A look at the Florida Panthers’ All-Decade team for the 1990s
This is part of a series detailing the all-decade team for every NHL franchise for the 1990s. The all-time teams were compiled using a mix of skill, longevity and statistics; it is not necessarily the best, most memorably or most talented players. Instead, this is the list of players by each position who had the best numbers over a prolonged period (i.e. at least three full seasons between 1990-91 and 1999-00) during the regular season.
Team: Florida Panthers (1993-94 to 1999-00)
226-225-91, .501 WIN PCT, 1,480 GF vs. 1,488 GA, -8 Diff, 3/7 Playoff Appearances, 0 Stanley Cups
The Florida Panthers were incredibly competitive early on for an expansion team. They were just below .500 for their first two seasons, and then had three seasons in the .543 to .598 win percentage over the next five years. Other than ’97-98 (where they had a 38.4% win percentage), the Panthers were never worse than a .476 clip. That’s amazing when you consider how bad some of the other expansion teams in the 90s were: each of Ottawa, Tampa Bay and San Jose had overall win percentages for the decade below 40%. Overall, Florida’s win percentage of 50.1% ranked a healthy 14th out of 26 teams that played at least four seasons during the 1990s. They couldn’t score to save their lives, a common problem for expansion teams: Florida averaged 2.73 goals for per game, ranked 22nd (but better than the other four expansion teams from the 1990s). However, Florida was a defensive marvel: they allowed just 2.75 goals against per game, better than all but New Jersey and Chicago. Florida was almost even, finishing with a -8 goal differential, ranked 15th in the league. The Panthers even had a Cinderella playoff run in 1996, making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals before losing to the Colorado Avalanche. It’s a shame that after such a solid start as a franchise the Panthers would fall into a seemingly endless cycle of mediocrity: after making the playoffs in 2000, the Panthers didn’t return it back to the postseason until 2012. Hopefully they can bring the franchise back to a competitive position again.
Left Wing: Ray Whitney (230 GP, 87-109-196, +23, 81 PIM, 11 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Bill Lindsay
A rare offensive-skilled bright spot on the Panthers, Ray Whitney was claimed on waivers by the Edmonton Oilers early in the ’97-98 season. He responded by scoring 32 goals and 61 points in 68 games. He proved he wasn’t a fluke either, scoring 26 goals and 64 points in ’98-99 and then 29 goals and 71 points in ’99-00. He had a positive +/- rating twice in two seasons, including a high of +16 in ’99-00. He was quite effective on the powerplay, scoring 24 PPG (12 alone in ’97-88). And he was clutch: of his 87 goals, 11 were game-winners, good for 7% of his total. He fell just shy of the 200 shots on goal mark in his two full seasons as well. He certainly wasn’t physical (it is hard for someone who is 5’ 10” to be physical in the NHL), but that wasn’t his role. His job was to score, and he did that job quite well for a team that generally lacked offensive flair. Bill Lindsay gets an honourable mention: he spent six seasons with the franchise. While not an offensive dynamo, he had four straight seasons of 11-12 goals and 27-34 points. He also consistently had a +/- in the -2 to +1 range, and a strong +13 rating in ’95-96. But while Lindsay was one of the team’s best grinder, Whitney was virtually the team’s only offensive left winger during the decade, so Whitney gets the nod.
Centre: Viktor Kozlov (191 GO, 45-99-144, +36, 54 PIM, 3 GWG)
Honourable Mention to Brian Skrudland
Viktor Kozlov certainly didn’t set the world on fire after the Panthers picked him up, scoring 23 points in 43 games in ’97-98. But he improved to 51 points in 65 games in ’98-99, and then followed that up with a 17-goal, 70-point effort in ’99-00. His +/- improved each year from -1 to +13 to +24, and he scored a healthy 14 powerplay goals (out of 45 total). He lacked game-winning goals (just 3 out of 45), but he was an offensive threat down the middle for a team that really didn’t have any other options. That is not a detraction against Kozlov, merely an acknowledgement that he benefitted from playing alongside Whitney and Pavel Bure when no one else was an option as first-line centre. Brian Skrudland was a day-one Panther who spent parts of four seasons in Florida: he had a 40-point season in ’93-94, but then scored just 59 points in his next 177 games. His +/- was strong considering he was playing on expansion teams (+23), and he was a solid leader. But Kozlov was Florida’s only offensive centreman of the decade, so Skrudland gets the honourable mention.
Right Wing: Scott Mellanby (512 GP, 153-188-341, Even +/-, 907 PIM, 22 GWG)
Scott Mellanby was the embodiment of the Florida Panthers. While not a franchise player, he was a heart-and-soul type, a leader and a fan favourite. He played in all seven seasons of the 90s for the Panthers, and only once missed more than five games in a season. He had two 30-goal seasons, and another with 27 goals. He had a high of 70 points in ’95-96, and two others in the 56-60 range. His +/- was even or better five times, although the two negative seasons were pretty rough (-16 and -14). He was a tough customer, posting 100+ PIM five times (and would have the other two had he played more games). He was a true threat on the powerplay, posting 17 PPG in ’93-94 and 19 in ’95-96. He was also clutch, scoring an impressive 22 game-winning goals (14% of his total). He was tough, led by example, and wasn’t afraid to pay the price in the offensive zone. While some (e.g. Pavel Bure) were more exciting or talented players, none had the impact that Mellanby did for the franchise in its formative years. To say nothing of his famous “rat trick” during their magical ’95-96 season.
Defense: Robert Svehla (409 GP, 48-185-233, +9, 440 PIM, 4 GWG)
Svehla had an audition in ’95-96, and then made the team as a regular from ’95-96 to ’99-00. During that five-year stretch, he played at least 79 games each season. He was a fantastic two-way defenseman: he had a high of 57 points in ’95-96, and then four seasons in the 37-49 points range. His +/- was a little weak, going negative three times in five years. But he made up for it on special teams, scoring 23 powerplay goals (with a high of 7 in ’95-96). He was also good for 143-159 shots on goal each season. Svehla also wasn’t afraid to get physical, posting 83 or more penalty minutes four times. A solid two-way defender for the franchise.
Defense: Gord Murphy (410 GP, 42-100-142, -16, 238 PIM, 2 GWG)
Another day-one Panther, Murphy was solid for Florida in ’93-94: 14 goals and 43 points. He then followed that up with 22 points in 46 games during the shortened ’94-95 season (a 39-point pace). He slowed down offensively after that: his point totals fell from 30 to 23 to 17, and then just 7 in 51 games in ’98-99. Murphy was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers during the 1999 offseason. Murphy’s +/- was weak in the team’s first two seasons, although he was likely playing against the opposition’s better players. He was -25 in his first two seasons with Florida, but +9 over the next four. He also chipped in 23 powerplay goals, including 9 in ’93-94. One of the better expansion draft selections made by the Panthers, especially for their defense corps.
Goalie: John Vanbiesbrouck (268 GP, 106-108-43, 13 SO, 2.58 GAA, 0.912 PCT)
Honourable Mention to Mark Fitzpatrick
John Vanbiesbrouck is easily the best expansion goaltender of the modern era. While the Panthers were clearly a defensive-oriented team, “Beezer” was their backbone. He nearly managed a .500 record in his first two seasons, and then went 53-39-17 between ’95-96 and ’96-97. He struggled in ’97-98, going 18-29-11 with his worst statistics as a Panther (2.87 GAA, .899 PCT). He was solid for Florida, posting 13 shut-outs over his five-year tenure. His first-year save percentage of .924 is amazing, and he was between .904 and .919 for the next three seasons. His goals-against average was between 2.29 and 2.68 in his first four years as well. He faced a lot of pucks, but he turned back more than his fair share.
Vanbiesbrouck was recognized for his strong play: he made the NHL’s Second All-Star Team in 1994 (as the goalie for an expansion team), and played in three straight All-Star games (’94, ’96 and ’97; there was no game in ’95) while with the Panthers. Easily the best goaltender picked by any of the nine expansion teams between 1991 and 2000. Mark Fitzpatrick also had a good run with Florida, going 43-42-22 with 4 shut-outs, a 2.71 GAA and .903 PCT in five seasons as Vanbiesbrouck’s back-up, earning him an honourable mention.