SUNRISE, FLORIDA – For the grand majority of their 20 seasons of existence, the Florida Panthers have done little to instill a sense of confidence in their fan base. An average of two playoff appearances every tenth of a century tends to have that effect. A regularly changing ownership group doesn’t help much, either. But the franchise’s current powerbrokers know full well they can’t change that with hollow guarantees, PowerPoint presentations or slick ad campaigns.
The only thing that will fill their 19,250-seat arena on a nightly basis is what they’ve consistently lacked since their inaugural season in 1993-94: wins, and many of them.
This season, they’re not about to promise the hockey world anything. Their message, which originates from the top and new owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu, is simple: we’re in this for the long haul and we’re going to do our damnedest to make you forget the failures that have come before.
When Viola and minority partner Cifu purchased the franchise in September 2013 at a reported price tag of $240-250 million, they knew they had their work cut out for them. In January of this year, when he went before Broward County politicians to ask for public financing to help offset arena costs, Panthers president Michael Yormark claimed the team was bleeding money to the tune of $20-30 million a season. But he and the owners also realized that maintaining the status quo wasn’t an option. And the way they’ve chosen to begin changing things is by employing the same overarching philosophy that guides their other businesses (Viola is the founder of electronic market trading company Virtu Financial Inc. and former chairman of the New York Mercantile exchange). “Vinnie has always preached that our businesses are like our extended families,” Cifu said. “For us, it’s about reestablishing a level of commitment and trust with the players and the community. And if the players are committed to what’s going on, the community is going to feel it.”
Those words sound nice, but what do they mean in practice? Here’s an example: Cifu went to Panthers players and asked a simple question: “what can we do to make your jobs easier?” One of them explained to him that the wife of a player new to a team often is left alone with their children when her husband is on an extended road trip. Viola and Cifu listened and as a result, the Panthers are going to have a pediatrician on call 24/7 for players’ families to access.
But the more direct route to rebuilding trust in the team and its direction is the investment Viola and Cifu have made in the roster. Panthers fans have been accustomed to an internal budget well below the salary cap ceiling – indeed, in the past five seasons, the Panthers have never had a payroll ranked higher than 19th, and in 2013-14 they had the league’s lowest payroll at $50.6 million – but this summer, that changed. Ownership gave GM Dale Tallon more money to play with and he came away from the annual free agent frenzy with a slew of veteran talent: centers David Bolland and Derek MacKenzie, wingers Jussi Jokinen and Shawn Thornton, defenseman Willie Mitchell and backup goalie Al Montoya. That’s to say nothing of their biggest acquisition, which was made last spring: Roberto Luongo, the most recognizable player in franchise history, now back for his second tour of duty in net. At a time when no other team was willing to take on Luongo’s contract (which still has eight years and $33.9 million remaining on it), Florida’s bill-payers stepped up and made a significant commitment to him.
It all adds up to a feeling of hockey-related positivity that had become harder to locate in the thick South Florida air than a polar vortex in the deepest part of July. “Things are getting more positive every day,” Tallon said. “We’ve got things to prove and it’s going to take some time. But we have to win consistently and give fans a good product. When we do that, they’ll respond.”
The Luongo trade, which sent the 35-year-old goalie from Vancouver back to his off-season home March 4, was like the Batman signal lighting up a grey, gloomy sky for a group of Panthers players. They’d been worn down by a brutal season that included a coaching change (Kevin Dineen was replaced on an interim basis in November by Peter Horachek) and 30 regulation losses by the end of February. Luongo’s impact on the psyches of his new teammates was immediate. “He brought us a lot,” said Jonathan Huberdeau. “He’s someone you have confidence in all the time. A steady goalie is what we needed. We didn’t have that the past few years, and with Luongo and Al we’ve got guys we believe in.”
Luongo accepted the deal (remember, he still had a no-trade clause that gave him ultimate control of his destination) primarily because he could see an excellent base of young talent on the roster. He also sought out and received assurances Viola and Cifu would pump more money into payroll to bolster Florida’s contingent of veterans. Once the trade was finalized, Luongo noticed a fragility to the dressing room, but he needed that brief adjustment period at the end of the season before he could begin actively asserting himself as a leader.
That said, there wasn’t a scintilla of doubt he was thrilled beyond words to escape the cauldron of pressure and disappointment of Vancouver. It was reflected in his improved numbers (including a .924 save percentage in 14 games, his best showing in that category since the Canucks’ run to the Cup final in 2011) for the duration of the ’13-14 season. But those who know Luongo best say the most impressive improvement was one invisible to the naked eye: his state of mind. “For Roberto, coming back here is huge,” said Mitchell, who spent four seasons as Luongo’s teammate with the Canucks before moving to the Kings. “When he was in Vancouver, there were a lot of distractions. Anyone who was there would tell you they handled it the wrong way with him. That put a lot of pressure on him and a lot of distractions in his way. He was one of the best goalies in the world and still is, but they tried to change his identity. But being back here, he gets to be who he really is. He’s quite content and you can see it. He’s driven to win and now he can just focus on that.”
After the trade, the Panthers became a more attractive free agent destination. But Luongo, the millions of dollars Tallon threw at his off-season targets and Florida’s absence of income tax and beach lifestyle weren’t the only reasons the club was able to persuade so many veterans to join the franchise. Despite the team’s on-ice struggles – or more accurately, because of them – Tallon and management have assembled a group of dynamic elite youngsters most teams would gladly take off their hands.
That group includes: Huberdeau, winner of the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2012-13; first line center Aleksander Barkov, the second-overall selection in the 2013 draft; sophomore center Nick Bjugstad, who led the Panthers in points (38) last season; fourth-year NHL defenseman Erik Gudbranson; and blueliner Aaron Ekblad, the first-overall draft pick in 2014. Huberdeau is the runt of that litter at 6-foot-1, while the rest range anywhere from 6-foot-3 (Barkov) to 6-foot-6 (Bjugstad). Clearly, size isn’t going to be a problem.
However, like many other components of this team, every member of that young core has something to prove. Barkov, Bjugstad and Gudbranson have to establish consistency and growth at the NHL level. The 18-year-old Ekblad must demonstrate he can live up to the hype that goes with being the top pick. Huberdeau needs to rebound from a subpar second season in which he had to play catch-up to his peers after off-season hip surgery and overcome Horachek’s bizarre lack of belief in him after he took over as interim coach. Horachek cut Huberdeau’s minutes this past spring and Huberdeau needed to play for Team Canada at the 2014 World Championship to regain his confidence. But he’s rejuvenated and will be helped by the hiring of new bench boss Gerard Gallant, who was his coach with the Quebec League’s Saint John Ice Dogs. Gallant is somewhat of a father figure to him, something Tallon admitted worked in Gallant’s favor during the hiring process.
Gallant, 51, is another member of the organization with something to prove. He’s been given a second chance in the NHL coaching community after his first stint guiding the Blue Jackets from 2003 to 2006 turned out in a less-than-ideal manner. He followed up that disappointment by serving as an NHL assistant coach (first with the Islanders, then with the Canadiens) as well as a dominant QMJHL force (he led the Ice Dogs to three first-place finishes, three league final berths, two QMJHL titles and a Memorial Cup championship in 2011).
Where other coaches in his position might demand fealty from his players, Gallant carries an easygoing disposition that was an early hit once training camp began. In the first week with the team, he essentially took an observer’s role and allowed veterans to govern themselves and build a camaraderie that’s been lacking. And he’s trying to simplify things for his new charges. “There’s not a million things coming at us,” said veteran blueliner Brian Campbell, hinting that may have been the case in previous seasons. “He wants us not to be thinking so much on the ice and just play a reaction type of game at a better tempo. I do like that about him.”
Added right winger Scottie Upshall: “I haven’t heard a bad thing about this guy. His experience and track record speak for itself. ‘Hubie’ loved him, guys who had him in Long Island and Montreal loved him. And the veterans are really going to see eye-to-eye with him. You just have to be willing to work.”
The Panthers have yet to establish an identity, but they don’t have enough front-line, fully developed, top-end talent yet to either coast on their skill or ask Luongo to steal games for them on a nightly basis. A cursory glimpse at their most important statistics last season – they had the NHL’s second-worst offense (2.29 goals per game) and second-worst defense (3.20 goals-against per game), as well as the league’s 30th-ranked power play (10 percent) and penalty kill (76 percent) – should temper any expectations Florida can jump from the Eastern Conference’s 14th-place squad in 2013-14 to challenge the Boston Bruins and their cross-state rivals in Tampa Bay for first place in the Atlantic division.
As Tallon noted, there are no 50-goal-scorers on their roster – at least, not at this stage in their development – so scoring will have to be done by committee and hard work will have to be the Panthers’ hallmark. Their cachet of new veterans are going to play more defined roles (Mitchell, the stay-at-home blueliner; Bolland and MacKenzie, the third-and-fourth-line centers; Thornton, the tough guy replacement for Krys Barch), something a couple returning veterans believed was an area of concern in recent years. And the winning pedigree possessed by their new arrivals (Bolland has two Stanley Cup rings from his time in Chicago; Thornton has one he earned with the Bruins; and Mitchell won two with the Kings) is a big selling point in the dressing room. “The new guys, they know what it takes to win a Cup,” Huberdeau said. “We don’t really know much. Most of us, we’ve never been to a playoff game in the NHL. They’re going to teach us a bit and help us a bit. It’s really important to have that veteran help.”
For someone such as Upshall, one of the longest-serving Panthers after arriving in 2011, the experience of being around when Florida last made the playoffs in 2012 is a constant motivator to recapture momentum on the ice and in the community. He also recognizes a golden opportunity to corral a new generation of fans in South Florida, particularly in the immediate wake of LeBron James’ decision to leave the Miami Heat to return to his hometown of Cleveland. “When we win here, it’s great,” Upshall said. “The feeling I had my first year here was amazing, and there’s an opportunity to reach a fan base that’s looking for a winner. The day LeBron left, I ended up tweeting that we’re going to be the hottest ticket in town, because people want to watch something exciting. And having ‘Lu’ back creating a good face for the organization again – we’ve been looking for that.”
Now 31 and in his 10th NHL season, Upshall has seen the difference between the playoff Panthers team in his first season in Florida and the ones that finished at the bottom of its division in 2012-13 and second-last (ahead of only the brutal Sabres) in the expanded Atlantic in 2013-14. “My first year here, we had an attitude and we need to get back to that,” Upshall said. “As players, we realize we have very passionate ownership and they mean business. They want to create a family atmosphere and you never want to let your family down. They’ve put a lot of effort into keeping this team here and proving Florida hockey can work. So a good season is going to be crucial for us.”
No doubt, the Panthers have their work cut out for them in rebuilding the business to the point people will stop speculating about the franchise potentially relocating to another market. Some of their challenges are structural and unavoidable: their home rink, the BB&T Center, is in suburban Sunrise and thus not always in the minds of local sports fans the way the Heat are in downtown Miami’s American Airlines Arena.
In the vast urban sprawl of the region, there isn’t one local sports bar known as a place where Panthers fans can converge to watch their team play on the road. As Tallon admits, casual sports fan aren’t going to wander in off the street to buy tickets. They’re going to have to make a conscious choice to drive up the freeway to Broward County to see the team play. And the only way that’s going to happen is if the Panthers give them a reasonable expectation they can win on any given night.
For all but four of their seasons, that simply hasn’t been the case. And so it should come as little surprise to know that the Panthers’ Booster Club currently has a membership of approximately 200. (If you think that’s bad, consider that, at their low point, their numbers dropped to 75.) But even then, current booster club president Cheryl LaPalme has sensed something different – something more encouraging – since Viola, Cifu and Luongo arrived on the scene. “I talked to the new owners at our last game last year and I’ve never experienced owners as dedicated as these two,” LaPalme said. “The first thing they asked me is, ‘What can we do for you guys?’ That was wonderful to hear. And I’m so happy Luongo is back. I was so upset when he was gone and now that he’s back, I’m thrilled.”
Tallon, meanwhile, sees more than one parallel between his current situation and the hockey landscape in Chicago when he became the Blackhawks’ GM in 2005. At that time, the Hawks were a disaster on and off the ice, with a thoroughly disheartened fan base that left the arena at least half-empty most nights. But Tallon toughed it out for three years – signing veterans to boost the team’s experience and drafting Grade-A young talent all the while – until his core blossomed into a fearsome unit in his fourth season.
He’s essentially taken the same approach with the Panthers and this is Year 5 with his current employer. But don’t take that to mean he’s anticipating Florida to blow people’s minds in 2014-15. He believes in the process and accepts it will have its ebbs and surges in productivity, especially as the new acquisitions adapt to the players already in place. “We’ve got a good, solid veteran core now and that gives our young guys time to develop,” Tallon said. “Our young players are going to have some growing pains as all young players do. Hopefully our goaltending and our veterans will allow those kids to make those mistakes and get us through tough stretches.”
Florida will host the next draft, but the time for looking to the distant future for positivity is over. For the sake of their business and their roster, the Panthers need to show improvement this and every subsequent season. Tallon doesn’t want to temper expectations, but he’s got no interest in setting the bar to a modestly low level. As an organization, Florida can’t scrub off all the stains of the past, but it can grow the business and the sport in the marketplace by making incremental improvements.
This year, that starts with the post-season. Beyond that, who knows? The state of Florida’s second Stanley Cup championship may not be claimed by Steven Stamkos and the Lightning, after all. “We just need one playoff spot and it doesn’t matter where that spot is,” Tallon said. “We’re not ready to be an elite team just yet, but we are ready to be a better, much more competitive team.”