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  • Writer's pictureDerek Ochej

A brief history of the 1995-96 Florida Panthers

The 1995-96 Florida Panthers are the 1990s expansion team that experienced the most immediate success, reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in the third season of existence (1996). During the regular season they doubled their points total (46 to 92), finishing third in the Atlantic Division. With three players from that roster featured this week (Tom Fitzgerald, Gord Murphy and Ray Sheppard) let’s take a dive into the squad. Until the Vegas Golden Knights came along and made the Cup Finals in their first season, advantaged greatly by an improved expansion draft, the Panthers held the record for quickest Cup Finals appearance by an expansion franchise, not including the second six expansion in the 1960s.

To make the 1996 Cup Finals, Florida dispatched Boston in five games but faced a stiffer test in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Philadelphia was led by the Legion of Doom with Eric Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg and took a 2-1 series lead. Florida won Games 4 and 5 in overtime and then completed the comeback with a Game 6 victory. The Eastern Conference Finals saw the Panthers face off against the conference leading Pittsburgh Penguins, who boasted four future Hall of Famers on their roster in Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr and Sergei Zubov. After splitting the first four games, the Penguins took Game 5 for a 3-2 series lead. The Panthers won Games 6 & 7 to advance to the Finals against Colorado, where unfortunately the clock struck midnight and they were swept.

The Panthers were a combination of veterans in the late 20s and early 30s (Tom Fitzgerald, Brian Skrudland, Mike Hough, John Vanbiesbrouck, Dave Lowry, Scott Mellanby and Gord Murphy), youngsters like Ed Jovanovski and Rob Niedermayer and cast offs like Bill Lindsay, Jody Hull, Stu Barnes and Ray Sheppard. This combination of experience and determination, along with fantastic defense and goaltending, propelled the Panthers to a Cup Finals in their third season. Unfortunately, they have yet to make a Cup Finals since, and have won only one playoff series (2021-22) since their magical run.

Card 387 - Ed Olcyzk

A centre, Olcyzk was drafted third overall by Chicago in 1984 out of the US National Team, having scored 68 points in 62 games while also representing the USA at the 1984 Olympics. Olcyzk turned pro in 1984-85, scoring 20 goals and 50 points in his first season, adding 11 points in 15 playoff games. In his second season he bumped his points totals to 79.

After a third season in Chicago, Olcyzk was traded to Toronto with Al Secord for Bob McGill, Steve Thomas and Rick Vaive during the 1987 off-season. Olcyzk put up career highs during his time with the Leafs, scoring 42 goals in 1987-88 and 90 points the following season. During his four seasons in Toronto the Leafs made the playoffs twice, losing out in the first round both times. In November 1990 he was sent to Winnipeg in a four player swap. Playoff futility continued with the Jets, although Olcyzk did score 32 goals in his second season, a fifth straight season of 30+ goals.

In December 1992 he was traded to the New York Rangers for Tie Domi. Olcyzk’s time with the Rangers was limited to only 37 regular season and one playoff game in 1993-94, but was still enough to get his name on the Cup as part of the 94 Rangers squad. He played another 20 games with the team in 1994-95 before a trade back to Winnipeg for a draft pick. 1995-96 was the best season in the latter half of his career, scoring 27 goals and 49 points in 51 games.

1996-97 saw Olcyzk sign as a free agent with Los Angeles, playing with the Kings until a March 1997 trade to Pittsburgh. After a second season with the Pens, he played parts of two seasons in Chicago, retiring at the end of the 1999-2000 season.

In 16 NHL seasons, Olcyzk played in 1031 games, scoring 342 goals and 794 points. In 2003-04 he moved from the broadcast booth to become head coach of Pittsburgh, a role he held until mid-way through the 2005-06 season. He returned to the broadcast booth after coaching, working at NBC and doing voice work for the EA Sports NHL franchise until the mid 2010s. He currently works as a broadcaster for the Seattle Kraken.

YouTube clip: scoring in Game 3 of 1996 Western Conference Quarter-Finals against Detroit. This was the original Winnipeg Jets’ last playoff series before moving to Phoenix.

Card 388 - Basil McRae

A left winger, McRae was drafted 87th overall by Quebec in 1980 after his second season with London in the OHL. He played a third season with the Knights, turning pro in the 1981-82. His first two pro seasons were split between the Nordiques and the AHL and in August 1983 he was traded to Toronto. McRae’s NHL time was even less with the Leafs, appearing in only four games over two seasons; however, he did score 30 goals in 1984-85 with St. Catharines of the AHL.

After signing with Detroit in 1985-86 and again playing primarily in the AHL, early in 1987 he was traded back to Quebec, playing a combined 69 games between the two teams, scoring 11 goals, 18 points and recording 342 penalty minutes. This was the first of four straight seasons with 300+ penalty minutes.

In June 1987 McRae signed with Minnesota, playing a career high 80 games in 1987-88, also recording a career-high 382 penalty minutes. The following season he scored 12 goals and 31 points (both career-highs) while leading the league in penalty minutes with 351. In his fourth season, McRae was part of the North Stars’ run to the 1991 Cup Finals, leading the playoffs in penalty minutes with 94.

In 1992 McRae was claimed by Tampa Bay in the 1992 expansion draft, playing 14 games with the Lightning before a trade to St. Louis. Over parts of four seasons with the Blues he played in 112 games, recording 313 penalty minutes. McRae’s final NHL season came in 1996-97, playing eight games with Chicago.

In 16 NHL seasons, McRae played in 576 games, scoring 53 goals, 136 points and recording 2457 penalty minutes (25th all-time). In four straight seasons in the late 1980s, he finished top four in the league in penalty minutes.

In 2001-02 he bought into the ownership group of his former junior team, London. McRae worked as an amateur scout with St. Louis (2008-12) and Columbus (2013-15) before being hired as the general manager of the London Knights. After two seasons as GM, McRae returned to Columbus as director of player personnel, a role he held until 2019, when he was promoted to assistant general manager, his current position.

YouTube clip: a marathon fight with fellow heavyweight Joey Kocur. Bonus clip: McRae's cameo appearance in the original Mighty Ducks movie, where he outshines teammate Mike Modano by actually delivering some lines.

Card 389 - Tom Fitzgerald

A right winger, Fitzgerald was drafted 17th overall by the New York Islanders in 1986. Following the draft he played two seasons at Providence College, turning pro in 1988-89 with a split season between the Isles and Springfield in the AHL, where he won the Calder Cup.

Through the first two seasons of the 1990s, Fitzgerald played about 40 games each season with the Isles, making the roster full-time in the 1992-93, playing in 77 games, scoring nine goals and 27 points. Just as he was establishing himself as an NHL regular, Fitzgerald was claimed by Florida in the 1993 expansion draft. In his first season as a Panther he scored a career-high 18 goals. Fitzgerald was also a key part of the 1996 Florida squad that went on a surprising run to the Cup Finals, contributing four goals and eight points in 22 playoff games. That regular season he also scored a career-high 32 points and finished ninth in Selke Trophy voting.

At the 1998 trade deadline Fitzgerald was sent to Colorado for Mark Parrish and a draft pick. Colorado would win the Pacific Division, however lost in the first round of the playoffs to Edmonton. During the off-season Fitzgerald signed with the expansion Nashville Predators, becoming the franchise’s first captain. In the first two of his four seasons in Nashville he scored 13 goals per season, and at the 2002 trade deadline he was sent to Chicago for a draft pick. Similar to his experience with Colorado, Fitzgerald and the Blackhawks were upset in the first round of the playoffs.

For 2002-03 season he signed with Toronto, playing two seasons with the Leafs before joining Boston for one final season in 2004-05, retiring after playing 71 regular season games. In 17 NHL seasons, Fitzgerald played in 1079 games, scoring 139 goals and 329 points. He scored 25 shorthanded goals (including six in the 1995-96 season), good for 40th all-time.

In 2007 he joined the Penguins front office as director of player development, being promoted to assistant general manager in 2009. In 2015 he left to become assistant GM with New Jersey, also holding the title of GM for AHL Albany. In 2019 Fitzgerald was promoted to general manager, a role he holds to this day.

YouTube clip: scoring in Game 1 of the 1996 Cup Finals against Colorado, giving the Panthers a 1-0 lead, one of the few times they led during the Finals.

Card 390 - Ray Sheppard

A right winger, Sheppard was drafted 60th overall by Buffalo in 1984 following his rookie season with Cornwall in the OHL. He played two more seasons with the Royals, leading the OHL in goals with 81 in the 1985-86 while winning the league's most outstanding player award.

Sheppard turned pro in 1986-87 with Rochester, playing his NHL rookie season the following year, scoring 38 goals and 65 points. He was named to the all-rookie team and finished second in Calder Trophy voting to Joe Nieuwendyk. Sheppard played another season and a bit with the Sabres before a trade to the New York Rangers for cash and future considerations. In his one season with the Rangers he scored 24 goals in 59 games, leaving in the off-season to sign with Detroit.

In his first season with the Red Wings Sheppard scored 36 goals, the first of four straight 30+ goal seasons. In 1993-94 he scored a career-high 52 goals (finishing second in the league in even-strength goals) and 93 points, finishing fifth in Byng Trophy voting. Sheppard finished third in the NHL in goals in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 with 30, adding 10 assists.

Early in the 1995-96 season he was traded to San Jose for Igor Larionov, a trade that helped the Red Wings move into their Stanley Cup glory days. Sheppard played 51 games with the Sharks, scoring 27 goals in 51 games before a trade to Florida for draft picks. With the Panthers he helped bolster the offence on a team of destiny, scoring eight goals in 14 regular season games. In the playoffs he finished second in team scoring with eight goals and 16 points as the Panthers made it to the Cup Finals, getting swept by Colorado.

Just over two seasons after arriving in Florida, Sheppard was sent to Carolina for goaltender Kirk McLean. In his only full season with the Hurricanes he scored 25 goals, the 11th and final time he scored 20+ goals in his career. Sheppard returned to Florida for one final NHL season in 1999-00, then played a final pro season in Switzerland before retiring in 2001.

In 13 NHL seasons Sheppard played in 817 games, scoring 357 goals and 657 points. He scored 20 or more goals for all six NHL franchises for which he played. In retirement Sheppard has kept active in the game by coaching high level youth hockey in Florida, save two seasons where he coached in his former junior town of Cornwall (2009-11), a place the exact opposite of Florida.

YouTube clip: scoring hat trick in Game 4 of 1992 Norris Division Semi-Finals against Minnesota. The Wings lost the game 5-4 to trail 3-1 in the series, but would win the next three games.

Card 391 - Bob Sweeney

A forward, Sweeney was drafted 123rd overall by his hometown Boston Bruins in 1982. He didn’t need to leave town for college, playing four seasons at Boston College following the draft. Sweeney turned pro in 1986-87, moving to Moncton in the AHL while also appearing in 14 NHL games.

In his true rookie season of 1987-88 he scored 22 goals and 45 points in 80 games, scoring seven game winning goals that season, good for sixth in the NHL. The Bruins made the Cup Finals that season, with Sweeney contributing six goals and 14 points in 23 playoff games.

Two seasons later Sweeney equaled his career-high total of 22 goals, adding a career-high 48 points the following season. Prior to the start of the 1992-93 season he was claimed off waivers by Adams Division rival Buffalo. Sweeney scored 21 goals in his first season as a Sabre, the third and final time he scored 20+ goals in his career.

Following two additional seasons with the Sabres, Sweeney was claimed off waivers by the New York Islanders. He played 66 games for the Isles in 1995 before being traded to Calgary. The Flames would be his final NHL team, as Sweeney played 1996-97 with Quebec in the IHL before moving to Germany for four pro seasons, winning a league title in 2000 before retiring in 2001.

Over 10 NHL seasons Sweeney played in 639 games, scoring 125 goals and 288 points. In retirement he has worked for the Bruins Foundation, where he is currently the president.

YouTube clip: scoring the overtime winner in Game 1 of 1993 Adams Division Semi-Finals for the Buffalo Sabres against his former team.

Card 392 - Gord Murphy

A defenceman, Murphy was drafted 189th overall in 1985 by Philadelphia. He made his pro debut in 1987-88 with Hershey in the AHL, winning the Calder Cup, and made his NHL debut the following season scoring four goals and 35 points.

In his sophomore season Murphy scored a career-high 14 goals and 41 points with the Flyers; however in January 1992 he was traded to Boston with two draft picks for Garry Galley, Wes Walz and a draft pick. Murphy played a season and a half with the Bruins and was traded to Dallas in the summer of 1993 for a player to be named later. Perhaps not by coincidence, four days following his trade came the expansion draft and Murphy was selected by the Florida Panthers. To complete the trade, Dallas and Boston swapped goalies, with Jon Casey going to Boston and Andy Moog going to Dallas.

With the expansion Panthers Murphy equaled his career-high 14 goals and set a new-career high with 43 points. He played five additional seasons for the Panthers, acting as assistant captain during this time. This included Florida’s Cinderella run to the 1996 Cup Finals, with Murphy scoring four assists in 14 playoff games.

June 1999 saw Murphy going to another expansion team, this time being traded to the Atlanta Thrashers with a draft pick and two other players for goalie Trevor Kidd. He played 85 games over two seasons in Atlanta, scoring four goals and 25 points. In January 2002 he signed with Boston for a second stint, playing 15 games before retiring at the end of the season.

In 14 NHL seasons, Murphy played in 862 games, scoring 85 goals and 323 points. In retirement he has been an assistant coach with Columbus (2002 to 2010), Florida (2010 to 2014), Philadelphia (2014 to 2019) and most recently joining the New York Rangers in 2021 after two seasons of coaching with Hartford in the AHL. Murphy’s son Connor currently patrols the blueline for the Chicago Blackhawks.

YouTube clip: getting taken down by Adam Graves in a one-sided fight during his brief time with the Bruins.

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