‘So much to be excited about’: Buzz builds for Panthers’ 30th season

A new age has dawned upon those here in South Florida. A region known for its beaches, parties and nightlife, is now known for something else:


In the past, when it came to the state’s contribution to the sport, it began and ended with the Tampa Bay Lightning, a three-time Stanley Cup champion and a perennial playoff contender. But times are changing.

The other Florida franchise, the one referred to by critics as “the little brother” of the NHL’s two clubs here, has been busy making just as many headlines the past two years. Indeed, the Florida Panthers now own the most recent success, the most recent title, and appear here to stay as they prepare for their 30th anniversary season.

Jessica Blaylock, shown in studio with analyst Randy Moller, is an on-air host and reporter for Bally Sports Florida, and was front and center this spring, as the Florida Panthers marched to the Stanley Cup Finals for just the second time in their 29 seasons. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Blaylock)

“There’s so much to be excited about.”

Those were the words of Jessica Blaylock, a host and reporter for Panthers games on Bally Sports Florida. In an exclusive one-on-one interview with Caplin News, Blaylock recapped the club’s season to remember — which ended with an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals last month — while looking ahead to what’s in store.

“You kind of saw this wave throughout the course of this season, of ups and downs, of how the team was performing out on the ice,” Blaylock said, referring to Florida’s slow start before the Panthers rallied to secure the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference. “A lot of that did go back to, a new head coach, it was a new system, it was some new players mixing with players who had been here a while.”

Paul Maurice, hired last summer after Florida lost in the second round to Tampa Bay, indeed installed a different system that struggled at times in the clogged Eastern Conference.

“Injuries played a role, too, and you kind of saw this up and down from the team,” Blaylock added, “not only from their performance on the ice, but it tied into the fan base.”

But a second-half surge, after the team hosted the NHL All-Star Game in February in Sunrise, turned the tide. Two months later, with a playoff bid secured, Florida upset the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Carolina Hurricanes to win the Eastern Conference title, its second in franchise history.

“At the end of the day, despite the hard times, I think people ultimately, really, really fell in love with this team,” Blaylock said.

And it was general manager Bill Zito’s job to keep that momentum rolling this summer after Florida lost to the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Finals. He saw the sold-out crowds, the postseason buzz throughout South Florida. And, similar to the way the NBA’s Miami Heat have built and maintained their “culture,” Zito hoped too, as well.

“We have spent a lot of time and a lot of effort trying to get our culture moving forward in the right direction,” Zito said.

And so he added to that in free agency this month, agreeing to deals with several veterans.

Offensively, Zito signed forward Evan Rodrigues, 29, away from the Colorado Avalanche, giving the veteran a four-year contract with $12 million. Rodrigues, who played three seasons with the Pittsburgh Penguins before signing in Denver, had 16 goals and 39 points last year.

“You always want to join a contender,” Rodrigues said on a conference call announcing the signing. “From top to bottom, we have a really good lineup.”

Oliver Ekman-Larsson, 31, a free-agent acquisition by the Panthers earlier this month, is a candidate to open next season as Florida’s top defenseman on coach Paul Maurice’s power-play unit as the franchise begins its 30-year anniversary season. (Photo courtesy of Vancouver Canucks)

Defensively, Zito may have struck gold in Oliver Ekman-Larsson, 31, a two-time All-Star whose injury-shortened season with the Vancouver Canucks, as well as a contract buyout this summer, may have played a part in a short-term, team-friendly deal.

Ekman-Larsson, 31, coming off a disappointing season in which he had just two goals and 22 points, agreed to an affordable one-year, $2.25 million contract that allowed the Panthers flexibility under the salary cap.

Zito was clearly aware he needed to support the foundation already in place. First, he needed it to continue to compete in the difficult East. And second, he needed it to continue to attract and sustain fans in South Florida.

“We did not want to quit on the group. We are in a tenuous situation, no doubt,” Zito said of the salary-cap situation, which was helped by trading away forward Anthony Duclair to the San Jose Sharks, and the retirement of forward Patric Hornqvist. “The (locker) room believes, and I believe in the (locker) room. We’re not going to quit on the team, we’re not going to quit on the fans who believe in us.”

The roots of this team are still in place, as well, with captain Aleksander Barkov, forward Matthew Tkachuk and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. The new additions aren’t necessarily complementary pieces but added skill to the already-established base.

“You’re bringing in new pieces, like an Evan Rodrigues and an Oliver Ekman-Larsson. I don’t know yet what lines are going to look like, what the defensive pairs are going to look like, especially knowing the Panthers are going to start the season with some guys injured,” Blaylock said, referring to star defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Brandon Montour. “But the thing that doesn’t change, is the accountability and the drive to win.”

The training camp will begin in Coral Springs in September. The preseason opens on Sept. 25, against the Nashville Predators in Sunrise, and Opening Night is Oct. 12, vs. the Minnesota Wild on the road.

Steven Posada is a senior majoring in Digital Communications and Media. His parents moved to the United States from Colombia and he is looking to chase his dreams and that is to work in sports. He aspires to work in production for sports but is also open to writing or reporting for a team if presented the chance.