The Florida Panthers didn't expect to be this good this soon.
Dale Tallon was hopeful at the start of his sixth season as Florida's general manager, but even he didn't anticipate the Panthers leading the Atlantic Division with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference at this stage in February.
"You just never know," Tallon said recently from Florida. "Exceeding expectations? It's hard to say. I would probably say I'm leaning towards that a little bit, yeah."
The Panthers are well on their way to just their fourth post-season appearance in the last 20 years while being on pace to obliterate franchise records for wins and points.
Florida is following a similar path recently taken by the Chicago Blackhawks, the team Tallon helped build into a modern-day dynasty.
Tallon sees similarities between the roster he's building in the Sunshine State and the one that rose from obscurity to three-time Cup winner in Chicago.
"Yeah, very similar," Tallon said. "We're just a bit bigger."
Much like the Blackhawks of earlier days, the Panthers boast an intriguing young core led by 20-year-olds Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad, the latter winning the Calder Trophy last year as the league's top rookie.
"That's the part that's quite amazing when you look at those two especially, that they're still in such a young stage of their career that they can become much better than they are right now, which is pretty scary," Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo said.
Add to the mix 22-year-old centre Vincent Trocheck and former third overall pick Jonathan Huberdeau and it's easy to see reasons for optimism.
Florida is stocking itself with quality young talent much like Chicago did in becoming an annual Cup contender.
Barkov, in particular, reminds Tallon of another savvy centre from his Chicago days: Jonathan Toews.
Barkov, who only turned 20 in September, is averaging nearly a point per game as a sophomore (35 points in 43 games heading into Thursday's play), but it's his ability to impact the game away from the puck that brings to mind the Toews comparison.
"They both want it," Tallon says. "They're both gifted. They both compete every shift. They don't take shifts off, they don't take games off and they want to be the guy. They want to be the leader so very similar, very similar."
It's the progression of those like Barkov, Huberdeau and Ekblad in conjunction with the steady (even superb) play of veterans like 44-year-old Jaromir Jagr and 36-year-old Luongo that has the Panthers taking the league by storm.
Jagr recently passed Brett Hull for third on the all-time goals list and is on pace for 28 goals and 61 points as the league's oldest player. It's not just his own performance that's drawn rave reviews, but his mentorship of the club's younger talent.
Tallon is particularly enthused when he watches practice and sees Jagr working with defenceman Alex Petrovic while Huberdeau and 23-year-old Nick Bjugstad wait their turn to learn from the legend.
The Panthers would welcome another season from Jagr if he decides to keep playing.
Luongo, meanwhile, has been the rock in goal that Tallon hoped he'd be. The former Canucks netminder has moved up to seventh in NHL history with 426 wins and owned the league's best even-strength save percentage (.940) heading into Thursday's play.
"He was a big reason for our culture change," Tallon said of Luongo. "This is a guy that's a world-class goalie and person that wants to be in Florida and play here and win here."
Also owed credit for the Panthers rise is Gerald Gallant, the team's second-year head coach and a likely Jack Adams coach of the year candidate.
The Panthers GM thinks his coach, formerly an assistant with Montreal and head coach in the QMJHL before that, has been especially effective at bridging the team's generational gap. Florida has six players 34 years and older to go along with those who were recently teenagers like Barkov and Ekblad.
"He's just a coach that goes to bat for his players," Luongo said. "Guys respect that."