Monday July 15th, 2024 2:22PM

The Panthers took a long road to the title. The Stanley Cup proves the path was the right one

By The Associated Press

SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — Matthew Tkachuk decided to go for a little swim as his offseason was beginning on Tuesday morning. The Florida Panthers forward took a few steps off the sand and into the water of Fort Lauderdale Beach, then dove in while hanging onto his new best friend.

The Stanley Cup got a little wet.

That moment — one of many from the first 12 hours or so of the Cup being in the possession of the newly crowned champion Panthers — was a long time coming, helping cap what really was a four-year process of rebuilding the team's roster, coaching staff and style of play with hopes of making this title a reality.

“We had no choice,” Panthers owner Vincent Viola said. "We had to, as we say, we had to look for value where other people wouldn't look. We were hamstrung as far as our cap space. And it worked out. It worked out."

And the push to the mountaintop started with the hiring of general manager Bill Zito in September 2020.

Of the 19 players who played for Florida in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday night, only four were part of the organization before Zito arrived. Zito traded for Tkachuk — something that many in hockey said was a terrible move by Florida — two years ago, signed a slew of free agents, found guys on the waiver wire, whatever it took to fill a roster and make the cap math work.

The result: The Cup was in the ocean on Tuesday.

“It's hard to put into words how humbling it is and how much respect you have for the game as a whole, especially for a guy who never played (in the NHL),” Zito said. “So, pretty special.”

Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad were drafted by the Panthers in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Sergei Bobrovsky was signed as a free agent in 2019. Eetu Luostarinen came to Florida in a trade in February 2020. Those are the four who played in Game 7 and were here before Zito was hired. Everyone else was brought in with this moment in mind.

Tkachuk was the splashy move. Paul Maurice might have proved to be the biggest move.

The story has been told countless times: Maurice was semi-retired, maybe done, maybe not, when Zito called a couple of years ago. The conversation got deep, quickly, and Maurice soon realized he was going to coach the Panthers. It came with an understanding for both him and Zito, that Florida — the team that had the NHL's best regular-season record in the season before Maurice arrived — had to get tougher, had to play differently, and that meant the record would take some hits.

They never doubted one another. Pieces kept getting added, including Kyle Okposo and Vladimir Tarasenko just before the stretch run this season. Florida made the Cup final last year and now, the Panthers have won it all.

“These guys are different,” Maurice said. “It’s the way they treat each other. They love each other. It starts with Barkov and filters down. We have nine new guys this year and then we brought in Okposo and Tarasenko and you can’t tell that they’ve (not been here) 10 years. It’s nothing to do with the coach. Nothing. That room has been special since Day 1.”

The Panthers went to their first Cup final in 1996 and then went 26 years without winning another playoff series. They played in front of empty buildings, fended off rumors of contraction and relocation, made coaching changes on what seemed like an annual basis, were basically the league’s laughingstock and, going into Monday night, were on the cusp of an epic collapse — a 3-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Final was almost blown in a way that would have haunted the franchise forever.

No problem. All forgotten now.

Along the way, the Panthers went from trying to outscore everybody to a team that just stops them. The 2-1 win in the ultimate game of the 2023-24 season was the final proof of that.

The rebuild is done. A banner will sway. The Cup was floating in the Atlantic Ocean. The Panthers attracted such a crowd to the beach that police had to shut down a roadway for safety reasons. At Elbo Room, the Fort Lauderdale bar that Tkachuk has grown to love, he and teammates Sam Bennett and Anthony Stolarz led a chorus of singing “We Are The Champions” on Tuesday afternoon. The singing wasn't great. The moment was.

“It's so incredible,” Tkachuk said. “The best thing that happened to me in hockey was coming down here. I'm so happy. ... It's kind of crazy what that Cup does. It attracts people. It's the most attractive thing in the world."

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AP NHL playoffs: https://apnews.com/hub/stanley-cup and https://www.apnews.com/hub/NHL

  • Associated Categories: Associated Press (AP), AP Sports, AP Online Hockey
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