Panthers, Lightning & Everblades: Florida Is Becoming A Hockey Hotspot

Panthers, Lightning & Everblades: Florida Is Becoming A Hockey Hotspot

With success up and down the professional hockey realm, the Sunshine State is becoming a serious hotspot and destination for hockey.

May 24, 2021 by Jacob Messing
Panthers, Lightning & Everblades: Florida Is Becoming A Hockey Hotspot

As the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning face off in the first round of the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the intrastate series is putting the growth of Florida hockey on display.

The Lightning have been true Stanley Cup contenders dating back to their 2015 Finals loss to Chicago and finally put a number of disappointing years behind them as the 2020 Stanley Cup champions.

Meanwhile, just a few hours south, the Florida Panthers have spent the past several seasons as a team whose impressive talent struggled to translate its point production to a postseason berth.

But the Panthers have put it all together after some roster changes and the systems of three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville. The Panthers finished the 2020-21 season with 37-14-5 overall record that placed them fifth in the league.

The Lightning hold a 3-1 series lead in what has been a fast and aggressive matchup leading to the visiting team claiming each of the first three contests.

But there is far more to Florida hockey than its pair of NHL teams, with the ECHL having three established organizations. 

ECHL Entities

A perennial playoff team, the Florida Everblades have been a staple of the ECHL since their inception in 1998-99 and have fielded some of the best teams to have competed in the ECHL.

Since 1999, the franchise has earned three Brabham Cups as the top regular-season team, three Gingher Cup Memorial trophies as the Eastern Conference champion, three John Brophy Awards as the annual top coach, and one Kelly Cup as league champion.

The Everblades are a symbol of greatness in the ECHL and have been a model of success used by other teams across the league. With a 39-18-3-2 overall record, the Everblades sit atop the ECHL standings at the time of publication and have guaranteed themselves a playoff spot this season.

In the northeastern part of Florida, Jacksonville presents the Icemen, skating in their fourth season since relocating from Evansville, Indiana. The Icemen have made strides in their overall compete and sit sixth in the Eastern Conference, despite a 31-27-3-3 record.

Their place in the standings, coupled with a .531 point percentage shows the parity of the ECHL and the talent that is dispersed across the league. The ownership team of Jacksonville is also taking the lead in heading the ECHL new expansion team in Savannah, Georgia for the 2022-23 season.

Last but not least, the Orlando Solar Bears are the third ECHL team, in no order other than alphabetical. Orlando has been a part of the ECHL since the 2012-13 season with five postseason berths in seven seasons, excluding the canceled 2019-20 season.

The Solar Bears have fallen to intrastate rival, Florida, in the second round in each of the past two playoff years (again excluding the canceled 2019-20 season). They currently sit in the fourth and final playoff position in the Eastern Conference with a 33-25-5-1 overall record this season.

The ECHL has been a growing ground for young hockey players and the league’s impressive resilience could sprout more Florida-based programs in the future.

Beyond Cities

Florida hockey has also grown into much more than destination cities. The NHL is seeing a larger number of names hit the ice as Florida-born talent.

In the early 2000s, Florida players were nearly non-existent. There was no other Florida-born player beyond Colorado Avalanche forward and 2001 Cup winner, Dan Hinote, and Dallas Eakins, the current head coach of the Anaheim Ducks.

Fast-forward to 2021 and nine of the 15 Florida-born players to have made it to the NHL played in at least one game this season.

Moreover, some of these Florida-born players have taken on significant roles within their organization and the NHL. Notably, 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes has the tools to be the next superstar of the New Jersey Devils.

Older brother Quinn Hughes was taken No. 7 overall the year prior and has been a dynamically smooth-skating, offense-pushing defender for the Vancouver Canucks in his two seasons on the blue line.

There must be something about defending in Florida, because Shayne Gostisbehere and Jakub Chychrun are two more Florida-born defensemen with pivotal roles within their organizations.

Gostisbehere has always been knocked for his defensive deficiencies and while his offense has also dipped, he’s remained a strong option for the Philadelphia Flyers. The 27-year-old posted 20 points in 41 games with an impressive nine goals. Only six defensemen scored more goals than Gostisbehere in 2020-21 with all but one playing at least 11 more games.

Topping all defensemen in goal-scoring was Chychrun, who has become a huge piece to the Arizona Coyotes’ blue line with a mix of offense and defensive proficiency. Chychrun slipped in his 2016 draft year to No. 16 overall, where the Coyotes traded up to draft him, refusing to gamble that he would last another four selections to their natural draft spot. It is safe to say the price of trading up has been reimbursed with his play.

Meanwhile in the WCHA, Minnesota State forwards Nathan Smith and Lucas Sowder are two Florida-born players carving out impressive collegiate careers with hopes of playing themselves into contract negotiations when their NCAA tenures end.

For a premier NCAA school like annual-contender Minnesota State to pick a pair of players out from 1,500 miles away, there is something to be said about the growth of hockey in Florida.

Have a question or a comment for Jacob Messing? You can find him on Twitter @Jacob_Messing.