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‘Reinvented’ Florida Panthers didn’t matter for decades. Now they’re Stanley Cup favorites | Opinion

Florida Panthers general manager Bill Zito and his Miami Dolphins counterpart, Chris Grier, have become buddies during the past couple of years and they joke around like friends do.

Zito is such a huge Dolphins aficionado that Grier kiddingly calls him “Fan Boy.” Wednesday morning, Zito texted Grier with a wink: “Let me know if you need any help on free agency.”

Aside to Grier: Have you seen the Panthers play this season? I might take him up on the offer...

Zito and I spoke for an hour Monday under an outdoor shade canopy at the team’s new practice facility in Fort Lauderdale. I asked him a question as directly as I could and the answer surprised me. The response was nearly 30 seconds of silence. You could hear a nearby air condition hum, and the caw of a bird flying overhead.

The silence never got awkward, though, because you could feel the wheels turning in Zito’s mind.

“Do you expect to win the Stanley Cup?” I had asked the GM whose team has the best record in the NHL.

At last he said, slowly, “I’m balancing the professional end of this position with the proper media answer against my own relatively bold approach. I would say my expectation is to get our team in the position where they have the talent and the character, yes.”

No Namathesque guarantee for the headlines here as Zito tip-toed carefully, but you know the answer he might have shouted out loud had I fed him truth serum.

Yes! After losing in the Stanley Cup Final last season and then getting better — the best in hockey right now, say the standings — everybody on this club and all of its hungry fans feel like is the year the Cats finally raise the Cup in their 30th franchise season. So do the latest betting odds.

It is hard to win a championship in pro sports. Heck, the Miami Dolphins have won but two in 58 years, and none since Richard Nixon was president. Comes along an occasional anomaly (its is Patrick Mahomes’ Chiefs at the moment), but all but one fan base in every sport ends a season some shade of disappointed.

The Miami Hurricanes have spent more than two decades trying to get back to what they once were in football.

And now the hockey team that has never won it all is not chasing but is now the chased — the team so good that others gin up hatred for it to hide their jealousy.

We haven’t had a team inspire that kind of outside reaction since the Big 3-era Heat of 2010-14 won a pair of championships as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade wore T-shirts that read, “The Heatles.”

The Dolphins were really good last year yet still far from champion level. Inter Miami signed Lionel Messi (words still almost unfathomable), but it is the Panthers who are the best team in Greater Miami — the one expected to deliver a parade come June.

The Panthers have played 65 games and won 44 and the reasons are all over the ice, and also found seated in Zito’s chair, and in coach Paul Maurice standing behind the bench.

The Cats are great because goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has shed his critics and made a season-long habit of rising to the Playoff Bob levels we saw last postseason. (And because second goalie Anthony Stolarz has been great, too.

Florida is great because we get the expected superstardom caliber from Aleksander Barkov and Matthew Tkachuk, but it’s once-unsung Sam Reinhart who is second in the league with 45 goals and has an insane 25.6 shooting percentage. That’s akin to an NBA player shooting 65 percent on threes.

The Panthers have the best goal differential in the NHL (plus-64) and play with a playoff-hockey-at-all-times style that is demanding to play and grueling to try to defend.

“We try,” Zito says of that playoff-style physicality and pace. “We’re not gonna be able to do it for 82 games, but goals to make that level of work. They buy into not that this is what we have to do, but this is what we want to do.”

Now the team that appeared close to flawless dared to get better at the trade deadline by acquiring forward Vladimir Tarasenko to pair with Barkov and Reinhart on the first line. The new guy scored two goals Saturday in his second home game.

“We wanted a particular skill set: Flexibility in the way they play but also a top-six guy with elite high-end skills,” Zito said. “Can Tarasenko think the game with Barkov and Reinhart? Yeah, actually he can. He’s not afraid to throw a body check or take one. He wanted to be here. You just kept checking boxes and this guy’s got 11 boxes checked.”

If it ain’t broke, why fix it? I asked the GM.

“That was a serious consideration we talked about at length,” he admitted.

Ultimately they dealt for Tarasenko because it is what teams do that are so close to the Stanley Cup they can feel it.

They got a four-time all-star with 44 goals in 97 career playoff games.

“That tells me when the playoffs start, he’s having fun,” says Zito.

The GM told Tarasenko there were only two rules to be a Panther:

“The first one is non-negotiable. You have to work hard — harder than you have ever worked. The second rule is, have more fun than you’ve ever had anywhere else.”

Camaraderie is an intangible of huge importance in Florida’s success.

“The strength of this group is the togetherness,” says Maurice.

Reinhart told us after Monday’s practice, “Off ice we’re exceptionally close, and that translates on the ice. We go into every game knowing we have a chance to win if we play our game.”

Zito in late 2020 took over a club that had not won a playoff series since 1996.

“We had to reinvent the franchise and give it respectability,” he says.

Done.

All that’s left now is to raise the giant silver chalice.