In March, once the Florida Panthers play their way out of playoff contention, there’s plenty of time to talk about the future of the organization, especially where it’s going.
After the latest disastrous post-All-Star Game stretch for the Florida Panthers, 5-10-2 and 0-6-1 at home, it’s time to talk about serious structural changes organization-wide once again. Hiring Joel Quenneville and spending to the cap was the right decision this summer to help push the Panthers over the top, but even with those two moves the Panthers are where they always are in March: likely out of the playoffs, now for the 21st time in 26 seasons of existence.
This kind of failure should never be acceptable, but with the Panthers, it’s sadly normalized and internalized. Those that should be held accountable never are, from ownership on down. They have settled for this mediocre existence. But for those who harbor hopes of a playoff appearance or more in the near future, what can this organization do to finally get out of this death spiral of losing?
First, the time is now for a change in General Manager. Dale Tallon has made moves that have helped get the franchise out from the basement of the league, but no further than the wrong side of the playoff bubble. Two playoff appearances and no series wins in 10 seasons at the helm is poor by even the low standards of Florida.
At times, he has not been given the resources to succeed but when he has, he has made bad decisions in free agency and with the contracts he has handed out. When he was “replaced” the first time, there wasn’t much merit to the decision; just a rash overreaction to a harsh playoff exit, even if the core ideas behind the move were not coming from a bad place. But with his second chance, his teams are no better than the team that forced ownership to bring him back in the first place.
Whoever the new GM is, whether it be someone like Ron Hextall, Columbus’ Bill Zito or someone else, they must come in with a vision of what they want their team to be from top to bottom. There needs to be a consistent identity in the draft process, the kinds of players they want to sign, and a style of play. Do they want to be a team based on high-end skill like Toronto, Tampa or Colorado? Or one more like Boston, Philadelphia or Vegas, with a little bit more of an old school feel in the mix?
Whatever the new identity is, the Panthers must commit to it. They have not had an identity in this way since the early days of Tallon’s tenure in Florida, and that is currently missing from the organization. With most of their recent moves, there’s no evident plan other than the nebulous buzzword “flexibility.” Flexibility isn’t good enough anymore, because that’s a short term mindset. This franchise needs a long term plan.
Said new GM has some building blocks to work with, like Barkov, Huberdeau and Ekblad. There’s no need to tear the team down to the studs with a fanbase and franchise already weary of losing. But he must put the right pieces around them, especially on the blue line. It’s one of the most expensive in the league this year, which includes Mark Pysyk playing most of the season at forward, and is one of the worst in the league once again.
Matheson, Stralman and Yandle are all on the chopping block and need to be replaced by defenders willing to play without the puck, willing to defend in tough situations without sacrificing the ability to move the puck. There are many defensemen out there that they could acquire, and they need to get two to three at the bare minimum. The new GM must also find center depth, particularly a natural foil to Barkov at the second line center spot who can be relied on to relieve the offensive and defensive workload he has had to shoulder. He already has the coach to work with, which doesn’t hurt either.
This new GM needs to find and create a better development model. Not enough draft picks are coming through the system and contributing at a high level, leading to signings such as Stralman, Yandle, Connolly, etc. which become liabilities far too often. That development model doesn’t just need to identify talent, it needs to cultivate it, nurture it and give them a chance to make the leap to the NHL club.
With Jari Kekalainen and the Canucks Army scouting staff, there is some decent infrastructure in place, but more needs to be put in place around them, from the front office to Springfield and beyond. What’s clear is that their development model doesn’t work now, and needs to change to get some of the talent already in the system to reach their full potential. An outside voice would do this organization a world of good.
Most importantly, this organization, a new GM and the players need a consistent commitment from ownership. After investing one season, too often the following season is followed by a salary purge because results weren’t immediate. That seems to be the case again, sadly. That cannot be the case. No team in the NHL can win anymore without solid investment not just on the roster, but in the scouting department, support staff, analytics, etc.
If ownership is going to be cheap, then they’re not going to be winning anytime soon, and they’re not going to be getting back any of the fans they’ve been hemorrhaging. If they’re going to be cheap and cut costs, they’re not going to win the Stanley Cup, and what is the point of owning an NHL team if you’re not going to try and win the Stanley Cup? If they’re not going to commit to investing what it takes to win, then they should find someone else who will.
Losing is a disease, and it has infected every aspect of the organization through multiple owners, GM’s, star players and more. Their bar to clear is so low that even a fleeting moment of success is deemed worthy of celebration, and it shouldn’t be. This team should be expected to do more, and without those expectations, they’re not held to any sort of meaningful standard. There’s no media to follow the team daily because there’s no fanbase left to read what they’d write or listen to what they’d say. Whatever trust ownership and management had was frittered away long ago, whether it came from failures on ice or off it, such as raising season ticket prices after a disaster of a season like this. It takes a long time to build up trust and only seconds to lose it.
In sports, you can sell wins or you can sell hope. The Florida Panthers surely can’t sell wins, and they can’t sell hope credibly. Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu have the means with which to turn this around if they’re willing to commit to using them. It starts with creating a plan and a vision for what they want this team to be and being bold in executing it. That means changes from the front office on down and public accountability to admit that what they’ve been doing hasn’t been working. All the fans want is a reason to believe the same old Panthers are going away. Every time it seems that hope is there, it’s quickly dashed. Viola and Cifu envy the success the Lightning have across the state, and they were once in a similar position. It took a bold owner with ideas and a plan to get out of the mire, and they have to be willing to take a hit in their pocketbook and beyond in order to get there.
After this failure of a season, the biggest in a line of systemic and disastrous failures, it’s time to take action. Everyone in the organization has failed (again). There can be no more standing pat because all that leads to is losing, mediocrity and a decade-long rot getting deeper still. There will be hurt feelings along the way for people who will be let go, but after all the losing and the pain, is that not worth it to finally steer this organization out of the muck of mediocrity and losing?
This failure for the Panthers feels different from all the others because there was an investment and there was a real reason to hope this time. Such failure requires more drastic action to rectify the problems. Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu certainly have the means to take those actions, but it’s now up to them whether they want to. There are models to follow that can perhaps get them out, but all will require investment, a plan and courage of conviction to stick with it through bad and good.
There’s nothing else to lose at this point since the Panthers lose on and off the ice better than anyone else.