Moving left to right for the forwards in the All-Time Best series, today we take a look at the top three Centers in the history of the Florida Panthers. For many years, Florida never really had a clear-cut number one center. This was an issue that was addressed very quickly by current Panthers GM Dale Tallon. Through the draft, Tallon has brought in a plethora of talented young centers to the fold in Florida. Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Vincent Trocheck are looked at as the future one-two-three combo for the Panthers, but wait. There’s more. Drew Shore drafted by former GM Randy Sexton and Brandon Pirri acquired before the deadline by Tallon from Chicago, make things quite interesting down the middle. This logjam of young talent at the center position is an excellent problem to have. Having this many options for the future is extremely promising for the Panthers and will provide stiff competition down the road. These young centers have high ceilings to what they can do and one day may even be considered some of the team’s all-time greats, but to get there they will have to get past these guys…
1. OLLI JOKINEN
One of the most popular figures in Panthers history is former captain, Olli Jokinen. Jokinen came over to Florida with Roberto Luongo in another of former New York Islanders GM Mike Milbury‘s infamous code red, disaster-level trades. Florida gave up Oleg Kvasha and Mark Parrish and in return gained Jokinen and Luongo. Both of these players are ranked number one all-time at their positions in these lists so far, while Parrish was a journeyman in the pros and Kvasha didn’t last long in the NHL. Jokinen was drafted in the first round of the 1997 draft by the Los Angeles Kings and was traded to the Islanders two seasons after. Jokinen’s production was limited at both the NHL and AHL level and many began questioning if he could ever live up to expectations.
Jokinen’s start to his Panthers career was lackluster to say the least. His first two seasons (2000-01, 2001-02) were beginning to label the former third overall draft choice as a bust as tensions flared between himself and head coach Terry Murray. Playing in 158 games during his first two seasons, Jokinen finished with 45 points (15-30-45), 204 PIMs and a horrendous minus-38 rating. Once seen as a promising piece to the Florida puzzle, Jokinen was not impressing fans or management alike, this included new coach, Mike Keenan. While Keenan is infamous for his time in Florida and a bit vilified by many fans, Keenan lit a fire under the under-performing young Finn. Pavel Bure was no longer a Panther by the start of the 2002-03 season, and while irreplaceable as the future hall-of-famer was, someone needed to step up and seize the opportunity to carry the offensive load.
Enter Jokinen. Jokinen made his presence known that season playing 81 games and posting 65 points (36-29-65), emerging as the team’s top player. Jokinen led the team in points that season, an achievement he held on to for the rest of his days as a Panther. Named to the All-Star Team, Jokinen credited his success to Keenan, who continued to use Jokinen as their number one center. Jokinen became the team’s go-go guy over the course of his career in Florida. Ranking fourth all-time in games played as a Panther (567). No player in Florida history has taken more shots (1837), scored more goals (188), game-winning goals (36) or points (419) in a Panthers uniform than Jokinen. The Kuopio, Finland native’s best seasons of his career were during his time in Florida. Jokinen played four straight 82-game seasons for the Panthers and holds the record for most consecutive games played by a Panther (373). A prolific point producer for Florida, Jokinen hit career bests in goals (39) and points (91) during the 2006-07 season and recorded over 60 points in a season on four separate occasions. While never making the playoffs during his tenure in Florida, Jokinen led a young Panthers team to best of his ability. Not afraid to drop the gloves, or drill his opponents with a hit, Jokinen brought it all when he was on the ice.
Jokinen was a threat on the ice for the Panthers every night and holds a record untouched by a Panthers player by recording more points in a game than any Florida skater. On Mar. 17, 2007 Jokinen recorded six points (2-4-6) against the team that traded him to Florida, the Islanders. After missing the playoffs for seven straight seasons (boy did they have no idea how much longer it would be) the Panthers decided to shake up the team by moving Jokinen. Jokinen was traded along with a 2nd round pick to the Phoenix Coyotes for defenseman Keith Ballard and Nick Boynton. Phoenix used that pick to draft Jared Staal. Jokinen bounced around to a few other teams and spent the majority of his time with the Calgary Flames. Jokinen never regained his form after being traded, and is currently a member of the Winnipeg Jets. Panthers fans can catch Jokinen at the Panthers IceDen in Coral Springs during the offseason, as he still spends his summers in Florida. The man who wore number 12, ranks as number one on the All-Time Best list.
Fun Fact: Ballard, who the Panthers received in return for Jokinen from Phoenix was traded to the Vancouver Canucks at the 2010 NHL Entry Draft for a first round pick, Michael Grabner and Steve Bernier. While Grabner and Bernier didn’t last long in Florida, the Panthers used that first round pick to select Quinton Howden, 25th overall.
Here’s a great highlight video with clips of his reaction being traded to Phoenix, as well as international play with Team Finland, his early years as an Islander and of course is time as a Panther.
2. STEPHEN WEISS
654 games as a Panther. No player in Panthers history was more of a mainstay or thought of as the heart and soul of the team more than Stephen Weiss. Selected by Florida at the 2001 NHL Entry Draft in Sunrise, Weiss was taken fourth overall in the first round and was compared to his hero Steve Yzerman. While higher ranked prospects are often compared to elite players, many do not live up to those comparisons. The Yzerman comparison was more in style than substance for Weiss, and he never quite lived up to that hype. Weiss’ increase in attention at the draft was due to his 87 points (40-47-87) in 62 games with his junior team, the Plymouth Whalers. Weiss although never a top-caliber player, he was indeed a very good center through his time in Florida.
On April, 3, 2002 Weiss made his NHL debut on his 19th birthday, facing the Pittsburgh Penguins. Weiss scored his first career goal in that game and finished the rest of Florida’s season with the team playing in seven total games, recording two points (1-1-2). Weiss did not flourish under the Keenan regime and struggled to live up to his draft stock. The highest point total Weiss recorded under Keenan was 29 points (12-17-29) in 50 games. Weiss took a few seasons to become a dependable player for Florida and battled injuries as well. He began turning the corner after Keenan’s departure posting his first 20 goal season (2006-07) under head coach Jacques Martin. Weiss steadily kept pace around the 40 point mark the following season, but didn’t really break out until a familiar face from his past, took the reigns behind the bench.
Pete DeBoer was Weiss’ old coach from his days in Plymouth. It was under DeBoer that Weiss elevated his play to his 87-point campaign. DeBoer became the head coach of the Florida Panthers in the 2008-09 season and Weiss excelled. Weiss went on to have the best season of his career that year. Weiss was the team’s number one center now that Jokinen was no longer a Panther and DeBoer instilled his trust in his former pupil. Weiss posted a career-best 61 points that season (14-47-61) and finished with a career-high plus-19 rating. His confidence on the ice as well as his chemistry with David Booth and Nathan Horton gave the Panthers a real chance at a playoff berth. Ultimately the Panthers lost out on the playoffs by a hair, but Weiss who now wore the “A” in Florida looked to take the team even further the following season.
The 2009-10 season was a disappointment. Weiss hit a career-high in goals with 28 that year, but the exit of Jay Bouwmeester, the concussion of Booth and countless other injuries to the team took it’s toll as the Panthers finished towards the bottom of the standings yet again. When Tallon took over as GM, he looked to weed out any player not interested in helping with his rebuild of the team. Weiss stood pat, and wanted to remain a Panther. While recording 21 goals the following season, Weiss led a who’s who of aging veterans, AHL call-ups and young players into another disappointing year. DeBoer was dismissed and Kevin Dineen came on board.This was Weiss’ seventh coach to play under during his ten seasons in Florida.
Weiss didn’t miss a beat under Dineen and formed a deadly alliance with Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg that led to the Panthers first playoff berth since the 1999-00 season. Although winning the Southeast Division, the 2011-12 Panthers were an underdog and were looked at as easy prey in the first round to the New Jersey Devils, who were led by former coach, DeBoer. Weiss finally played in his first ever NHL postseason and gave the team everything he could. Weiss posted five points (3-2-5) in seven playoff games, including back-to-back power play goals in game two, pushing Florida to their first playoff win in 15 years. Despite losing in a heartbreaking game seven double overtime finish, Weiss looked to help the Panthers return to the playoffs the following season and defend their division title. The lockout and a season ending wrist injury limited Weiss to 17 games where he posted a meager 4 points (1-2-3) and floated through the year with uncertainty as he was a pending free agent.
Weiss ultimately left Florida last summer to join the Detroit Red Wings. Again limited this season due to injuries, Weiss signed a five-year $25. 4 million contract and has yet to show his worth with the Wings. Weiss may have left Florida, but was met with a warm reception by the Florida faithful at his first game back in Sunrise. The longest tenured Panther in team history, Weiss also holds the record for most assists by a Panther (249), ranks second all-time in points (394), second all-time in game-winning goals (23) and is third all-time in power play goals (48). While he was never awarded the Captain’s “C” many fans considered him to be the true captain during his time with the Panthers, especially in their run to the playoffs.
3. VIKTOR KOZLOV
Six-foot-four, 232lbs, great offensive instincts and a nose for the net, Viktor Kozlov had all the tools to be a NHLer. The Togliatti, Russia native complimented fellow Russian, Pavel Bure excellently during their time playing together in Florida. Kozlov possessed a booming shot, slick passing ability and could move very well for a player of his size. Kozlov hit a career high in assists with 53 during the 1999-00 season and helped not only the Panthers secure a playoff berth, but helped Bure earn his first Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top scorer. Kozlov’s 53 assist year is still the Panthers record for most assists in a season. Kozlov was a Panther for seven seasons, playing in 414 games and is fifth all-time among Panthers players in points (291), assists (190) and fourth all-time in shots on goal (1177). Kozlov goes unmentioned a lot when Panthers history comes up. Often overshadowed by players around him like Bure, Ray Whitney, Scott Mellanby and even goaltender Roberto Luongo or fan favorites, Paul Laus and Peter Worrell, Kozlov was a quiet producer for the Panthers through his time with the team. Kozlov was a prototypical power forward , and while his hockey playing days in the NHL may be over, the 39-year old center spent last season splitting time in the KHL with Yaroslavl Lokomotiv and CSKA Moscow.
Here’s a video of Kozlov in the KHL showing off his hands and passing ability. The guy’s still got it.
HONORABLE MENTION: ROB NIEDERMAYER
He was the first ever player to be drafted by the Panthers. Rob Niedermayer, the younger brother of hall of fame defenseman, Scott Niedermayer was selected fifth overall by Florida in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. After showing he could score goals at the junior level by posting a 43 goals in his draft year, Florida saw Niedermayer as a dynamic two-way forward who could be their first ever lifer as a Panther. An enormous part of the “Year of the Rat” Niedermayer notched a career high 26 goals and 61 points in 82 games, before posting eight points (5-3-8) in 22 playoff games. Niedermayer battled concussions and injuries in the following years and never regained the form he showed that season. He converted into a more defensive forward through the years and was eventually traded to Calgary in a deal that brought Valeri Bure to Florida to unite with his brother Pavel. As the years went on Niedermayer was able to unite with his brother as well, and win a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks. Niedermayer played in 518 games as a Panther recording 266 points (101-165-266). The first ever true Florida Panther, Niedermayer was loved by the fans and remains a celebrated player in the team’s history.
Stay tuned as we begin to close in on the final chapter of the All-Time Best series on Panther Parkway!