The best sign that the perception of the Florida Panthers has rapidly changed came this past week when veteran forward Joe Thornton signed a one-year contract with the team in free agency.
Why is that signing so significant? Just consider the context around it. Thornton is a 42-year-old future Hall of Famer that is chasing the Stanley Cup that has eluded him for his entire career. He is not signing a one-year deal with a team that, in his mind, has no shot of winning it all. He is almost certainly there because he believes this Panthers team has what it takes to win, and win right now.
It should be an exciting time for Panthers fans because this is probably the first time in the history of the franchise they could actually have that high of an expectation for their team.
This is a franchise that has made the Stanley Cup Playoffs just six times in its 28 year existence, and only once has made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons — and that was all the way back in the 1996 and 1997 seasons. It is a team that has not won a single playoff round since a miracle Stanley Cup Final run in 1996, its third year in the league, when it came out of nowhere to stun the league (and probably themselves). Nobody expected that run.
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But now? With this team? Fans probably should be expecting something significant this season. That does not necessarily have to mean a Stanley Cup, or even a deep run into the playoffs, but the there should an expectation for this group as constructed to make an impact in the league. All of the ingredients are certainly there.
They have a three-time Stanley Cup winning coach in Joel Quenneville. There are two All-Star level players and elite scorers at the top of the lineup in Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. They have also given that duo a strong complementary core of forward depth with Carter Verhaeghe, Patric Hornqvist, Sam Reinhart, Anthony Duclair, Frank Vatrano, Sam Bennett, and now Thornton. There is also the emergence of a potential star in goal with Spencer Knight inching his way closer to being the team’s full-time starting goalie. Sergei Bobrovsky is still on the roster with that contract, but Knight is clearly the future and made a strong first impression this past season.
They are also coming off what is the best regular season in franchise history with what should be the their most talented roster ever.
Their .705 points percentage was by far the highest in franchise history and only the second time they ever finished a season with a mark over .600 for a single season (their previous high was .628 during the 2015-16 season). They followed that with an impressive performance (even in a losing effort) against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the First Round of the playoffs. They may have lost in six games, but it was probably the most competitive and entertaining series of the First Round and could have very easily gone in the Panthers’ favor with one or two breaks going their way. They more than held their own against the league’s best team.
[Related: Panthers sign Joe Thornton to one-year contract]
The question is if they can repeat all of that over a full 82-game season in their normal division.
The Panthers return to the Atlantic Division where they will have to face Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto at the top, while also having to play the rest of the top teams in the league that they did not have to face a year ago with the divisional schedule. While they still had to play a significant portion of their schedule against Tampa Bay and Carolina (9-10-4 record, including playoffs) they also had a healthy dose of Chicago, Columbus, and Detroit (19-4-1 record) mixed in.
Having to compete for a playoff spot with the Lightning, Bruins, and Maple Leafs will not be easy, while also getting regular games against the rest of the league’s top teams. But this is definitely a Panthers team that took a big step forward this past season and has the roster to maybe take another step this season. Are they a Stanley Cup team just yet? Maybe not. But this the most reason for optimism Panthers fans have probably ever had.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.