Florida Panthers Season In Review. The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.

Saturday night the regular season ended for the Florida Panthers the way it has in 12 of the past 13 seasons; out of the playoffs.  In addition the Panthers will once again be slated for one of the top three picks in this years draft.  Another familiar position they’ve known all too well since the summer of 2010.  The season was summed up perfectly by young defenceman Erik Gudbranson who had this to say after Saturday night’s loss to Columbus:

“It difficult. You never want to be in this position,” Panthers defenseman Erik Gudbranson said. “This isn’t fun. We put ourselves behind the 8-ball early in the season in that nine-game stretch, and we really didn’t recover well.

“It’s a disappointing feeling in here. You want to be in the playoffs. For it to end so abruptly now, it’s difficult.”

Now that the season has been completed, we’ll look at what worked, what didn’t work, and what we don’t want to see again.

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The Future of the Florida Panthers Blue Line is Bright

With one game remaining in the 2013-2014 regular season, the Florida Panthers find themselves in all too familiar territory. Last season, the Panthers finished dead last in both Goals Against per Game (GA/G) and the Penalty Kill (PK%), and this year has been no different. Currently ranked 27th in GA/G, allowing 3.20 goals per game, and 30th in PK%, Dale Tallon and the Hockey Operations staff may have their work cut out for them this summer, whether it be via Free Agency or trades.

Fast-forward to the very near future, and the Panthers may have something they’ve longed for since Tallon was hired as the General Manager of the Panthers; flexibility to spend and depth on defense.

Though the Panthers have struggled offensively in recent years, drafting centers Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad will finally give the Cats the stability up the middle for the first time since the Jokinen era. While drafting these mammoth centermen was the correct choice for any GM in Tallon’s position to make, the current blue line still leaves something to be desired.

Luckily for Panthers’ fans, Tallon has done a superb job of drafting Grade A defensemen during his tenure as the Panthers General Manager. While Dmitry Kulikov, Erik Gudbranson and Dylan Olsen remain the face of the Panthers young defensive core, there are a handful of reliable defensemen in the Cats prospect pool just waiting for their chance at the big show.

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Florida Panthers and the Role of Leadership in the NHL

The leadership debate has been kicked into high gear recently in the hockey world and everyone who’s everyone is throwing in their two cents (5 cents if you’re from Canada). Leadership is a tricky notion in any realm to define and quantify, but in the sports world leadership is more like an omnipotent force than quantifiable trait. The inspiration for this piece comes from Steve (Dangle) Glynn, who debates the quantities/qualities of leadership in this video: http://theleafsnation.com/2014/4/7/leadership-in-hockey-what-s-that

Steve questions whether or not leadership is even real, if it’s tangible based on goals, hits, motivational speeches etc. It’s a great video; I’d check it out if I were you.

So what is it? What is leadership?

To re-hash and expand on what Steve said: Is leadership defined by production? Fighting? The notion of clutch-ness? (That’s a whole other can of worms)

Is it defined by being vocal in the locker room? On the bench? On the ice?

Is it by example? Putting your body on the line to help your team win? Attending charity events? Being available to the media no matter the situation?

Is it how you interact with your teammates? Patting them on the back when they do something right? Teaching them when they did something wrong? Calming them down when they’re making mistakes?

Is it just being old? How many cups you’ve won? How many years you’ve been in the league?

To me, leadership is a mixed bag. It’s a combination/selection of everything I listed above and more.

You can sense leadership in sport (and life, really) at any level, from the professional grade to the beer league. There are people who others gravitate to for inspiration, support, guidance or security. There are people who possess those unquantifiable quantifiable qualities that make people gravitate to them.

The term “Leadership” is used so often these days so it’s not insane to see why it’s been watered down and questioned as much as it is being. When a team wins or loses, part of that result was due to what we call leadership. Players cite their captains, alternates, goal scorers, grinders, goalies, coaches etc. as people who were impactful on the game’s outcome. Leaders come in all shapes and sizes and are defined by the many variations of leadership. There’s not just one answer, there’s not just one quality, leadership is an orchestra.

When it comes to a team’s captaincy group, I have no doubt that whoever makes the decision takes all of these qualities into account. Technically a team only has captains and alternates so that there is a designated group of people to talk to officials. Obviously that has evolved into what we have today. Being a captain or an alternate is seen as a prestigious honor.

We rank the best captains; we debate if a player should be captain, we even put more weight on a goal when it was scored by a captain or when captains fight! Obviously leadership matters in the NHL and whatever you quantify leadership as it has an impact on how you watch the game and how the game is played.

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Should He Stay or Should He Go?

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Should the Florida Panthers Be Buyers This Summer?

The Florida Panthers are in a unique situation.

In my first piece for Panther Parkway I outlined my take on the state of the Panthers. Consider this an extension to that piece. I went on about how the Panthers have a good mix of youth and veterans that will eventually lead to a highly skilled competitive team. I plead for patience due to the fact that youth takes time to develop and that the model franchises for the NHL give their prospects ample time to grow. I also pointed out that the new ownership group is serious about putting a contending team on the ice by spending to the cap and giving Hockey Operations all the tools they need in order to get the Panthers to the level of respectability that fans expect to see.

I know all of you read my last piece (over and over) so why am I recapping? It’s because I left out one key aspect that can define the Panthers as a franchise for years to come.

Dale Tallon is at a crossroads. Thus far in his tenure he has gone about a rebuild much like the one he orchestrated in Chicago. He drafted high, loaded up on elite prospects, insulated them with complementary players both young and old and has stabilized himself in goal for the next  4-5 years. What really put the Blackhawks over the top in 2009-2010 was the addition of Marian Hossa. Tallon knew that his team was ready to make the move so he went out and committed huge years and cash to Hossa who has been an instrumental part in the Blackhawks’ success these past few years.

The point I’m trying to make is that it’s time for Dale Tallon to make a choice. Does he continue the traditional rebuild or does he shake things up and slam down on the gas pedal? The thing is that the latter is right on par with Tallon’s “Traditional rebuild.”

We know that he has the gusto to make the big move, we’ve seen it before and now for the first time in his tenure as GM of the Panthers he has financial backing to actually make it happen.

To clarify, I’m not comparing the Panthers to the Blackhawks in terms of readiness to compete for a Stanley cup. I’m comparing the Panthers to the Blackhawks in terms of Tallon’s strategy and course of action.

To sum up: I think that Tallon is going to fast forward this rebuild. This off-season is key for the Panthers. Free Agency is always a good way to land a big fish but the pond is a bit bare this year and the key free agents might want to head to a team that can “win now” as opposed to a team that can “win in a few years from now” a la Moulson or Vanek.

So, readers, it’s time for the Panthers to make a trade.

It’s time for the Panthers to be buyers.

I’m not going to go ahead and make phony trade proposals, that’s always fun but really gets you nowhere because values are skewed and team glasses are worn. However, I’m definitely going to outline the kinds of players that Dale Tallon could potentially go after.

The Panthers need the kind of player that isn’t available via unrestricted free agency. They need the kind of player that doesn’t grow on trees, one that you have to pay for in order to reap the reward of his play. The Panthers can do it. They have a surplus of youth and that massive asset in the potential top 5 overall pick in 2014 entry draft. Nay sayers will scoff at the pick saying it is a weak draft but come draft day everyone including rival GMs go draft happy.
The choice to trade the pick is Tallon’s but as previously stated the Panthers are primed for a big move.

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From the Outside Looking In

What do you call a Snowbird that just never goes back up north? Smart?

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a “Snowbird” is someone from a cold climate that migrates south for the winter only returning home when the weather gets bearable again.

As a born and raised Montrealer, every winter I would do what pretty much everyone else on the island does: Go to Florida for Winter Vacation. And so I did, for 25 consecutive years. I’d hop on the snowbird express and spend 2 weeks in South Florida. As the years went on and when I was able to plan the trip myself and not conform to my parents’ itinerary, I thought it would be pretty cool to see the Montreal Canadiens take on the Florida Panthers in Sunrise.  So, for many years I would join my fellow Montrealers from Surfside, Bal Harbor, Sunny Isles, Hallandale, Hollywood, Fort Lauderdale, Boca, and Deerfield, and venture West away from the beach for an evening of Habs hockey.

We’d come in, be obnoxious, chant “Olé Olé Olé” and make Panthers fans wish we got stopped at the border.

This isn’t going to be a piece about Habs fans or a piece about the Habs, actually this is probably the last you’ll hear about the Habs from me on this site.

This is going to be a piece about what a Montrealer, who is a frequent flyer to South Florida, has learned about the Florida Panthers and where they’ve been, who they are and where they’re going.

On top of coming down every Winter, I’d also be in Florida 5-6 times per year so I know what it’s like down here. I know the market, I know the fan base, and I know the intricacies and complications that the Panthers face on a day-to-day basis because I lived on the opposite side of the fence my entire life.

The biggest thing that I took away from my frequent visits to Sunrise was that while the Panthers fan base isn’t large by definition, it is proud and passionate. Very passionate.

So before we get into this, a tip of the hat to the Cat fans out there who bleed red and show up when everyone expects you not to.

Now onto the Panthers.

Pleading for patience is something that I’m sure you all have heard countless times. Patient is probably the last thing you want to be as Panthers fans. You have been patient for years. You’ve been waiting for a stable contender since the Stanley Cup run of 96, and who is to blame you for wanting to win?

I’m sure you’ve heard the “this time it will be different” line before, but this time, THIS time will actually be different.

Why will it be different this time?

Because of Vincent Viola. For as long as I can remember the Panthers have separated Hockey and Business. For some reason the two couldn’t coincide. They’d ice the team and put on the promotions and try to fill the rink however they could. With Viola, I think the Panthers’ brass know that Hockey IS the business. Viola is letting his Hockey Operations department spend to the cap. This alone makes all the difference. You have to give yourself the best chance to win, and using finance to do that is part of playing in the NHL.

Viola understands that if you build it, they will come and he’s letting his team…build it.

I’ll ask again: Why will it be different this time?

Because of Dale Tallon. In the off-season of 2011 he went on a signing spree and inked players who are now part of the Panthers core. Players like Bergenheim, Fleischmann, Kopecky, Upshall and Campbell are cemented in the “We See Red” movement and are ideal pieces in putting a winning team together. Fast forward to this year’s free agency, he brought in Brad Boyes and steal of the season Tom Gilbert, who are the players you want on your team if you’re going to build a winner.

Oh and then there’s the recent acquisition of one Roberto Luongo.

Luongo is the first time Tallon employed the combination of business and Hockey in a transaction since the start of the new regime. It didn’t take long. What I alluded to earlier is exemplified perfectly in Roberto Luongo. He’s a fan favourite, he’ll bring fans in, and he’ll help the team win. Business and Hockey.

Luongo is an elite NHL goaltender who will give his team a chance to win every night. That is the bare minimum for a goalie and that (and more) is what he’s going bring to the table for the next few years.

The Panthers are in more than capable hands with Tallon, that much is clear. He has a plan and is sticking to it and isn’t afraid to be patient in order to achieve his goal. He’s building his team the right way.

So again: Why will it be different this time?

Because of Peter Horachek. Horachek spent 10 seasons in Nashville under Barry Trotz, the model of consistency in the NHL. If there’s one thing you want from a Panthers’ coach its consistency. Horachek brought in his philosophy of hard work, discipline, responsibility and skill to his team that has undoubtedly benefitted from this mantra. The team went from 3-9-4 or 3-13 before Horachek to 21-23-3 when he was brought in. The basic record alone shows a massive improvement in play.

Beyond the record, you can tell that by watching the games the Panthers are a “never say die” team. They don’t coast, they don’t watch, they play to the whistle and to the final buzzer. Its cliché, but it’s true. Horachek learned in Nashville that stability, strong team defense and team perseverance can go a long way to making waves in the league. Add a roster with more raw talent than he had in Nashville, and watch the sparks fly.

One more time: Why will it be different this time?

Because of the youth.

Oh boy, the youth.

The core. Barkov, Huberdeau, Kulikov, Gudbranson and Bjugstad. All players with off the charts high-end talent. All players who are growing and will continue to grow with the Panthers as the team joins the league’s elite.

Outside of that core? A crop of supremely talented, unheralded young players who you’ll fall in love with quickly. Brandon Pirri, Vincent Trocheck, Dylan Olsen, Drew Shore, Quinton Howden, Colby Robak and my personal favorite, Jimmy Hayes. This group may not have the high-end talent possessed by a Huberdeau or a Barkov, but they’re young, learning and will surprise us all.

On top of all of this? The players who aren’t pros. Among many, Ian McCoshen, Rocco Grimaldi and Mike Matheson will play NHL Hockey and lucky us they’ll be doing it with the Panthers.

These players will grow together, not just as players but as people, as professionals. That’s how a team wins and that’s how a team keeps winning.

It’s a slow burn but the train is on the right set of tracks. It just needs time to gain momentum.

So that’s what I’ve learned, from the outside looking in as a transplant Floridian with a passion for Hockey.

The Florida Panthers aren’t there yet.

But that’s a big, big “yet.”

Go Cats Go

Thanks for reading and we welcome your thoughts in the comments section below!

Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeObrand

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Panthers Recall F Joey Crabb and D Mike Mottau From San Antonio

With recent injuries to F Jesse Winchester and D Erik Gudbranson, Florida Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon announced today that the team has recalled F Joey Crabb and D Mike Mottau from their AHL affiliate, the San Antonio Rampage.

Crabb, 30, has proven to be a quality AHL talent this season for the Rampage, recording 26 points (12-14-26) in 53 games played while serving as a mentor to some of the team’s younger players.

Making his NHL debut during the 2008-09 season with the Atlanta Thrashers, Crabb has tallied 52 total points (20-32-52) in 171 career NHL games.

Mottau, 35, has played in seven games for the Panthers this season, while also appearing in 15 games with San Antonio registering three points (1-2-3) in the AHL.

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Roberto Luongo Introduced as Panthers Goaltender

“Exciting day for the Florida Panthers,” Panthers General Manager Dale Tallon said this afternoon as Roberto Luongo met the media less than 24-hours after an unexpected trade landed him back with his former team.

“I’m excited to have one of the elite players in the world sitting by my side and being a Florida Panther. Welcome back Roberto, it’s fantastic to have you in the fold.”

Once the team’s most recognizable face, Luongo played for the Panthers from 1999-2006 and still holds most of the franchise’s all-time goalie records, including most wins (108), most shutouts (26), most shutouts in a season (7), most wins in a season (35) and most games played in net (317).

“It took a while, there were some other teams that were involved along the way,” Luongo said of his journey back to Florida. “In the end, when I was least expecting it, something happened. I’m here today and I’m excited about this opportunity moving forward.”

Luongo Presser

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Florida Panthers Getting Their Bang For Their Buck

The money situation seemingly has changed for the Florida Panthers as new Owner Vincent Viola has given General Manager Dale Tallon the go ahead to spend to the cap in the upcoming offseason. This is not the norm for the Panthers who have had a history of pinching pennies when it came to bringing players in. Just hit the rewind button for a second and go back to last summer when the Panthers entered free agency with a very tight budget. The Panthers were unable to compete with the wallet of the Detroit Red Wings and lost Stephen Weiss, a fan favorite and the Panthers’ longest tenured player to the motor city, and just like that the Panthers were without their first line center.

Strapped for cash, the Panthers did not jump into the deep end of the free agent pool to pad their roster, but rather dipped their toes in to test the water. Florida signed a mixed bag of veterans from all ends of the hockey world. The Panthers signed depth winger, Joey Crabb (two-year, one-way, $600,000),  fringe defenseman, Matt Gilroy (one-year, two-way, $700,000), journeyman defenseman, Mike Mottau (one-year, two-way, $700,000), former two-time All-Star, Scott Gomez (one-year, one-Way, $900,000) and former Ottawa Senators forward, Jesse Winchester (one-year, two-way, $600,000). The Panthers made more of a ripple in the free agent pool than a splash, really.

Tallon was adamant that he would wait for players to lower their price tags before making any further moves. As training camp inched closer, the question marks in the Florida’s lineup remained. The Panthers were still in need of defensemen, forwards and dependable goaltending. With an impending ownership change, Tallon invited New York Islanders castoff, Brad Boyes, former Minnesota Wild buyout, Tom Gilbert and ex-Tampa Bay Lightning blue liner, Brett Clark to the team’s training camp for pro tryouts. The final and most interesting of all the pro tryouts would be the goaltending tryouts. The Panthers extended an invitation to the former Philadelphia Flyers netminder and media darling, Ilya Bryzgalov, who did not report. The other invitation went to the 2010-11 Stanley Cup champion and MVP, Tim Thomas.

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Voila! The Wallet Is Open For Dale Tallon To Build The Florida Panthers

The news this weekend about the Florida Panthers came with mixed emotions for many.  First it was reported that the organEYEzation was looking for help from Broward County to help the team with their arena deal that has been choking them since it was signed back in 1998.  The announcement caused  such a stir that many thought the end was near and a move was being formulated.  However, immediately following that announcement, new owner Vincent Viola told the Sun-Sentinel that general manager Dale Tallon has been given carte blanche to spend whatever is necessary (up to the cap limit) to put a winning product on the ice.  Tallon reportedly couldn’t be happier to finally do what he’s wanted to do since his arrival in May of 2010, and duplicate what he did in Chicago for the Blackhawks, by taking them from the scrap heap of the NHL to a Stanley Cup winning team in just a few short years.

As the Panthers edge closer to the Olympic break, it is expected that should they feel the post season is within reach, they’ll be buyers rather than sellers at this years upcoming trade deadline.  Yet the real fun for Tallon will be this summer, as the Panthers will now be expected to make a splash bigger than the one they made in 2011 when Tallon signed 11 free agents. According to Capgeek.com,  the Panthers will have approximately $36,000,000 of free cap space after the season is over (based on Panthers current situation), and will be in a position to spend up to the anticipated $71.3 million cap ceiling.  Unfortunately for Tallon and the Panthers, this years’ free agent crop isn’t exactly the best, therefore spending wisely becomes the mantra.

Tallon will have to be prudent, yet have an open check book at the same time, while making sure the aging 35 year old free agent with no where else to go doesn’t end up here in Century Village during his final playing years. In taking a look at the eligible players one has to wonder where some of this money is going to be spent.  With that said, lets take a look at what some of the possibilities are, and who is realistically available to help this team finally raise themselves from the abysss of the NHL.

Goaltending:   It has become apparent that Jacob Markstrom may not be the goaltender we had hoped he’d become. The Panthers would do well by grabbing either Jonas Hiller from Anaheim, or Ryan Miller from Buffalo.  Miller could demand upwards of $7 to $8 million, and that’s just not a number that the Panthers should agree to, while Hiller should come slightly cheaper.  However, if neither of those two bite, then the Panthers would need to turn their sites on either Jaroslav Halak, or Brian Elliott both currently with the St. Louis Blues.  Both Halak and Elliott are 28 and are reaching their prime, while Miller is 33 and Hiller is 31.  If for some reason none of these work, a trade for James Remier might be the only other solution.  But let it be known, an established number one goaltender is a necessity.

Defence:  This will be an interesting off season for the blue line.  Ed Jovanovski will have one more year remaining on his contract, but his health is of major concern.  Brian Campbell will have 2 more seasons left on his $7 million dollar deal, and both Erik Gudbranson and Dylan Olsen look to be a solid pairing in the making.  Gudbranson and Olsen will be RFA’s at season’s end, yet there’s no indication that the Panthers wouldn’t sign these two, leaving Dmitry Kulikov as the wild card, with Mike Weaver possibly not returning.  Kulikov is a RFA at the end of the year and his inconsistency has been the subject of discussion all season, while Weaver has played some of the best hockey of his career here in Florida, but will be 36 next season.  Tom Gilbert could be resigned, giving the Panthers four healthy defencemen to go with Campbell, Gudbranson and Olsen.  The pool of free agent defencemen is aging.  Except for Matt Niskanen of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dan Girardi of the New York Rangers.  There’s also Rostislav Klesla currently with Phoenix, but he’s not only well traveled, but is injury prone.  Nick Shultz of Edmonton could be a consideration.  He’s not flashy, nor is he injury prone.  He’s just a solid two way defenceman who eats up a lot of minutes, and rarely makes a mistake.  No matter what happens, it is likely two defenders will need to be signed.

Forward:  Now this is where the fun begins!  Being careful not to overspend in other areas, offence is the one area where a majority of the money needs to be spent.  BUT……please spend wisely.  Marion Gaborik is a superstar player, but is consistently hurt, and will command too much money.  Throwing $9 or $10 million at Gaborik is a recipe for disaster.  That’s just too much money on one player and will cripple this team much like the Pavel Bure contract did.  Granted Gaborik is a finisher, but there’s that feeling that he’s trending downward.  Tomas Vanek?  Similar in that he’ll also want about the same money as Gaborik.  Not in favor of it in this situation either.  After 30 games with the Islanders, Vanek has only 11 goals which makes me think there’s a problem.  Dany Heatley?  In 2005-2006 Healtey had his first of back to back 50 goal seasons.  Something he should have been doing all along, yet his production has decreased year after year.  Granted he’s spent the last three seasons with the defensive minded Minnesota Wild, but no matter what, he appears to be a mere shadow of himself.

So who does that leave? Because it seems that the Panthers are strong up the middle with Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad, lets focus on wingers shall we?  Matt Moulson is the obvious first choice.  He’s not having a great time in Buffalo, and who would?  After 30 games he has only 8 goals, and is far off his normal 30 plus pace that he was producing with the New York Islanders.  He won’t command a hefty salary and by signing him we can also grab a second scoring winger such as Ryan Callahan, or dare I say it Radim Vrbata? Mason Raymond will also be available, yet I have a feeling Toronto is falling in love with him, and could take him off the market.  Yet if he’s available, you have to make a play for him.  Then there’s also Brad Boyes who currently has 12 goals and leads the Panthers in scoring.  If he’s still producing at this pace which currently puts him in line for 22 goals, he has to be considered for a contract extension that would include a raise from his current $1 million dollar deal.

The focal point this summer should be on acquiring proven goal scorers.  That’s where the big money needs to be spent.  Certainly if the Panthers can land Jonas Hiller at a reasonable price then they should go for it.  However if they lose out on some of the forwards because they’ve spent too much on goaltending, then it won’t matter who’s in net.  This team has been starving for a superstar player, a player that has the ability to be a game changer and who can bring fans to the arena to watch him.  Fans like goals, and they like players who score them often and when needed.

After all these years it’s time for this team to start winning 6-3 instead of losing 3-1.

Thanks for reading.  We welcome your comments and opinions.

Follow the Panther Parkway crew on Twitter: Frank Rekas @FrankRekas, David Lasseter @davidlasseter , Paige Lewis @PaigeLewisFL, and Jameson Cooper @JamesonCoop,  Also, please join our FaceBook Fan Page and hit the like button, send us photos, and tell us what’s on your mind.

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