Here’s the most deceptive statistic in the NHL: The Florida Panthers are the third-youngest team in the league with an average age of 28.
Really, they have no players that age, and few near it.
Jaromir Jagr, by far the league’s oldest player at 44 years old, leads Florida in goals (21), while playing on a top line with Aleksander Barkov, a center less than half his age. Thirty-eight-year-old captain Willie Mitchell and 20-year-old Aaron Ekblad anchor their defense.
The Panthers have only qualified for the playoffs four times in their history. But, suddenly, the team is relevant. Florida finished with a 38-29-15 record last year and failed to qualify for the postseason for a third straight season. Now they are second in the Eastern Conference and second in the Atlantic Division at 36-21-9.
They owe much of that success to the extreme nature of their roster.
“It’s definitely a big plus for us with all of our young players getting better every game,” says head coach Gerard Gallant. “We have a young team, but our veterans are showing our young players the way. So it’s very important for that chemistry.”
It all starts with Jagr. The Panthers acquired the ageless wonder last season from the New Jersey Devils and he made an immediate impact. He leads the Panthers with 49 points and plays 17 minutes per game.
“He’s our leading scorer. He’s been great for us every night,” Gallant says. “For a 44-year-old guy to show up and play the way he plays every night, he’s a great leader and a great character for our club.”
Florida also depends on its goaltending, which ranks fourth in the NHL with a .919 save percentage. Roberto Luongo, the 36-year-old starter, is 27-16-6, with a 2.33 goals against average and .922 save percentage. Al Montoya, 31, signed with the Panthers two off-seasons ago from the Winnipeg Jets, has been a great backup for Luongo. Montoya is 9-5-3 and he has a stellar 2.10 GAA.
“Goaltending is a strong point on our team this year and both of them have been excellent,” Gallant says.
But while the Panthers might look like Stanley Cup contenders, they have to get through the rest of the Eastern Conference before getting a shot at the ultimate prize.
Enforcer Shawn Thornton won the Stanley Cup with the Boston Bruins in 2011. He knows better than most that getting through the playoffs will be challenging.
“We’ve struggled with the Bruins of late,” Thornton says. “Tampa Bay, we always have good games with them. New York, Washington, there’s a lot of good teams this year. There’s a lot of parity.”
Washington has 102 points and a 49-13-4 record, which is the best in the NHL. But Florida won the season series 2-1 against the Capitals. In-state rival Tampa Bay is second in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers have struggled with the Lightning this year, losing the season series 3-1.
The East is a tough conference this season. But Thornton also knows what makes the Panthers so unique can also make them dangerous.
“Our young stars kind of carry the boat,” he says. “Old guys kind of just point it in the right direction, so it’s been a really good mix in the last year-and-a-half that I’ve been here.”
With a unique and talented roster, the Florida Panthers look like legitimate Stanley Cup contenders for years to come.
Photos: Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images (team), Doug Pensinger/Getty Images (Jagr), Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images (Bruins)