An historic season for the Florida Panthers ended in a sweep.
The Panthers’ 2-0 defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning made them the second NHL Presidents’ Trophy winning team in four seasons and third since 1995 to have their season end via a sweep. The highest scoring team during the regular season (337 goals) could not solve Andrei Vasilevskiy, who posted a .938 even strength save percentage and a 6.53 goals saved above average in the series, per Natural Stat Trick.
“I mean, they’re Stanley Cup champions for a reason, and [it’s] their evolution of how they were once a high-flying kind of offensive team and they found their recipe how to win and they stick with it,” said Panthers interim head coach Andrew Brunette. “Obviously, we aspire to be them, and this was another learning experience for us, and we need to be better.”
A sweep can cause a team like the Panthers, who had visions of the Stanley Cup this season, to go one of two ways. It can cause overreaction in the off-season, which will be interesting to follow anyway as they are tight up near the salary cap ceiling. Or, it can fuel the team to erase this memory next season, much like the Lightning did after the Columbus Blue Jackets shocked the hockey world and swept them in 2019. Tampa Bay has responded with 10 consecutive Stanley Cup playoffs series wins and counting.
According to Cap Friendly, the Panthers have a little under $4 million in cap space heading into the summer. (Aleksander Barkov’s eight-year, $80 million extension kicks in next season.) Trade deadline acquisitions Claude Giroux and Ben Chiarot, both scheduled to become unrestricted free agents, will likely cash in elsewhere. Mason Marchment, also a pending UFA, should get a nice raise after a career-best 18-goal, 47-point season. But will it be in Florida? And have we seen the end of Joe Thornton’s NHL career? “Jumbo” will be 43 in July and his contract is also expiring.
Some minor changes to the roster for another run at the Cup could serve the Panthers well. After starting the season 7-0-0, they dealt with the sudden resignation of Joel Quenneville and Brunette stepping into the interim role. Brunette’s efforts helped the team grab the No. 1 overall seed in the NHL and make him one of the three finalists for the Jack Adams Award.
The sweep is a “tough pill to swallow,” said defenseman Aaron Ekblad, but it can be one that helps the Panthers moving forward. They lost to the two-time defending champions who were in the Panthers’ skates three years ago and they rebounded. Brunette can use this as a lesson.
“I think we’re closer than ever,” Brunette said. “But we got swept, and there’s another level we’ve got to climb still. We’re still climbing, and I thought hoping — not hoping, but I believe — we were ready for that next step, and unfortunately, we fell short.”
You would expect Panthers general manager Bill Zito to quickly drop the “interim” tag from Brunette’s title and give him the full-time head coaching gig. He clearly had a positive impact on the team this season and is confident in his group.
“I love this team,” said Brunette. “Of course I’d love to [return] but those are not really my decisions. I love this team, I love the group, I believe in it. I believe in them.”