Wednesday November 12th, 2008

Here we are, still two weeks away from American Thanksgiving, and the Florida Panthers are done like dinner.

Every game from here on in will be spent in the role of spoiler. That seven-year streak of missing the playoffs will stretch to eight.

These clawless Cats aren't playing with the string. They're playing it out.

You think the housing market is tanking? Imagine the demand for Panthers tickets the rest of the way. The league leader in freebies now has resorted to giving away a pair of ducats to anyone with a Florida driver's license...and they're still only half filling the BankAtlantic Center.

You can't blame the fans for leading the league in another category: apathy. They're tired of watching the same routine as their heroes bury themselves with yet another sluggish start. Remember when they won just seven of their first 19 last season and never recovered? It's 2007-08 all over again.

This wasn't the way it was supposed to be. Coming off a strong finish and bolstered by new coach Peter DeBoer and a deeper defense, this was going to be the year that the Panthers played with urgency and consistency from the beginning. Instead, the numbers paint a picture of the worst team in hockey. With just five wins and 11 points in 14 games, they're on pace for 64. That's exactly 30 fewer than what the Boston Bruins needed to nail down the final spot in the East last season. The Panthers need to gain something like 83 over the next 68 games if they hope to be in the mix. That translates to a record of roughly 38-23-7 the rest of the way.

Pertinent question: Can a club that's led in scoring by Keith Ballard go 15 games over 500? How about a team that dresses just one player -- fourth-liner Michal Frolik -- from its last four drafts? It's possible, yeah ...but about as likely as the NHL announcing a second team for the Miami market.

As bad as they look, the standings don't adequately express how grim things are. The Panthers have looked lifeless in losing six of their last seven. Absent the services of former captain Olli Jokinen, the offense is barely AHL caliber, scoring just 31 goals in 14 games. The power play stumbles along at 11 percent, worst in the league. They're giving up 35 shots a game -- only Tampa Bay has a more porous defense. And last Thursday's 3-2 loss to the Kings was described by several long-time observers of the team as the worst effort in franchise history.

DeBoer's postgame remark was telling: ''We didn't have a good first period. It's inexcusable, and you'll have to ask the leadership group in the room why. We're at the point in the season now where you have to earn your ice time or you're not going to play. Unfortunately there were too many guys to sit tonight to use benching as a motivation.''

You have to feel for DeBoer, who already looks frustrated by the mess he stepped into. Not that the lack of success is a reflection on him. He's a bright guy with a strong track record of developing young talent. That's an element this team should have in spades after making seven top-10 picks in the last eight drafts. Problem is that outside of Jay Bouwmeester, not one of those picks has developed into an impact player. There might be a gem or two yet to be polished from a recent draft, but for now this team just doesn't have the talent to compete.

Watching these Panthers, you get the sense they know it, too. When they get behind, they don't have any fight in them. Want proof? They've yet to earn a point in the seven games in which they've trailed after two periods.

The culture of losing is deeply ingrained in this squad. Only one player, Radek Dvorak, was in uniform the last time the Panthers played a game that mattered. Thirteen regulars have never appeared in the postseason. The tough truth is it'll take more than DeBoer's motivational wizardry to address this mess.

So now the question is, does this management group have the stones -- and the smarts -- to finally turn this thing around?

Despite the repeated assertions of GM Jacques Martin that the Panthers can compete as is, it won't be long before he has to make a move. At least he won't have any trouble finding a dance partner. That's the beauty of running a struggling team. Everyone's your best friend. They're always calling, asking about your kids, your golf game. Oh, and by the way, they'd be happy to give you two dimes and a nickel for that shiny quarter of yours. Well, if they're feeling generous. Most times it's a dime, a nickel and a handful of pennies.

Martin was too quick to accept that kind of offer when he made his last big trade. The deal that sent Jokinen to the Coyotes for Ballard and Nick Boynton gave the team insurance for the impending departure of Bouwmeester, but left a gaping hole in the middle. Ballard is earning his keep, logging 25 hard minutes a night and leading the offense. But Boynton has struggled, and to come away without some help at center, perhaps in the form of promising youngster Martin Hanzal, is hard to justify.

The best Panthers fans can hope for is that Martin learned his lesson on that one. A Bouwmeester deal, possibly expanded to include another young Florida asset, is inevitable. Nathan Horton, the hulking but maddeningly inconsistent center, is another player who could generate a significant return. Honestly, at this point, is anyone on this team untouchable?

It can be intimidating to send a big name packing, but this situation demands something more than tinkering. The key is that Martin can't afford to simply break even when he pulls the trigger. He can't just shuffle the chemistry. He needs to win the deal to get this thing can be turned around. Given his bargaining position, that won't be easy.

The playoffs are history, but there's still time for this group to learn to at least compete. To put young players like Stephen Weiss and Rostislav Olesz in positions where they can succeed. To give DeBoer a chance to build confidence and set a standard of accountability.

If those things happen, this season won't be a total loss.

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