One lesson New Jersey Devils should learn from Florida Panthers

The Florida Panthers have won the Eastern Conference in back-to-back years. There is one thing the New Jersey Devils are striving for that they should learn from this enviable situation.
Florida Panthers v New York Rangers - Game Five
Florida Panthers v New York Rangers - Game Five / Bruce Bennett/GettyImages
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The Florida Panthers are currently preparing for the Stanley Cup Final; a head-to-head matchup with the Edmonton Oilers. This is a team looking for redemption after their surprising run last season was cut short. Florida snuck into the playoffs last season as an eight seed, knocked off the historic Boston Bruins, and beat the Leafs and Lightning on their way to a matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights.

This season, many New Jersey Devils fans were hoping they could make a "Panthers-like" run. Basically, the Devils were an intensely talented team that started off incredibly slow, but they had the pieces to put something special together down the stretch as they got health at the right time. It became very clear the Devils are not built like the Panthers.

To be fair, the Devils have pieces that could match some of the contributions of the Panthers. Nico Hischier is a lite version of Alexander Barkov (to be fair, this year's Hischier was a very lite version). Jack Hughes can easily match the offensive contributions of Matthew Tkachuk. Jesper Bratt has 40-goal upside in the best possible scenario, just like Sam Reinhart. Dougie Hamilton, while injured, could match the contributions of Aaron Ekblad.

There are a few things missing between this season's Devils team that the Panthers have. Of course, the number-one piece is the coach. Paul Maurice has proven he's a great coach, and the inexplicable move the Panthers made to let Andrew Brunette go was justified. The Devils did not have anything near that in Lindy Ruff and Travis Green. The Devils already addressed that with Sheldon Keefe.

The other factor is one of the worst words in NHL scouting: toughness. Toughness is also a coaching tool, but there are certain players who have this mentality where they can put their nose to the grindstone on every shift, and that's just harder to play against. These are all tropes, but they are true tropes to a point.

The Devils should not be going after toughness for toughness sake this offseason. We saw what happened when the Toronto Maple Leafs did that. Adding Max Domi, Tyler Bertuzzi, and Ryan Reeves because they are gritty players and ignoring how they fit makes no sense. Reeves was just an abysmal signing, but at least the Domi and Bertuzzi ones weren't terrible. However, they seemed to take a little of each other's value.

What the Panthers have done well is preach toughness from the top down. It starts with Matthew Tkachuk. The Panthers star is probably one of the toughest dudes in the NHL, and he's a perennial MVP candidate. The Devils were reportedly in the Tkachuk talk when the Calgary Flames traded him, but we doubt he would have accepted a move to New Jersey when Florida is on the table (even if he's related to Tom Fitzgerald).

Just look at some of the numbers. According to Natural Stat Trick, Sam Bennett is tied for ninth in the league in playoff hits at 5v5 with 47. But they also understand that hitting isn't necessarily why they are there. It's just a skill they have. Looking at the leaders in hits per game, just one player in the top 20 plays more than 15 minutes per game (Dakota Joshua of Vancouver). The Panthers have hitters from top down in the lineup, but they don't leave the bench thinking "my job here is to hit someone." They leave the bench expecting to do what's best when the play presents itself.

The Devils don't need to add toughness to the lineup. They need to make the lineup tough. We're not expecting them to put Jack Hughes in a position to knock someone out, but just about everyone in hockey can send someone to the woodshed. This is where the Devils can learn. Teach toughness. Breed toughness. Don't buy toughness, because it always comes at a price that's too expensive.

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