A ray of hope for Panthers fans

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And after suffering through eight years without a playoff appearance, these are fans that know from long and lousy.

Sure, they might have caught a break at the draft when two-way blueliner Dmitri Kulikov fell into their laps. But gone is the team's cornerstone, defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. The league's leading minute-muncher was dealt ahead of free agency to Calgary for all of a third-round pick. Craig Anderson, the unheralded backup who carried the club for long stretches, left to challenge Peter Budaj for the top job in Colorado. Hard rock blueliner Karlis Skrastins hightailed it to Dallas. Forwards Ville Peltonen and Richard Zednik ditched the league altogether for greener rubles.

And who are the Panthers trotting in on the white horse? Steve Reinprecht, a spare third line center who'll be expected to slip on the ill-fitting big boy clothes of a second liner. Former Hobey Baker winner Jordan Leopold, the brittle defender who will be asked to be a No. 2 when he's really better suited as a No. 4 or 5. And Scott Clemmensen, who'll be up against it to reprise last season's performance while facing a barrage of shots like he's never seen.

This is a team so bereft of offensive firepower that coach Peter DeBoer already has said that he's counting on several young players to have career years, and others to maintain last season's career bests. Uh-huh. Probably hoping for 82 games out of everyone, too.

Oh, and GM Jacques Martin unexpectedly bolted from the position he'd held for the past three years for a job coaching the Montreal Canadiens, leaving the club to tackle the draft and free agency with a proxy at the helm.

OK, so maybe the news wasn't all bad.

In fact, Martin's departure might just be a harbinger of better things to come.

Reports have been circulating for two months now that the day-late, dollar-short Panthers would be sold to Sports Properties Acquisitions Corp., essentially a venture capital operation created specifically to scoop up distressed operations. Word came down this week that the complex $240 million deal involving the team and management rights to the arena and a significant parcel of surrounding land is closer to consummation.

There's still considerable ground to be covered before the transaction becomes official. Because it's a public company, there's the matter of a shareholder vote (no sure thing given all the glowing financial headlines generated by the Coyotes of late) and Securities and Exchange Commission approvals on the honey-do list, along with that pesky character and integrity check from the NHL. But if all goes well, the sale is on track to be finalized before Panther fans start tracking the daily progress of Windsor Spitfires center Taylor Hall.

Amazingly, SPAC isn't looking to move one of the league's most dysfunctional, and least supported, franchises to a more lucrative landing spot. Good news for fans who were hearing their team's name mentioned as a possible target for relocation.

But in true Panthers fashion, even a sale might not relieve them of their biggest concern. Alan Cohen, recently rated the league's second-worst owner on this very site, is expected to simply exchange his stake in the team for shares in SPAC. The man who has presided over a reign of lunacy almost unmatched in the league could yet remain the hand on the rudder under the new ownership.

But don't step off the stool just yet. There's a good chance that the consortium could install another leader, possibly Andrew Murstein, one of the group's founders. Not that the New York-based financier is a hockey savant, but for the Florida faithful any change is better than more of the same. And, to be fair, the man behind SPAC has offered up all manner of soothing palliatives in the press.

Murstein, in an interview with the AP, named George Steinbrenner -- hardly a model of parsimony -- as his favorite sports owner and suggested that winning comes at a price. "It's very easy for a team owner to not spend money," he said. "You have to have someone who spends money. You can't run this on a shoestring budget. You have to be prepared to lose money, and know that going into it."

Probably not the words that'll help convince 70 percent of SPAC's shareholders to approve the deal, but if it is a genuine preview of SPAC's modus operandi? These guys may be the best thing to happen to Miami since the mojito.

Here's hoping Murstein is true to his word, because the yellowing pages of history remind us that hockey in South Florida can work. But here's one thing they should keep in mind before entering into this arrangement. If they want to keep their shareholders happy, all they have to do is keep their customers happy. And for the customers to be happy, this team needs to get better fast. Not just, "Gee, we had our second best season ever and almost made the playoffs" better. But actually, "When do playoff tickets go on sale?" better. That entails taking the time to make the best choice for GM (not just the safe choice in Randy Sexton) and creating an atmosphere that allows the team to become a legitimate July 1 option for free agents, rather than a last resort for players still floating around untethered in August.

Nothing beats a single, well-funded, passionate owner (not that anyone like that is sniffing around the NHL these days, right?), but as far as options go, this SPAC thing might just work out. Based on the current Panthers roster there might be one more long summer ahead, but with some solid leadership it could be the last one for awhile.