With the Tampa Bay Lightning proving that hockey was viable in Florida, by 1992 the NHL was back looking at potential expansion teams in the Sunshine state. With tha backing of Wayne Huizenga, the NHL accepted the Miami expansion application in the winter fo 1992. The team was scheduled to take to the ice in the 1993-94 season. In the spring of 1993, Bob Clarke was named team vice president and general manager of the club, William Torrey was appointed as president and the club was officially named the Florida Panthers. Later that summer Roger Neilson would be named as the first head coach of the Florida franchise. When it came to selecting players for the new team, the Panthers hit what turned out to be the jackpot when they drafted New York Ranger John Vanbiesbrouck with their first selection in the expansion draft. In the amateur draft that followed, Florida picked Rob Niedermayer as the franchise's first-ever draft pick. Their first season started on the road as the Panthers tied the Chicago Blackhawks in their first ever game and a few days later defeated their inter-state rivals 2-0 in Tampa to record the franchise's first NHL victory. The team finished the regular season with an impressive 83 points and an expansion team record .494 winning percentage but fell short of a playoff berth. Bryan Murray was named general manager of the Panthers in the summer of 1994 anc in the following lockout shortened season the Panthers accumulated 46 points but once agin missed the playoffs, by just one point.
Even though the team had success under Roger Neilson's defensive system, the Panthers opted for a change by bringing in Dough MacLean to coach the team. What followed was an exceptional season for the third year franchise. With hockey the talk of the town, the Panthers got off to an amazing 31-14-5 mark, ranking amongst the NHL elite. At home, it was "raining rats" as toy rats were becoming ubiquitous in southern Florida. The team finished the 1995-96 season with a 41-31-10 record for 93 points and third place in the Atlantic division. Their postseaon began facing off against the heavily favored Boston Bruins. The Panthers stunned the Bruins in a five game series win and moved on to face the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round. This series saw a marquee matchup of Flyer power forward Eric Lindros going up against Florida's rookie defenseman Ed Jovanovski. The Panthers and Jovanovski would surprisingly come up on top with a six game series win. Backstopped by the outstanding play of goalie John Vanbiesbrouck, the Panthers took on Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburg Penguins in the Conference finals. They won the series on a game seven goal by Tom Fitzgerald. Their opponent in the Stanley Cup finals were the Colorado Avalanche who had recently moved from Quebec. The finals were closer than the series score, though the Avalanche swept the Panthers in four straight. The final game went to triple overtime before Colorado defenseman Uwe Krupp scored the Cup winning goal.
The disappointed Panthers continued to play a gutsy and successful brand of hockey in the year that followed. They finished with 89 points, good enough for third place in the Atlantic division. They met the Rangers in the first round and were eliminated in a five game series. The 1997-98 season was marred with changes, most of them leading to a downturn in the team's performance. Doug MacLean would soon get the axe as Bryan Murray would fill in with a dual coach and general manager role. The team fell to sixth place in the Atlantic division with only 63 points and was unable to compete in its third straight playoffs. Terry Murray was named the fourth coach in Panthers history and the team moved into their new home, the National Car Rental Center, at the beginning of the 1998-99 season. They also added a superstar right winger Pavel Bure, the "Russian Rocket", in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks that sent young defenseman Ed Jovanovski to the west coast.
The 1998-99 regular season was a marked improvement over their last campaign. With a mix of talented players like Pavel Bure and young prosects including Mark Parrish, the team finished with a 30-34-18 record for 78 points. Though they had managed to accumulate 15 more points than the year before, they again missed the playoffs. The 1999-2000 season saw Pavel Bure make a comeback of sorts after going through a series of knee surgeries. Teamed up with his brother Valeri, the Bures broke the NHL season record for goals by a duo of brothers with 93 markers that year. The regular season ended with the Panthers finishing with a new best in terms of regular season points with 98 and met the New Jersey Devils in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Devils, who would eventually go on to win the Stanley Cup that year, defeated the Panthers in a one sided affair.
The 2000 season saw the Panthers get off to a slow start. Changes would soon come with both general manager Bryan Murray and coach Terry Murray being relieved of their duties and Duane Sutter becoming the Panthers' fifth head coach. The team would finish out of the playoffs but rookie goalie Roberto Luongo would provide a bright spot with five shutouts. Even though Duane Sutter was signed to a long term deal, he was gone a couple of months into the 2001 season to be replaced by Mike Keenan. With Pavel Bure now a New York Ranger, the Panthers continued to struggle on the ice with a young team and injuries to some of their key players. They finished out of the playoffs for the second straight year. The 2002-03 season saw the emergence of several young players on the Panthers' team. Olli Jokinen, Kristian Huselius, Stephen Weiss, and Jay Bouwmeester made significant contributions to the team and should provide a brighter future.
Florida Panthers Overview:
Arena: Office Depot Center
Stanley Cup wins: 0