As the conference finals are underway being a Florida Panther fan probably leaves you feeling one of two ways: “We had a chance to be here, and I’m not happy that we aren’t. We better imporove over the offseason”. Or, “We had a great year, it was fun making the playoffs, I can’t wait for opening night. Whoo hooo”. While I’m not here to tell you which way to feel, or which way to think, I am here to say that with the way this season finished, and with the way the playoffs have been going, you better want a taste of more for next year. If you don’t, please go see your cardiologist and ask him or her to make sure you’re still alive.
While many of you who read this site tasted the playoffs for the first time, I know there are more of you who were supporting the Panthers over the past decade dating back to when they last made the post season, when they faced the New Jersey Devils. Unlike the previous matchup where the Panthers were swept in four, this time Florida took the Devils to a seventh game which wasn’t decided until the second overtime, when Adam Henrique picked up a loose puck to score the game and series winning goal. Since that night, emotions for many have been all over the map. Some of you as I mentioned, pleased with the season regardless of the outcome, while many others are still playing over that final shot, and asking what if? It’s been a completely different feeling then it used to be when our season was over.
As we all know, the Florida Panthers prior to this season, and dating back to 2000 have been a disappointment. They’ve been laughed at, they’ve been rolled over, and they’ve been pushed around. The last place finishes, and failed playoff runs caused fans to become complacent, and not expect very much since they didn’t think much would happen. When you look back over those years, and see how those teams were assembled, there was no way that the Florida Panthers could have made the playoffs. Yet as a fan base many people began to “settle” for what was happening on the ice, and somehow put their faith in the umpteenth rebuilding project. When Terry Murray was fired during the 2000-2001 season after 36 games in which the Panthers had only won 6, he was replaced by Duane Sutter who finshed that season, and lasted for only 26 games the following year, when he too could only guide the Panthers to 6 wins. Something had to change, and it had to be big.
On December 3rd, 2001 the Florida Panthers named Mike Keenan as the new head coach in hopes that Iron Mike’s previous success could get the Panthers out of the basement, back to respectability, and into the playoffs. I thought that my prayers were answered, and if anyone could turn this team around it was Mike. Problem was, he had no players. A roster full of youngsters who couldn’t manage the “distractions” of South Florida, Mike was at wit’s end most nights, and after the equivalent of two seasons, which were made up of parts of two and one full, was replaced by then general manager Rick Dudley who didn’t do much better, and finally replaced himself with John Torchetti. As a fan base we began to pin our hopes on old relics like Donald Audette, Lyle Odelein, and Steve Shields. While waiting for players like Ivan Novoseltsev, Andreas Lilja and Denis Shivdki to amount to something, which they never did. You honestly had a better chance of rubbing two wet wooden sticks together to start a fire, then see this bunch put two passes together.
In the 2005-2006 season there was hope. Odd as it was Jacques Martin was being courted as the new head coach of the team, and would only take the job if his old friend Mike Keenan was named general manager. It was decided by Panther ownership that if this combination could work together as they did in the past (Martin was an assistant to Keenan in Chicago and St. Louis), then it was a decision that they had to make. In an almost shocking tale of events, the duo was brought in. Immediately Keenan went out and signed Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyck as free agents. Two professional hard working Stanley Cup champions who while at the end of their careers, still had “game” in them. He also brought in Martin Gelinas and Chris Gratton as veteran players to work with and guide Olli Jokinen, Nathan Horton, and Jay Bouwmeester. It almost worked as Florida finished the season with a winning record, but was 11th in the conference, missing the post season.
The following year, the trade happened, and Keenan was fired, or quit, depending on who you talk to, and Martin occupied both roles, neither of which he could do very well. Martin’s stifling system was horrible to watch as the team was just like him….no personality. With 41 year old Ed Belfour starting 27 games in a row at one point, Florida fell short of the playoffs again, but still finished with a winning record, as they did the following season.
That following season 2008-2009 the Panthers hired Peter DeBoer to become the teams new head coach, while Martin took on the duties of GM in hopes that the fresh attitude of DeBoer could reach the players. I am sure at times during his tenure with the Panthers, DeBoer said to himself “What am I doing here”? As I mentioned Florida missed the playoffs in DeBoer’s first year, due to a tie breaker on the last day of the season resulting from not enough shootout wins. Have I told you before that I hate shootouts? So while in these few seasons, the Panthers “teased” us with a playoff run or two, they would ultimately run out of gas for a number of reasons, but the biggest one in this writers opinion was scoring. The Panthers on many nights couldn’t score a needed goal if the net was empty and a player picked up the puck and tried to throw it in. We relied on guys like Kamil Kreps, Steven Reinprecht, Steve Bernier and waited for players like Evegenii Dadonov and Michal Repik to mature. David Booth gave us some hope, but he was honestly never the same after the Mike Richards hit. Martin also ruined a few players namely Anthony Stewart, and traded the only scoring threat he had, Olli Jokinen. Keenan may have been gruff, but he was a winner. Martin was gruff, but he was also ”trapped” in his own mind that he knew what he was doing. The game had changed and he never adapted to it. He guided this ship into the water, and bailed for Montreal before it sank.
Until the end of the 2009-2010 season, the Florida Panthers were a country club. Players came here to enjoy golf, tennis and the beach. Mike Keenan had said midway through his stint as coach, that “these players can’t handle it here. They didn’t know how to manage their time, and couldn’t focus on what was right”. That had all come to a screeching halt when in May of 2010, Dale Tallon was brought in as the new general manager of the team.
Dale spent the next season evaluating players, getting rid of the “dead wood”, and ridding the organEYEzation of all the bad apples and useless players. Salaries were dumped, draft picks were acquired and players with character who new what it took to win began making their way onto the team. Dale hired Kevin Dineen, a coach who played the way he wants his players to play. Tough, aggressive, making each second of their shift count. Things were finally going to turn around as this season has proved. Neither Dale nor Kevin would accept mediocrity, and that showed when Wojtek Wolski who was acquired just before the trade deadline, saw almost no action in the playoffs.
My point with all this is that, in the past there was no emphasis on winning. There was no pressure to have a competitive team. Sure when people like Keenan were brought in, he was told that the direction was going to chagne, but it ultimately never did. Our rosters were filled with “nice” players, and players who were doing the best they could, which really wasn’t good enough. The years of waiting and hoping that a Michael Frolik or a Rostislav Olesz were going to lead us to the promised land was over. When Cliff Viner took over as the majority owner, everything that happened in the past, was going to become a distant memory.
Dale Tallon was brought in to do the same thing he did in Chicago…..build a winner. He has a blueprint and he’s following it, and the goal is to challenge for the Stanley Cup within five years if not sooner. The Panthers might be a year ahead of that schedule, and honestly that’s a good thing. This team finally has talent, heart, soul and character. And they’re fun to watch. Next year it’s with the youthful injection of Jonathan Huberdeau and potentially one or two other young sensations, this team is going to grow even more.
While free agency in 2011 was a much needed shopping spree, Dale can now focus on looking at some higher end players, and rounding out the roster. A young budding superstar is out there, and I would love for Dale to make a pitch to one of them. We aren’t a joke anymore, and last years signings were an indication that we have gone in a completely different direction. No more getting excited about a one year deal for Chris Higgins, or Nathan Paetsch. We’re moving on to bigger and better named players.
I don’t know about you, but I’m still grinding my teeth that the season is over. With the lackluster effort put on by the Philadelphia Flyers, I’m even more fed up that we didn’t advance further. Therefore in closing, I will answer my own question which appears in the title….No! I’m not satisfied! I want a winning hockey team that plays tough on a nightly basis, that has a chance to beat any team on any given night. I want a team that’s going to challenge for the Stanley Cup, and I want players who all they care about is winning. I want to see players giving 110% every shift, and every play. Stop settling for players who score 14 goals, who really have the ability to score 25. Stop giving players the benefit of the doubt cause they’re nice. All hockey players are nice. Don’t allow yourself to be satisfied with average. Anyone can be average and we’ve had way too much of it in the past.
I’ve tasted playoff hockey in the past, and as a fan I’ve followed “my team” into a deep playoff run many times, and even a championship. I want the exact same thing here in Florida. Every year!
What about you?
Thanks for reading. We welcome your comments and opinions.
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