P .K. O’Handley isn’t certain which member of the family answered the phone on the day in 2013 when he was trying to reach Brandon Montour, but he still gets a chuckle recalling the handoff to Brandon. “He said, ‘Some guy on the phone about hockey stuff in the United States,’” O’Handley recalls hearing from who he suspects was a grandparent. Even when Montour himself got on the horn, the conversation didn’t immediately come into focus. O’Handley, the general manager and coach of the Waterloo Black Hawks, was calling to inform the 19-year-old the club had just taken him in the 18th round of the United States Hockey League draft. Montour, who had just spent the season playing Jr. B puck for the Caledonia Corvairs against other Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League squads like the Waterloo Siskins, was confused for a moment, wondering why another team from his own league would be drafting him. Before long, though, the parties got on the same page and soon the defenceman was on his way to Iowa to play for O’Handley. As confusing as that first conversation had been, from the moment he landed, Montour’s potential was crystal clear. “He was electrifying then,” O’Handley says. “And — you know, [he’s] bigger, stronger, [has] fine-tuned his game — but not a lot different [today].”
Yes, the spirit of how he attacks the game has never really wavered, but the stature of the player — to say nothing of the stage he’s on — has changed. Montour is in the final act of what has been an incredible breakout year in the NHL. Of course, Florida Panthers backers hope there is still time for another four wins this post-season, as the Eastern Conference champions attempt to fight out of an 0-2 series hole versus the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup Final. Few players have done more to carry the Cats this spring — and, really, all year — than the guy who turned 29 about a week before the playoffs began. The skinny kid who wasn’t even on the radar of scouts the first two times he was eligible for the NHL draft is, today, gaining acolytes all over the hockey world. Dallas Eakins, Montour’s one-time coach in the American Hockey League, believes that goes beyond his daring style and blue-line bombs. “If there’s been anybody in these playoffs that reminds us about passion and having fun and competing hard and having a little bit of growl in their game, I think it’s him,” Eakins says. “The guys just love him.”
T he Stanley Cup Final has not been the finest playoff hour for any Panthers. Montour continues to play huge minutes, but has now gone 10 games without a point. The team, meanwhile, has been outscored 12-4 by the Golden Knights and basically has to beat Vegas in Game 3 on Thursday night at home in Sunrise to keep its championship hopes alive. Of course, this Florida club still has red marks on its back from all the previous times it has been shoved up against the wall. The Panthers had to go on a 12-4-1 run down the stretch of the regular season just to scrape into the playoffs. Once there, they fell behind 3-1 in their Round 1 series with the 135-point Boston Bruins. That’s when Florida got on its first heater of the post-season — and ‘Monty’ was radiating right in the middle of it.
He opened the scoring in Games 6 and 7 versus Boston, while also knotting the decisive contest with exactly 60 seconds to spare in the Panthers’ season. By the time he scored in the series-opening win versus the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montour had netted six goals in eight post-season outings.
Not surprisingly, Florida coach Paul Maurice was fielding questions after that Round 2 win about a player who had never reached the 40-point barrier in his career before notching 73 this year — tied for fifth in the league among D-men — and a half-dozen goals in the early stages of the playoffs. The coach touched on a few things, including the point everyone cites; how preposterously fit Montour is. He also mentioned the steadying influence Montour’s partner, Marc Staal, was for a player who is not only on this third NHL club, but who tended to bounce between defence pairs previously. The most interesting bit, though, may have been when Maurice talked about the opportunity Montour received and ran with.
Last summer was one of change in South Florida; Maurice came in as a new coach and minute-munching MacKenzie Weegar — like Montour, a right-shot blue-liner — left town as part of the swap with Calgary that landed Matthew Tkachuk. Offence has always been Montour’s calling card, but this season was the first time he found himself playing consistently on the first power-play unit. Suddenly he went from seeing 1:22 of man-advantage time last season to a whopping 4:15 a night, more than any other blue-liner in the entire league. That, of course, is because things clicked. Montour’s 33 power-play points this year — more than quadruple the eight he had last season — were basically on par with the most total points he’d previously produced in a season (37 and 35).
“That, in turn, allows his five-on-five game to settle,” Maurice said of the man-advantage success. “He’s always been trying to prove [he can consistently play above] the five-six hole.”
While Montour certainly played a top-four role at times during previous stops with the Anaheim Ducks team that drafted him and the Buffalo Sabres squad that surely regrets trading him to Florida two years ago, this year was something completely different. Montour went from seeing 17:54 of total ice per game during the 2021-22 campaign to a serious 24:08 — the most of any Florida skater — with Maurice at the helm this season. It seems unlikely even Montour himself anticipated that kind of leap, though he was certainly eager to take on more responsibility. “I’m fully capable of playing a larger role,” he said back in training camp.
That’s the confidence Montour has always carried despite taking a roundabout route to being a second-round pick of the Ducks in 2014, roughly 12 months after 266 kids were selected ahead of him in the USHL draft. “The day he arrived you could see an incredible athlete, incredible skater, offensive gifts,” O’Handley says. “He’d lead the rush and we never worried after the first couple times because he’d lead everybody back the other way [too].”
In his final year of NHL draft eligibility, Montour put up 62 points in 60 games with the Hawks. That kind of production on a quality Jr. A circuit will get attention and, sure enough, the scouts started flocking. “Once I went to the USHL, that’s when it started to pick up,” Montour told NHL.com in 2018. “That’s where I kind of took off. People were actually watching me play. That’s where it kind of started.”
Adding to the attraction was the fact Waterloo played on the only Olympic-sized ice sheet in the league, serving to accentuate the out-of-this-world skating of the guy who, in the Greater Ontario League, sometimes lined up at forward. “Even to a novice fan, it was noticeable, let alone the scouts,” O’Handley says. “His skating was just elite, and still is. He’s a thoroughbred and you have to let him run.”
Montour got a taste of the AHL the year after Anaheim selected him and became a full-time pro in 2015-16 with the San Diego Gulls. “I just remember him being so raw,” says Eakins, who coached the Gulls for four seasons. “You could see he had good enough hands, you could see he could shoot the puck, he could skate. He just didn’t have the full structure in his game yet.”
Montour eventually carved out a spot for himself in Anaheim and got a real dose of playoff action in 2017, taking a regular shift as a rookie on a team that went to the Western Conference Final. However, with the Ducks’ fortunes sliding in 2019, the team decided to flip Montour to Buffalo for a first-round pick. If Anaheim was on the downswing in 2019, the Sabres were fully cratering in the pandemic-shortened 56-game campaign that saw Buffalo drop 18 consecutive contests, fire its coach and sell off players. The Sabres threw the baby out with the bath water, though, when — one day before his 27th birthday — they dealt Montour out of that miserable situation to Florida for a measly third-round pick.
Now that he’s thriving with the Panthers, it’s easy to ask how those other clubs let him slip through their fingers. Eakins, though, is quick to point out there’s always a confluence of forces that come together when a player pops like Montour. “I think sometimes we get caught up [too much] on, ‘Why didn’t it work for that guy in Anaheim or Buffalo?’” Eakins says. “Well, you know what? He was still maturing, his game was maturing, the opportunity and the people in front of him were different.”
Part of that evolution for Montour — a fantastic lacrosse player in his teenage days — was improving on the defensive side of the puck. As O’Handley notes, Montour’s destiny was never to be Mr. Shutdown, but Eakins says he’s been really impressed with the way Montour has shaped his complete game without sacrificing his offensive mojo. “He just knows where the risk and the reward are,” Eakins says. “He’s been able to use his feet and also use his head to check well, to recover well; he’s just not leading the rush each and every time.
“I don’t think he’s pulled back anything from his offensive game or what he was trying before — I actually think he’s upped it — [but] I do think he really understands the time on the clock, the score of the game, who he’s on the ice against and all of those things.”
Florida fans are obviously hoping this final series stretches out as part of a Cats comeback. No matter how long it goes, Montour — who, barring injury, will finish the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs with more time on ice than anybody in the league — will be ready.
“You can literally play him every other shift right through four or five overtimes and he’d just still be going,” Eakins says. “It’s amazing how much ice he can cover.”
Florida has not put its best skate forward yet against Vegas and Montour, as noted, is no exception. He left the front of the net on a play that allowed Jonathan Marchessault to snipe Vegas’s first goal of the series in Game 1 and was one of a few Panthers to take an undisciplined penalty in Game 2. Of course, if Montour didn’t look himself in that second contest, surely it’s because he jumped on a plane after Game 1 so he could be with his wife in Florida for the arrival of their first child, Kai. Even under normal life circumstances, Montour is not the kind of guy who lets a two-game losing streak — no matter what time of year it is — get him down. If he’s at the rink, he’s wearing a grin and that buoyancy might be just what the team needs right now.
“He whacked one off the post [against Carolina in the East final] — and he’s done [this] numerous times these playoffs — and he’s not banging his stick, he’s just laughing,” Eakins says. “He’s just, ‘Ah, f—; hit the post!’
“That doesn’t mean he’s out there just fooling around — this kid means business. But I think he’s reminding us of everything that’s great in the game: that you can mean business, you can have a whole lot of passion, you can have a whole lot of compete and you can also have moments where you have a good laugh and smile about it. And you can also go up and crack somebody in the head. It’s that great mixture.”
Can it help save Florida’s season one more time?