Sometimes it's just plain awful to be a fan.
We're not talking about the occasional emotional bump and bruise, the kind fans get from a devastating last-second loss or a disastrous season-ending injury -- or even when they watch their favorite team bow out in the conference finals, one round shy of a shot at the Stanley Cup. We mean years of suffering at the hands of a club that almost seems to delight in tormenting those who freely give to it their hearts, minds, time and money.
This is the fifth in our series on the 10 NHL franchises that take an ongoing toll on their fans, the teams that suggest that their devoted followers are either bottomless wells of hope or certified masochists--or perhaps just a touch crazy. Today we look at the Florida Panthers, who reached the 1996 Stanley Cup Final in their third year of existence but have since secured squatter's rights on Futility Boulevard while creating a rather lonely experience for those who have the intestinal fortitude to attend their games.
TEAM 10: Winnipeg Jets | 9: Dallas Stars | 8: Columbus Blue Jackets | 7: Vancouver Canucks| 5: Edmonton Oilers | 4: Washington Capitals | 3: Buffalo Sabres | 2: New York Islanders | 1: Toronto Maple Leafs
The Panthers have always been a team for which mediocrity is an elusive goal. Led by a soul-crushing parade of cashless owners, out-of-their-element executives and managers who routinely misjudge assets, Florida has failed to qualify for the playoffs in 13 of the last 15 seasons, and has just three combined victories to show for those two unlikely postseason berths. No team in the league can match that standard of futility.
Most notorious moments
• Tickets for trash: The Panthers, who barely drew flies to their 2013 preseason opener, are notorious for filling seats through the use of giveaways and get-in-cheap schemes that do little to entice repeat business, but which are wildly successful at alienating their season-ticket holders, the team's most ardent supporters. Not that anyone blames the brass for trying to drum up interest, but they have devalued their product to the point where casual fans have been trained to wait for the next wild offer before buying tickets. The latest desperation move? A deal with the state lottery commission that allows folks to trade in as little as $10 worth of losing lottery tickets for a seat at a game. Florida is literally accepting garbage in exchange for admission.
• Pain in the glass: During the third period of a sparsely attended game against the Red Wings on Dec. 12, 2013, a broken pane of plexiglass turned the Panthers into a national punchline. Called out to repair the damage wrought by Nick Bjugstad's slapper, the arena's maintenance staff brought a fresh sheet of glass. Problem was, they couldn’t remove the sheet's protective paper and installed it as-is behind Detroit's net, blocking the view of the crease for hundreds of fans. Fortunately, there were plenty of empty seats to which they could move, but the incident nevertheless became shorthand for the comical state of the franchise.
• Grabner 'n' go: Just ahead of the 2010 draft, Florida sent a couple of veterans to the Canucks in exchange for the No. 25 pick and two young former first rounders. It seemed like a savvy deal, bringing in the sort of assets that a team in the middle of a rebuild needs. But just four months later, before one of those new kids ever played a regular-season game for the organization, the Panthers decided they'd seen enough and put him on waivers. The Islanders put in an immediate claim and gladly gave speedy winger Michael Grabner a chance in New York. He rewarded them with a 34-goal season. It's one thing to give up on a young player too soon. It's another thing entirely to prop him up on the curb with a "free hockey player" sign around his neck.
• The lousy Luongo trade: The ill-fated deal that sent the franchise's cornerstone goalie west was a byproduct of hockey's ultimate dysfunctional family: Coach Mike Keenan, hired in 2001 by majority owner Alan Cohen; and general manager Rick Dudley, who was brought in a year later by another ownership partner, Jordan Zimmerman. At the time, Zimmerman said that Keenan would spend the rest of his career in Florida and that Keenan and Dudley could certainly work together. The brokered peace didn't last long. The power struggle began almost immediately, with Keenan using his direct line to Cohen to undermine the Dudley's authority. The coach and the GM continued to clash until a brutal start to the 2003-04 season allowed Dudley an opening to kick Keenan to the curb and install John Torchetti behind the bench. But this being the Panthers, that arrangement lasted just six months before Cohen fired Dudley and replaced him in the front office ... with Keenan. After a disappointing 2005-06 season, Iron Mike looked to make over the club but instead set it back a decade with one of the worst trades in history: Roberto Luongo and two spare parts to Vancouver for Todd Bertuzzi, Alex Auld and Bryan Allen. Keenan was fired, again, before the next season began.
• The Bouwmeester debacle: It's pretty hard to really screw up the No. 1 pick in an NHL draft, but the Panthers showed everyone how to do it spectacularly -- in successive years. In 2002, Florida coveted puck-moving defenseman Jay Bouwmeester and could have simply grabbed him with the first pick and moved on. Instead, Dudley tried to exploit the Blue Jackets' passion for Rick Nash by swapping the top pick to Columbus. The problem was that, instead of players or more draft picks, Dudley received only the right to flip draft positions with the Blue Jackets in 2003. So the Panthers, who got Bouwmeester, ended up dropping two spots for nothing when they later got the first overall pick in the 2003 draft lottery. To make matters worse, they traded that No. 1 (which turned out to be goalie Marc-Andre Fleury) to the Penguins for Mikael Samuelsson and the third overall pick, which Florida used to take the highly regarded Nathan Horton. However, that choice is open to second guessing by those who are inclined to note that Thomas Vanek, Ryan Suter, Dion Phaneuf, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Brent Seabrook, Zach Parise, Ryan Getzlaf, Brent Burns, Mike Richards and Corey Perry were still on the board. Somehow, Dudley lasted two more years as GM before being cashiered.
The hope kindled by a 2012 playoff appearance, after 10 consecutive springs on the golf course, has proven to be a mere puff of smoke. (So if you've set aside some of cash in hopes of picking up 2014 postseason tickets, you might as well start looking into a good 12-month CD.) According to the probability experts at Sportsclubstats.com, the Panthers have a 0.0 percent chance of being invited to the spring dance this year. That doesn't mean it's actually impossible, but they'd have to finish the season on a 17-5-2 run, and then get help from other teams, just to finish eighth ... and you shouldn't count on that.
In the system
Desperate for talent, Florida has rushed many of its top picks -- Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Erik Gudbranson, Nick Bjugstad -- into the lineup. But while the Panthers' system now lacks for high-end talent, there's plenty of intriguing potential, especially 2012-13 OHL MVP Vince Trocheck, a junior scoring machine. Kyle Rau is a former Minnesota Mr. Hockey who had real chemistry with Nick Bjugstad when the two played in college for the Golden Gophers. Rocco Grimaldi was one of the most skilled players in the '11 draft. The caveat: all three forwards are 5-foot-10 or shorter, with Grimaldi just 5-6. Winger Quinton Howden has the size, but his offensive struggles in the AHL suggest a bottom-six ceiling. Boston College blue-line partners Michael Matheson (drafted No. 23 in 2012) and Ian McCoshen (No. 31 in 2013) have top-four potential. Matheson is a slick puck mover, McCoshen a steady, stay-at-home defenseman. Backliners Alex Petrovic and Jonathan Racine will bring a nasty, physical presence. The big question mark is in goal, where 24-year-old Jacob Markstrom (No. 31 in 2008) has struggled to prove himself capable of taking the next step to the NHL.
Better Days Ahead?
New owner Vinnie Viola is saying all the right things, promising to spend to the salary cap and build a winner, but you'll forgive Panthers fans for being skeptical about his commitment -- and GM Dale Tallon's ability to spend the money wisely -- until they start to see sustainable results. Viola's song is one, after all, that the Florida faithful have heard many times before. Still, there's reason for hope in the midst of the club's endless rebuild. There are pieces in place, especially down the middle where Barkov, Bjugstad and Drew Shore give the Panthers a trio of big, skilled, responsible centers, and on the back end where they may be lacking only a long-term 1A. But there's still a glaring need for scoring off the wing and a legitimate No. 1 talent between the pipes. What really separates this team from a brighter future, though, is its aura of illegitimacy. Until the new management group proves it has a viable vision and the commitment to execute it, this franchise will remain a last-chance stop for the league's unwanted talent. Changing that perception won't happen overnight, not with the Panthers' ugly legacy. But building a solid foundation of young talent is a step along the path to success.
Are you a Panthers fan? Got a tale to tell? Feel free to share in the comments section below.