SUNRISE, Fla. – Nearly a month has passed since the Florida Panthers season ended in a very abrupt and shocking manner.
Let’s be honest…it doesn’t feel any better now than it did then.
The last time we spoke to the Panthers was less than 48 hours after Game 4 in Tampa, and it was clear that the wounds were still very raw.
“It hurts,” said Sam Bennett.
“You wake up and your pride is sore,” said Sergei Bobrovsky. “It’s not easy.”
“It’s very disappointing right now,” said Claude Giroux.
As members of the Florida Panthers entered and exited their end-of-season interviews with the media last month at FLA Live Arena, there was still an overwhelming sense of shock, sadness, and discontent hovering over everyone who sat in front of the microphone.
Well, everyone except rookie Anton Lundell, who always seems to have a half-smile on his face and positive attitude in his heart.
“I’m just trying to work on my game and improve myself during the summer,” he said through his trademark side-grin.
Many on the team, including Interim Head Coach Andrew Brunette, woke up that day with their minds still in season routine-mode, expecting to get out of bed and begin their normal gameday rituals.
They were, after all, supposed to be hosting Game 5 of their Second Round series with the Tampa Bay Lightning at 7 p.m. that night.
Instead, it was an early-morning visit to the arena to clean out lockers, sit down for exit meetings with members of the front office and coaching staff, and say farewell to the brothers that they went to battle with every day for the past nine months.
“It was awful,” Brunette said of his drive to the rink. “I woke up this morning thinking we were playing.”
Bruno wasn’t alone.
Nobody thought the rematch between the Florida and Tampa Bay, two of the league’s best and most exciting teams, would end in a quick and not-so-painless four game sweep of the Panthers.
But alas, that’s what happened.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, now the Lighting are back in the Stanley Cup Final.
But the Panthers, a team many in the hockey world viewed as a favorite to reach the Final, have been left for the past several weeks wondering about what could’ve been.
And thinking back to that day, which was the finial time the 2021-22 Panthers players, coaches and front office staff were all under the same roof, a team that had a lot to be proud of (see: Trophy, Presidents’) and an extremely bright future to look ahead to was not surprisingly still focused on the amazing opportunity they let slip through their fingertips.
“I think the disappointment still stings,” Bruno said that Wednesday morning. “Not really a lot of talk about next year, more about how much it hurt.”
Of course it hurts. The Panthers were historically good, and not just franchise history because let’s be honest, that’s not a terribly high bar. No, we’re talking NHL history.
Only six teams ever, in the long and distinguished history of the league, have won at least 58 games.
“It’s disappointing, to say the least, after such a successful season,” said Bennett.
Combine how good Florida was with the amazing friendships and camaraderie that blossomed in that dressing room and you can start to get a clearer picture of just how devastated those men were feeling.
“It’s tough,” Bennett added. “We were a really close team, probably the closest that I’ve been on.”
Sergei Bobrovsky won 39 games last season, the second-highest total in his career.
His goals against average (2.67) and save percentage (.913) were the best he’s had in his three seasons with Florida.
He also saved his best hockey for late in the season. Leading into the playoffs, in March and April, Bob went 13-1-0.
Bobrovsky was also arguably the Panthers most consistent player during their ten postseason games, despite winning only four of them.
With four years, $40 million and a no-movement clause remaining on his contract, to say it’s nice to see Bob trending the right direction would be an understatement.
“There are a lot of good, positive things you can take from this season,” Bobrovsky said. “As a team, as an organization, I thought we took a step forward, a step toward our goal. Personally, I had so many good things to be happy and feel good about. I’m looking forward to the summer to get better, to get stronger and get ready for the next one.”
That will be the big question heading into the 2022-23 campaign.
Will the Panthers get the Bob of last season, that got better as the year went on and came up with big, timely saves at crucial times, or will they get the guy who was a major disappointment for most of his first two years in Florida?
To nobody’s surprise, Bobrovsky firmly believes that he will pick up where he left off.
“I thought I had a really good season, regular season and playoffs I performed well, so I want to build on it,” he said. “I still see lots of potential in myself and I don’t see limits.”
There have been rumors that the Panthers have tested the waters to see if any teams are open to trade that would include Bob and his $10 million cap hit for the next four years, or at least a good portion of it.
It seems like a heavy lift. Yes, Bobrovsky just had his best season since signing the deal, but one solid season out of three on that contract seems like a tough sell. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that the NHL salary cap has gone up a whole $1 million since 2019 thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.
On the other hand, we’ve seen Bill Zito make some magic happen in places it wasn’t expected or likely, so who knows what could happen.
ONE MORE JUMBO SEASON?
It’s no secret that future Hall of Famer Joe Thornton’s career is coming to the end of the line.
The 42-year-old signed with Florida in the offseason in hopes that he could finally win his first Stanley Cup.
After 24 seasons and over 1,500 points, the former All-Star and Olympic Gold Medalist has a couple of big decisions to make.
First, he has to figure out if he’s got enough gas in the tank for another lap around the track.
Thornton played in just 34 games for Florida, the lowest total for any season of his career. His only playoff action came in the Panthers final game after he was a healthy scratch for the first nine. He played six minutes and 18 seconds and was a minus-1 in Game 4 against Tampa.
While only some of the missed games during the regular season were due to injury, it’s worth considering that the once elite two-way centermen has simply gotten too old to keep up with the game at an everyday pace.
Once that decision is made, depending which route he takes, Thornton will then have to choose where to chase that dream, something that will obviously depend on which potential contenders are offering him a shot.
I asked him after the season what his decision-making process would be when considering retirement or another go at the elusive Stanley Cup.
“I really have no idea,” Thornton said. “I haven’t put any thought into it at all right now.”
As has been the case wherever he has played, Thornton left a positive impression on his teammates and coaches.
Based off the comments from his coaches and teammates, Jumbo’s value off the ice was perhaps more crucial than his contributions on the ice.
“I wish I’d got to play with him, but I got to coach him,” Brunette said. “It was an amazing experience to be around him every day and see the joy and enthusiasm he brings to hockey.”
Depending how Florida’s coaching situation shakes out, it wouldn’t be terribly surprising to see Thornton return to the Panthers in a similar role.
He’s been playing on one-year contracts since 2017, and his deal with Florida last season was for a meager $750,000.
Whatever the future may hold for Jumbo, I wouldn’t expect to find out for a couple months.