Matthew Tkachuk, Courtesy

Panthers’ identity has outcasts dying to grow and bare teeth

There is a creature alive today who has survived millions of years of evolution, without change, without logic, it lives to kill. A mindless eating machine, it will attack, it will devour. Anything. It is as if God created the Devil and gave him . . . jaws.”


This well-recognizable trailer script from Steven Spielberg’s legendary film Jaws is most definitely a very rich, very over the top comparable to what-the-Florida-Panthers-are . . . but you get the point, right?

The Panthers are the National Hockey League’s version of a great white shark. Dominant, relentless and endlessly ravenous, General Manager Bill Zito’s monster creation is just a couple of wins away from back-to-back trips to the Stanley Cup finale.

If any of you have been tuned in to the Eastern Conference showdown to this point – and you’re being completely honest with yourself – you’d admit Florida should already have punched its ticket . . . that’s if final scores equalled on-the-ice capabilities.

It’s been a showcase of dominance. First to the puck, more assertive than their opponents, dominating the zones, out-skating and out-hustling, Florida’s been superior in all aspects (bar goaltending) to the New York Rangers.

And yet we’re sitting in a 2-2 best-of-seven series with the Rangers holding home-ice advantage.

Go figure. That’s hockey, I guess.

New York’s well into this without any kind of production from top-liners Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider.

Zippo. Zero. No goals and no assists from the duo in four games.

Maligned first-pick overall (2020) forward Alexis Lafreniere has three goals in this set, as does banging winger Barclay Goodrow. (Lafreniere now has seven(!) goals and 13 points so far, this post-season).

But I’m not hijacking these precious few minutes in your day to belabour what is, or isn’t, happening in the Eastern final. That’s being more than capably taken care of by the Elliotte Friedman’s, Kevin Bieksa’s and Larry Brooks’s of the hockey universe.

What’s on my agenda is ‘construction.’

Hockey has developed into an industry of mimicking success; or at least attempting to mimic success. Every year at this time there are 28 hockey organizations watching on as the final four teams battle it out. That’s 28 NHL general managers scouting the Rangers and Panthers and Edmonton Oilers and Dallas Stars. Twenty-eight GMs taking notes and creating wish lists, looking at what makes and made these four remaining clubs that much better – that much more successful – than them.

Developing team identity in the NHL these days is all the rage. It’s the talk of the town – ‘what’s the personality and character of your team?’

Well, it’s quite a diverse group in that each of these four remaining entities is a bit different than the others. The identities vary: Edmonton was fortunate enough to have God himself available at the draft table at the most opportune time; Dallas is simply superbly built, top-to-bottom and sports a brilliant netminder; and the Rangers are quite similar to Dallas but perhaps a step behind overall.

That leaves Carcharodon carcharias – the great white shark.

A couple of months ago while the Panthers were chewing up and digesting the Ottawa Senators for the umpteenth time, I wrote about Bill Zito and the absolutely marvellous job he’s worked in crafting Florida’s team. When you’re discussing identity in the NHL, no team captures the message better than the Panthers.

That’s all on Zito, currently the league’s best hockey manager.

The moves have been documented at length.

Stealing Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk from Calgary; spotting a wallowing Brandon Montour and lifting him from Buffalo for a third rounder; acquiring Sam Reinhart from the Sabres for Devon Levi and a very late first rounder; and the move that started the identity-parade from four years ago – landing irritating Patric Hornqvist from Pittsburgh.

Zito seemed to be saying, ‘Yeah, it’s sunny and laid-back where we play. That doesn’t mean we gotta play like that.’

And so, this is where things could very well get interesting.

Say the Panthers win the Stanley Cup (cannot argue with that at all from this corner) and the league’s propensity for copy-catting kicks in.

What then?

Daily mayhem?

Blood in the water on a nightly basis?

Four-hour-long games?

Fact is that hockey with spite and bilious bad temper is damn enticing and engaging.

As Sam Buttrey of Jeopardy fame would offer – “Bring it.”

PHOTO: Courtesy