SUNRISE, Fla. – The Florida Panthers are going all in.
South Florida’s first and only National Hockey League franchise has been around since 1993, but never in the team’s history has it featured a roster this talented.
Since the beginning of the season, it’s been clear that the Panthers were a force to be reckoned with.
Led by interim head coach Andrew Brunette, Florida has been at or near the top of the league standings all year. By Christmas, the Panthers were widely considered a Stanley Cup contender.
Florida might just be the favorite to claim hockey’s Holy Grail.
In the span of only a few days, the high-flying Panthers have added a pair of premiere players to the team’s already stacked roster.
On Wednesday, Florida got the jump on teams preparing for the NHL Trade Deadline, which is Monday at 3 p.m. ET, and acquired defenseman Ben Chiarot from the Montreal Canadiens.
It was a big move that raised eyebrows across the league. Panthers GM Bill Zito put everyone on notice that the Cats were going for it all.
But Zito wasn’t done. Far from it.
Saturday afternoon Zito put the finishing touches on a deal with the Philadelphia Flyers for franchise star Claude Giroux.
Two massive acquisitions in the matter of just a few days by a team that was already one of the best in the NHL.
The moves didn’t come cheap, though, as Zito and the Panthers are clearly mortgaging the team’s future in order to try and win a championship now.
Between the two trades, Florida gave up its 2023 and 2024 first-round draft picks, a 2023 third-round pick, a 2022 fourth-round pick, 2017 first-round pick Owen Tippett and 2020 third-round pick Ty Smilanic.
The 2024 first-round pick that went to Philadelphia is conditional; if the pick is a top 10 selection, Florida would retain the pick and Philly would instead receive the Panthers’ 2025 first-round selection.
The moves come a year after Zito traded the Panthers’ 2022 first and second round picks in separate deals for Sam Bennett and Sam Reinhart.
In addition to Giroux and Chiarot, Florida also added prospects Connor Bunnaman and German Rubtsov, as well as a 2024 fifth-round draft selection, from the Flyers.
“Claude has been one of the most complete talents in the National Hockey League for over a decade,” Zito said in a statement released by the team. “He has demonstrated his elite leadership and work ethic during his tenure in Philadelphia and we are thrilled to be able to welcome a player of his caliber to our lineup. Additionally, we are excited to receive Connor and German into our Panthers pipeline and look forward to their growth within our system.”
The Flyers will retain 50 percent of Giroux’s salary and Montreal is retaining 50 precent of Chiarot’s salary.
“Ben is a solid veteran defenseman that will bring both experience and size to our blue line,” Zito said following the trade for Chairot. “Having reached the Stanley Cup Final with Montreal last season, he is a player that knows what it takes to make a deep playoff run, which is what our organization is striving for in these next few months.”
The Panthers returned to South Florida early Saturday morning following a four-game west coast road trip.
They received quite a scare during Friday’s game in Anaheim when defenseman Aaron Ekblad needed help getting off the ice after suffering an injury to his right leg, but afterwards Brunette indicated that it wasn’t as serious as initially believed.
“We’re very hopeful,” Brunette said following the 3-0 win over the Ducks. “It’s way better than we thought it would be.”
Additional updates are expected in the coming days.
The Panthers ended up going 2-1-1 in the four games out west and entering play Saturday, Florida held a six-point lead in the Atlantic Division and a two-point edge for first in the Eastern Conference.
When they resume play on Thursday in Montreal, Giroux and Chiarot are both expected to be in the lineup.
There is no timetable yet for Ekblad’s return, but the postseason is still over six weeks away. If he is healed and ready to return by then, it’ll be hard to argue any team being favored to win the Stanley Cup over Florida.
Never, in nearly 30 years of existence, have the Panthers been in this position.
Already one of the best teams in the NHL, Zito and the Cats are shoving all their chips into the pot and going all in.
It’s uncharted territory for the Panthers and their fanbase.
We will obviously have to wait and see how it all plays out, but for now just take a moment and soak this in.
The Florida Panthers are not only Stanley Cup contenders, but they might very well be the favorites to win it all.
Bring on the playoffs.