SUNRISE – The Florida Panthers were underdogs long before they grabbed a playoff spot by the skin of their teeth and pulled off one upset after another to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final berth since 1996.
Sure, they won the Presidents’ Trophy last season and recorded a record number of goals in the process.
Only things go beyond that.
To get to that point, general manager Bill Zito assembled a motley crew of castaways and positioned them to become, in some cases, bona fide stars.
Carter Verhaeghe went from a guy struggling to play for the Tampa Bay Lightning and spending two different stints in the ECHL to a 40-goal scorer.
Anthony Duclair found a home on the top line alongside Verhaeghe and captain Sasha Barkov after seasons with five other teams.
Gus Forsling was recalled from the waivers of the Carolina Hurricanes, the team Florida swept for a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, and became a standout tag team defenseman.
Josh Mahura, also claimed off waivers, has also developed into a solid mainstay at the back.
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Others like Sam Reinhart, Sam Bennett and Brandon Montour finally reached their full potential at Sunrise after failing to do so with the teams that drafted them.
As the name of the city in which they reside suggests, the Panthers have provided a fresh start to a variety of players who possessed skill but lacked opportunity.
And the adversity that each one of them went through to get
“The life experience of those players when they come in and start to be guys who come in and out of the roster, not just at 18, because almost all players are like that, but a lot of guys got to the point where they were I’m not sure if their career will continue or if they will make it to the NHL,” coach Paul Maurice said.
“You start working hard on the details and you have to work every day. You are not casual about coming to the track and have a real desire to improve.”
The attention to detail each of these players devoted countless years to meant a perfect purchase when Maurice traded in Florida’s high-paced offense for a more detailed chip-and-grind style of play.
And even when they saw success in that new system, each player was still very focused on how to get even better.
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Verhaeghe, as Maurice often uses as a prime example of this, spends countless hours watching game videos to improve his defensive game.
Coming off a 30-goal season, Duclair spent months scrutinizing every detail of Maurice’s system while he was injured and came back a much more complete player.
Forsling has invested heavily in the defensive side of the ice and has become a stalwart for the Panthers.
“My whole career, I’ve been trying to improve and right now it’s no different,” Verhaeghe said.
“It doesn’t matter what happens on the ice, whether I score goals or don’t score goals. There are always little things and once you stop trying to find ways to improve, I think you’ve got it. You don’t improve and you start going downhill.”
That will to improve has also seeped into the underdog mentality Florida has maintained throughout its improbable postseason run.
“We all have different stories and different paths that got us here and I think for us, we could use some internal motivation to fight every night,” Duclair said.
“We’ve all come together here these past few months, we’ve played amazingly, and we’ve played so hard for each other. We have the same ultimate goal and that is to win every night and keep the same mentality every night.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
THE 2023 STANLEY CUP FINAL
FLORIDA PANTHERS AT VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
OR THE STARS OF DALLAS