On paper the Panthers appear to be an ungainly amalgamation of castoffs, a team that began the season with 11 new players—most acquired via free agency and trades—and called up seven more from the minors over the last three months. But on the ice, Florida has proved to be a legitimate playoff contender. Scrappy and resilient, the Panthers (21-14-8) were leading the Southeast Division at week's end. The club's roster is loaded with talent that, for a variety of reasons, did not fit elsewhere in the NHL, but gelled almost immediately after arriving in South Florida. "It's surprised us to be ahead of schedule," says general manager Dale Tallon of his team's quick turnaround. "How [everybody] would fit together was a total unknown."
Florida, which finished last in the Southeast the past two years, was overdue for an overhaul—in 17 seasons the Panthers have made the playoffs just three times. As the Blackhawks' G.M. from 2005 to '09, Tallon had drafted or acquired many of the players who helped Chicago win the Stanley Cup two years ago, and he has brought four members of that championship roster to the Sunshine State. Along with forward Tomas Kopecky, veteran two-way center John Madden (who joined the club after signing a one-year deal on Jan. 4) and winger Kris Versteeg, who has a team-best 17 goals, Florida's Chicago crew is rounded out by defenseman Brian Campbell.
Campbell, 32, has been rejuvenated after a season in which he saw his minutes diminish and his eight-year, $57.1 million contract become a liability. The Blackhawks traded him to the Panthers last June, and he has taken over point duties on a power play that was the worst in the NHL a year ago. Florida now ranks a respectable ninth, and Campbell is tied for the league lead with 18 power-play assists.
The Panthers have endured bad luck. With their corps of forwards decimated by injury, they were forced to start five minor league call-ups in an 8--0 loss to the Bruins in Boston on Dec. 23. But they rebounded with a 5--3 victory over the Maple Leafs in their next game. Florida is 6-1-1 in games following defeats of three goals or more. "Without a full team, we really don't know what we have," says Tallon. "We just like what we're seeing."
Much of the success is seemingly a result of the Panthers' lack of identity becoming their actual identity. They are the only club in the league without a full-time captain. The role is filled instead by Campbell, defenseman Ed Jovanovski, Kopecky and center Stephen Weiss. "People aren't giving us credit," says Jovanovski. "There's a real culture change with this group tasting success and wanting more."
The team bond seems to be strengthening each week for the NHL's version of the Island of Misfit Toys.