In September of 2020, the Checkers officially became the AHL affiliate of the Florida Panthers.
Two years later, the reviews from the Florida brass are glowing.
“It’s been great across the board,” said Panthers GM Bill Zito. “We’re developing a culture of winning, developing a culture of competing and of excellence up and down the organization. Not only the on-ice product but developing coaches and trainers.”
The last two years have brought about some unique setups when it comes to the Charlotte-Florida affiliation. The Checkers joined a group of teams around the league in opting out of the shortened 2020-21 season at the height of the pandemic, so the Panthers housed their prospects in Syracuse alongside Tampa Bay.
The Checkers returned to action the following season, but through a variety of circumstances they would end up in a one-year dual affiliation with both the Panthers and the Kraken.
“With Covid we just didn’t know what the horizon was going to look like,” said Zito. “So we did the affiliation with Seattle and it worked great. They’re great people and guys like Dan Bylsma and Ron Francis are wonderful guys and great people to work with.”
Now, two years after initially entering their agreement, the Checkers and Panthers are finally slated to settle into a traditional affiliation.
“It’s exciting for us because we have all the players and everybody there is our staff,” said Zito. “It’s a more complete effort. Moving forward we control everything and it makes it easier. Not that there were any issues the other way, but this instance is more exciting.”
One of the consistent threads guiding the Panthers’ prospects over the last few years has been Head Coach Geordie Kinnear.
Kinnear, who has headed up Florida’s AHL club since 2016-17, signed a three-year extension this summer - a well-deserved deal in the eyes of the Panthers.
“I can’t say enough about what he does and what he’s done for the organization,” said Zito. “He has one of the harder jobs in hockey because we ask him to develop, and yet coaches are evaluated on winning. So they’re constantly put into a conflict. It’s a selfless task and it shows his character and also his ability to reach the young players and make them better - better as players and better as people. We’re so thrilled to have him.”
As the revamped Panthers aim their sights on capturing a Stanley Cup, Florida has plenty of strong prospects coming into Charlotte who could represent the potential future of the franchise.
With the development of that young talent at the forefront of his mind, Zito has added a contingent of veteran talent to help create what should be a formidable squad in Charlotte.
“It’s an important part of the equation,” said Zito. “Because as much as the coaches work and teach, the leaders and the older players set the examples. It’s an important part of winning. We need that, I think every successful organization needs that from top to bottom. We’re comfortable that we have that.
“We had Dalps [Zac Dalpe] in Cleveland with us and I can’t say enough about him - just a competitor and a pro. We have Riley Nash coming in as well. That’s just another piece of the puzzle. We’re blessed.”
Even with all the unique challenges that came from navigating the last two years, Florida and Charlotte have settled into a strong relationship - one that sees the future Panthers thriving in the Queen City and both clubs contending at the highest level.
“We have an environment where we can have young prospects come and older players who want to come and be a part of the organization,” said Zito. “It’s been a win across the board.”