to feel it. … I’ll never forget the weight of it and how I felt. And then I opened my eyes and all the players were in front of me smiling, and that’s when the profanity came out.”

He wasn’t alone in that. Fourth-line forward Ryan Lomberg blurted out an F-bomb during the celebration while being interviewed by Miami’s Channel 10. It came through on the broadcast.

Surely we can all use some profanity and joy in our lives. So go ahead, Panthers fans, shout it out as loud and often as you want.

F%*K, YEAH!!

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Panthers, for four decades. Follow him on the site formerly known as Twitter @CraigDavisRuns.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *