SUNRISE, Fla. — It’s pretty common to hear about “fitness freaks” in pro sports, but Brandon Montour takes it to the next level. He may just be a freak of nature.
Paul Maurice discovered this just three days into his first Panthers training camp back in September.
The first-year Florida coach was running his new team into the ice. Every player was huffing and puffing, hurting and bent over between drills.
“And he’s still smiling,” Maurice said of the 29-year-old Montour. “It pissed me off a little bit at first. … That’s why I started watching him a little bit closer. Is he finishing the drills? Why is he still fine?”
Turns out the veteran defenseman wasn’t cheating. He was simply showing off the results of the exhaustive work he does every offseason.
And maybe, not that Maurice knew it at the time, Montour was giving a hint of the breakout season to come — one that has now helped Florida land in its second-ever Stanley Cup Final.
“He’s a gifted man. Huge tank. He can go a long time,” Maurice said. “He works his butt off in the summer to give himself that chance.”
Montour showed the hockey world that 20-gallon tank during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, when he skated 57 minutes, 56 seconds in a dramatic Panthers win that finally came 13 seconds before what would have been the fifth overtime.
According to the NHL’s puck and player tracking, that equated to 8.96 miles of skating. That’s the longest one-game distance recorded in the two seasons since the league began compiling what it considers to be trustworthy distance data.
“I loved to run as a kid, but I never ran nine miles,” Montour said, laughing, during a sit-down with The Athletic on Saturday.
In that same victory, Montour fired eight shots, blocked three and was on the ice for all three Panthers goals and none of Carolina’s. And what Maurice also (sarcastically) said “ticked” him off about it: Montour showed no signs of fatigue on the bench. No breathing hard. No accelerated heart rate. The tank was full, and he could have kept going and going.
“His recovery is incredible,” Maurice said.
It’s had to be. In the playoffs, Montour is averaging the second-most ice time (27:35) among defensemen who have played at least seven games. He also has the most goals (six) and shots (59). Those scoring numbers are a continuation of a regular season — his second full one with the Panthers — where in 80 games he established franchise defenseman records with 16 goals (tied with Jason Garrison and Aaron Ekblad), 57 assists, 73 points and 242 shots.
He ranked in the top seven among NHL defensemen in each category.
The tracking data from NHL Stats is even more revealing.
In the postseason, Montour — a player discarded by his two previous NHL teams — ranks second in total distance skated among all players at 64.64 miles. Only Dallas’ Miro Heiskanen skated more, 72.99 miles, but he played three more games than Montour before the Stars were eliminated.
Montour has skated 12.17 miles in the offensive zone (18.8 percent), 20.89 miles in the neutral zone (32.3 percent) and 31.59 miles in the defensive zone (48.9 percent).
Montour ranks second, again to Heiskanen, at even strength (54.27 miles versus 61.52) and leads all skaters on the power play at 9.27 miles.
His speed also shows up in the league’s tracking. He has posted the fourth-fastest max speed among defensemen during the playoffs at 22.95 mph — only behind the Rangers’ Braden Schneider (23.35) and K’Andre Miller (23.31) and the Panthers’ Josh Mahura (23.13). Montour’s top speed during the regular season was 22.59, so he’s upped that.
Montour is the only defenseman to have recorded three different speed bursts over 22 mph in the postseason. A burst is defined as one sustained speed, so once a player goes over 18 mph, all of his speeds are part of one burst until he drops under 16 mph. Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon leads the playoffs with 12 bursts over 22 mph.
Montour also leads defensemen in the playoffs with 28 bursts in the 20-plus mph range. He was fourth in the regular season with 125, trailing the Avs’ Cale Makar (155), the Sharks’ Erik Karlsson (138) and the Sens’ Jake Sanderson (130).
In terms of shot speed, only two players have topped 100 mph in the playoffs: Montour (100.3) and teammate Radko Gudas (101.73). Montour is second in shots over 90 mph (13) behind the Oilers’ Evan Bouchard (15).
None of it is any surprise to Maurice. It’s what he’s seen since Day 1.
“The most unique thing that I saw in the first month was when we tested the first day, our veterans tested hard, and they don’t need to,” Maurice said. “Your top five guys, they’re in pretty good shape or they’re not top-five guys, probably getting paid pretty well. They don’t need to go hard on the bike the first day of camp. They’re not getting cut. All they need to do is not be in the red zone.”
Montour got off the bike like it was nothing.
“His testing scores were off the charts,” Maurice said.
In Montour’s mind, none of this is abnormal.
Even before establishing himself this season as a star (the seventh-year defenseman bested last season’s career highs by five goals and 36 points), Montour was a gym rat.
He points back to when he was a freshman at UMass in 2015: He played in the longest college hockey game in history against Notre Dame. He assisted on three goals that night, including the winner 11:42 into the fifth overtime. He has no idea how many minutes he logged, “but it was a lot.”
“Summer times I enjoy working out, and obviously if you enjoy it, it’s a lot easier,” Montour said. “It’s not like this year happened because training-wise I changed something. It was nothing like that. I did what I always do.”
“Monty’s had it since Day 1,” said Dallas Eakins, who coached Montour in the AHL in 2015-16 and part of 2016-17 after the Ducks had drafted him in the second round in 2014. “(He) can skate pucks out of problems because he’s such an excellent skater. He can close fast. He’s got a wicked, wicked hard shot. And every year that he showed up here in Anaheim, if he wasn’t the most fit guy, he was second.
“When you see a kid that’s fit like that every year, it says a lot to me. It shows to me that the kid has a plan and the kid’s executing that plan.”
So how does a player like this end up on his third NHL team before 30?
Montour had 25 goals and 89 points in 104 games in his one-plus season in the AHL under Eakins, then broke into the NHL in 2016-17. After he scored 11 goals and 38 points in 107 games in his first two NHL seasons, the Ducks signed him to a two-year, $6.775 million bridge deal to avoid arbitration. But he was still raw. He had to learn how to play the position over time. And then-general manager Bob Murray wasn’t prepared to pay Montour what he might have made on the next deal after that, having more trust in other Ducks defensemen.
So with Montour sitting at five goals and 25 points in 62 games in 2018-19, Murray dealt him ahead of the deadline to the Sabres for defenseman Brendan Guhle and a 2019 first-round pick.
Montour played parts of three seasons for the Sabres before Panthers GM Bill Zito stole him for a third-round pick. Sabres GM Kevyn Adams recently told the Daily Faceoff’s Frank Seravalli that he recognized Montour’s raw talent, impressive speed and high compete level but that the arc of Montour’s trajectory didn’t align with the Sabres’ rebuild.
Montour gives much of the credit for changing that to Maurice, who has given him a lot of rope to run free but also the confidence to know that if he makes a mistake, he’ll be right back out there.
When Ekblad went down with an injury in the third game this season, the team’s faith in Montour became critical. After averaging 17:54 last season, he ended this regular season at a career-high 24:07. He also was a full-time quarterback for a first-unit power play for the first time in his NHL career.
“Before, I’d get a glimpse of it and sometimes was a little afraid to make mistakes,” Montour said. “Paul’s done a good job of just putting me in spots where he provides the confidence in myself to make plays.
“He’s always told me that the amount of ice time I get and the amount of times I touch the puck, you’re bound to make some mistakes. … Obviously you want to limit that, but I took that to heart, and I play kinda care-free.”
You can see it in the smile that’s always on his face. Teammates say he lightens the mood in the room even during tough times.
“When I see Monty, all I see is commitment,” Eakins said. “An unbelievable teammate, full of passion and having an effing ball out there. And that’s what this should be about and nothing else.
“This is a guy that if he was walking up to the front of his house in South Florida, if he looked down the street and saw a bunch of kids playing street hockey, he’d go grab a stick and jump in there with them. That’s what he is.”
Montour has played most of the season with veteran Marc Staal, who didn’t know much about his partner until camp. He quickly recognized the speed, the shot and the creativity.
“I had no idea how much all of that together would create problems for other teams,” Staal said. “Just how dynamic he was, was pretty eye-opening. … He came into camp in incredible shape and doesn’t let anything faze him. He doesn’t overreact to a mistake, doesn’t get too frustrated when things are going wrong or too high when things are going well.
“He just goes out there and plays, and it’s been a lot of fun.”
Hockey isn’t Montour’s only passion.
He’s big into art and has tattoos that hold a lot of meaning, including a headdress and feathers, all over the left side of his body — an odd coincidence, he said, considering his injury history.
“Here’s what’s weird,” he explained. “One of our trainers did a study on my medical history, and all my injuries that I’ve had have all been on my left side. How funny is that?”
He was a star box lacrosse player growing up and still watches the sport avidly. In 2014, the year he was drafted by the Ducks, he won the Minto Cup with the Six Nations Arrows.
“It’s a big deal for lacrosse players. Consider it like the CHL for lacrosse,” Montour said. “And it was with a team I was real proud to be on, from our reserve.”
Montour was born in Wayne Gretzky country — Brantford, Ontario, where his father, Cam, and mother, Tammy, grew up. Cam’s an Indigenous Canadian and Montour grew up in Ohsweken, which is a village inside Canada’s largest First Nation reservation — the Six Nations of the Grand River.
The family ultimately moved to Tilbury, Ontario, because Cam got a job in Michigan.
Montour lived there until moving back to Ohsweken in high school.
“My parents built a house back on the reserve by our family,” Montour said.
Montour never went to school on the reserve, instead going to school in Brantford.
“But my heritage is so important to me, and it’s a pride of the people back home,” Montour said. “The Grand is so tight-knit, and it’s not even just myself. Like I’m sure it’s the same for (Vegas’) Zach Whitecloud (who’s also indigenous and was raised in the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in Manitoba). Any aboriginal kid that is having success, whether it’s sports or whatever it is, people see that and want to root for that. I just want to see these kids grow up and do something good with their lives.”
Each summer, Montour returns home and along with former Ducks teammate Adam Henrique, who also hails from Brantford, mentors kids on the reserve. The two players host a golf tournament with part of the proceeds going to Six Nations and the minor hockey teams in the Brantford area.
“We give back as much as we can,” Montour said.
Panthers forward Sam Reinhart, who also played with Montour in Buffalo, isn’t surprised to see him flourishing.
“He’s so athletically gifted,” Reinhart said.
Eric Staal, who likewise played with Montour in Buffalo, isn’t surprised either.
“You could see the dynamic-ness of him, the explosiveness,” Staal said. “He’s elite, in phenomenal shape. His work ethic on the ice was noticeable right off the bat. But I never saw the offensive instincts until coming here. This guy is amazing to watch.”
Montour signed a one-year, $3.85 million deal with the Sabres after that two-year deal originally signed in Anaheim expired in 2020. After Florida acquired him, Zito got him re-signed to what’s turned out to be a bargain three-year deal worth $3.5 million annually. There’s one more year left on that contract and, especially if Florida goes on to win the Cup, Montour could break the bank this summer on an extension or at some point next season.
Eakins went on to coach the Ducks from just after Montour was moved until being let go in April, and it drives him crazy that this breakout is happening outside of Southern California.
“I get managers have to make tough decisions,” Eakins said. “They’ve got a salary cap to manage and things. But players make money because why? Because they’re producing. They’re putting up points and they’re being valued when in the market. And I always think that’s a tough one. I guess I’m more skewed on a long-term organizational development. We drafted the kid. We put a lot of time into him, and now he’s in the Stanley Cup Final somewhere else, and that stings.”
Montour’s just proud that he’s shown that 29 years old isn’t too late to become an NHL star. Even with the great season, it wasn’t until the Round 1 playoff upset of a Bruins team that had an NHL-record 65 wins and 135 points in the regular season that Montour started becoming a household name.
Until Matthew Tkachuk in Game 4 against Carolina, Montour was the only Panthers player in history to score multiple goals in a series-clinching win (Game 7 against the Bruins).
“I always had the confidence,” he said. “It was just a matter of putting a full season together. I got opportunity here, and I just wanted to use it to my advantage. I knew what I could do. It’s just a matter of executing it and running with that.”
(Photo: Claus Andersen / Getty Images)