The Panthers began playing in the 1993–94 NHL season, where they set the then-record for most successful expansion team until the Vegas Golden Knights in 2017–18. The team has made one appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, in 1996, the only season in which the Panthers have ever won a playoff series, eventually losing the Finals to the Colorado Avalanche. Since then, the Panthers have struggled to find sustained success, having only qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs six times since 1996.
Blockbuster Video magnate Wayne Huizenga was awarded an NHL franchise for Miami on December 10, 1992, the same day The Walt Disney Company earned the rights to start a team in Anaheim that would become the Mighty Ducks. At the time, Huizenga owned both the newly founded Florida Marlins of Major League Baseball and a share of the National Football League (NFL)'s Miami Dolphins. The entry fee was $50 million. Huizenga announced the team would play at the Miami Arena, sharing the building with the National Basketball Association's Miami Heat, until a new arena was built. Offices for the team were only established in June 1993, while vice president of business operations Dean Jordan conceded that "none of the business people, myself included, knew anything about hockey."
Wayne Huizenga was awarded a franchise from the NHL on December 10, 1992.
On April 20, 1993, a press conference in Ft. Lauderdale announced that the team would be named Florida Panthers, with former New York Islanders general manager Bill Torrey as president and Bobby Clarke as general manager. The team is named for the Florida panther, an endangered species of large cat endemic to the nearby Everglades region. Once the logos and uniforms were unveiled on June 15, the team also announced its financial commitment to the panther preservation cause. Huizenga had held the Panthers trademark since 1991, when he purchased it from a group of Tampa investors who sought to create an MLB team in the Tampa Bay area.
The new franchise joined the NHL for participation in the 1993–94 season, along with the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim. The Panthers' and Ducks' rosters were filled in both the expansion draft and the 1993 NHL Entry Draft in June 1993, hosted by Quebec City; that draft produced ten players who would eventually be a part of the 1996 Eastern Conference-winning team.
The Panthers' first major stars were former New York Rangers goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck, rookie Rob Niedermayer and forward Scott Mellanby, who scored 30 goals in Florida's inaugural season. Their first game was a 4–4 tie on the road against the Chicago Blackhawks, while their first win was a 2–0 shutout of the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Thunderdome before a then-NHL record crowd of 27,227. The Panthers had one of the most successful first seasons of any expansion team in league history, finishing just two points below .500 and narrowly missing out on the final 1994 playoff spot in the East. Their first-year success was attributed mainly to the trap defense that first-year coach Roger Neilson implemented. This conservative style was widely criticized by NHL teams; some even suggested that the Panthers were ruining the game. While the team executives expected the audience to consist of mostly "snowbird" Canadians living in Florida, the Floridians soon embraced the Panthers. Helped by Miami's other teams having middling performances, the club averaged 94% capacity at the 14,500-seat Miami Arena, and sold 8,500 season tickets in 100 days.
In August 1994, general manager Clarke left to work for the Philadelphia Flyers; Bryan Murray was brought in from the Detroit Red Wings as his replacement. After another close brush with the playoffs, finishing the lockout-shortened 1994–95 season again in ninth, Neilson was fired following an argument with Murray regarding Ed Jovanovski, whom the Panthers chose as the number one overall pick at the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. Doug MacLean, who had been the team's player development director, was promoted to coach. The team then acquired Ray Sheppard from the San Jose Sharks at the NHL trade deadline and looked toward the playoffs for the first time.