The season for the Florida Panthers began with such promise, which was better in previous years when there was just hope. The promise was real as soon as Joel Quenneville was hired last April immediately after the season ended. He told his troops in not so many words that come next April we’ll be preparing for the playoffs.
The excitement and freshness that was brought by what could arguably be the best coach in the game, was met with delight. The players, fans and NHL couldn’t wait to see how this would unfold. With the addition of Sergei Bobrovsky, Brett Connolly, Noel Acciari and Anton Stralman, the Panthers were primed for a playoff appearance, and the expectation that this team would challenge for a Stanley Cup soon.
Fast forward to the All star break in January, and these Panthers went into it with a 6 game winning streak, beating Chicago in their last game before that break. Things were good, players were happy, the fans were happy. There was no reason to believe that this wouldn’t continue as everything seemed to be going well. Even “Bob” was looking better after a very erratic start to the season. The winning streak gave the appearance that the Panthers were headed in the right direction.
Or was it just another mirage?
Well, based on their play since coming back from the All-Star break, it would appear that the only thing the Panthers will be doing in April is thinking about the season that got away……while they’re on the golf course. Or the beach. Or at the swimming pool.
Since the break, and including Saturday’s loss to Edmonton, their record is 2-6-1 and they are about to go on a 5 game west coast road trip, which includes some days in Vegas. Whoo hoo, another place to have fun and lose concentration about hockey. And there it is.
Another opportunity for me to ask:
“Does this team have the mental capacity to play playoff style hockey when needed”?
If you’ve followed my writing, which dates back to 2009 when I started writing for The Rat Trick (yes, I thought of that name), till my time now at Panther Parkway, this has been a season staple article for me at some point in almost every season. It’s history goes back to the era when Iron Mike Keenan was coaching the Panthers, and after a very important game against then division rival the Carolina Hurricanes, Iron Mike made that profound statement after a loss to the Canes. The loss put the Panthers further behind Carolina in a playoff hunt. The Panthers never rebounded.
Since the break the Panthers have not been the Panthers. Or maybe they have been. It depends on what version you believed in. Recently though they’ve been sloppy, undisciplined, lethargic, careless and played without passion. There’s been no consistency to their game, no relentless pressure. No playing as though their hair is on fire, or that they have ants in their pants. They don’t look like a team that wants to sacrifice to be in the post season. I mean, why should they? They aren’t getting paid for extra hockey. That’s an insensitive remark, but you get my drift.
What’s the issue and why does this seem to happen year after year, regardless of the coach, and in many cases regardless of the players?
Distractions is one guess. There’s too many of them here in South Florida, as Mike echoed in that press conference years ago. South Beach, Las Olas, golf, tennis, the Atlantic Ocean. There’s a lot to do for a young athlete making millions of dollars. One would think that it’s possible to have all these distractions going through one’s mind and mistreating your body in a way that’s not optimal for the grind of a hockey season. This is what Keenan was thinking, and I’m thinking the same thing right about now as well.
The other possibility is that they don’t know what it takes to win. Boom. I said it. It hurts to read. It hurts to write. Brett Connolly had this to say the other day in a published article on the Athletic by George Richards:
Brett Connolly, who won the Stanley Cup with Washington two years ago, said players on the Panthers who have not been through a push like this are seeing what a different game it is this time of the season. Two games this week against Philadelphia should have done that.
“The guys who have gone through it know it’s a ton of fun. It’s the best time of the year,’’ Connolly said. “Just got to keep pushing. We believe in each other. It’s just a matter of getting to that final goal, and down to that last five games, and we can solidify a playoff spot and be happy with where we are.
“But those guys need to get in and everybody needs to get a taste of that here.
Connolly has won a Stanley Cup, so he can say that. Joel Quenneville has won 3, so knows it. What many are asking is where’s the on ice leadership? Where’s the desperation? Where’s the anger? The players are extremely fragile right now, and that’s never a good place to be. You hold your stick too tight. You make mental mistakes, and you play scared. Which is the same as afraid of making mistakes. Which of course leads to more mistakes. You end up playing timid, and playing not to lose.
Why is it that when the stakes are low the team plays well? When the stakes are high, or there’s pressure to win, they turtle? When the pressure of not playing in the post season is present, they’ll be playing much better hockey. That’s not how it’s supposed to be.
The excuses are old. Might as well show any post game interview from most any year except 2012 and 2016 and you really wouldn’t know the difference except for the player talking. Hide his face, disguise the voice to sound the same, and the answers are all there. We’ve heard them all too often. Including last night. How many times have we heard something like this from many players over the years, like Jonathan Huberdeau last night:
There’s no emotion, and that starts with us. We (all) have to pick it up…especially when we’re going on a long road trip, he said.
Yet this season was to be different, and for a few months it was. Sure there were nervous moments, but there were also moments of pure excitement. Two four goal comebacks. Slow starts to games, followed by exciting finishes. Scoring at a pace a Panther team had never scored at before. They were winning more than they were losing, and much of the time had found themselves in a playoff position.
Now we all know you can’t win them all. No team has ever gone 82-0-0 during a hockey season, so we have tempered our expectations of that. However up till the All-Star break most people, including a number of hockey experts felt that the Panthers were going to be a playoff team.
Until the break was over. The Panthers now appear broken. In every facet of their game. The offence has dried up scoring only 18 goals in the nine games since coming back from the break. In two of those games, the Panthers scored 5 goals each. Converted defenceman Mark Pysyk, now a staple on the 4th line recorded a hat trick. Yes, that’s fun, but not how this should be working. Mike Matheson had a goal and two assists in his first game as a forward when the Panthers played New Jersey. This was just after he was a healthy scratch for the second time this season. Coach Q looked like a genius. But what are we really saying when we have to play two defenceman as forwards? Answer that for yourself.
Can it be fixed in time to make the playoffs? Should the playoffs even be a consideration? Here are some of the on ice issues:
The inconsistency of your prized goalie, the porous defence, which has directly affected the poor play of said goalie. The lack of discipline, and the insistence of playing cute. The trade deadline is 10 days away and everyone is hammering for a trade. Defensive help is the top priority for this team. But there are a number of teams that are looking for defensive help. Additionally, there aren’t too many defencemen available, and the Panthers, and probably anyone else could end up overpaying for a deadline deal. Often deadline deals don’t really work, but the playoffs are still in reach, and it’s not impossible that a deal or two could help.
In order to ruffle the feathers though, a trade or couple of trades will need to involve a popular player. Sorry boys and girls, but the Panthers need to look at their core and see who can be moved to bring back something in return that can improve the team. For now. The future for the Panthers is now., Not in 3 years or 4 years. But right stinking now.
A trade that will energize the dressing room, and energize the on ice product. There’s something to be said for when a team makes a trade at his time of year to indicate to the players that “we’re going for it”. It boosts confidence, it maybe adds an element that was missing. It shows that the organEYEzation wants to win.
Something has to be done, and someone will be the sacrificial lamb, and it will make fans unhappy. But unless something gets done, there’s no promise that the roster as it is now will be able to continue to make a playoff push. These last 8 games would indicate that no, they can’t.
Vincent Trocheck was mentioned Saturday night on Hockey Central by Elliott Friedman, that the Panther center could be attractive for some teams and could bring the defenceman the Panthers are looking for. That comment means that it’s apparent the Panthers are shopping him. Will they pull the trigger?
The team suddenly has no identity. And as Joel Quenneville said last night, there’s no puck possession to their game. They’re too easy to play against, and they don’t play hard enough. Tough words, but true.
We don’t know if this team can pull out of this downward spiral which is why a move or two is likely needed. The ultimate issue as we always say is that you have to have a dance partner. Someone has to want what we’re offering. And if we don’t want someone, what makes us think someone else will?
The road trip has 10 available points. The Panthers will need realistically 7 of them, and it has to start with the first game in San Jose on Monday. The teams in the west play a hard game. A physical game. The Panthers will have to answer that challenge.
Will they be tough enough?
Thanks for reading.
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