Chris Pronger has been a key part of the Florida Panthers’ front office for nearly three years. Based on his title and role, it seemed like he was being groomed to perhaps be the GM of the future.
But suddenly, he left the team to focus on his family travel company, an interesting move in the middle of a global pandemic when travel has been mostly scuttled. Perhaps Pronger realized that working in a front office is a mainly thankless job, particularly as a GM, and that his passions weren’t there as he once thought.
Whatever his true reasons for leaving are, his departure doesn’t say much new about the Florida Panthers organization, but it confirms what was long true already: it’s an organization with worrying questions about its present and future.
One Pronger quote that received the most attention focused on pressure (or lack thereof) to win in Florida:
"“I think the pressures of playing in Florida need to be a little greater because you need to hold players accountable,’’ Pronger told Jeremy Rutherford of the Athletic (paywall).“You need to hold yourselves accountable, and it starts from management to ownership to fans. You have to expect to be in the playoffs, but expectations are only just that — they’re expectations. You also have to go out and put the work in and perform at the highest level. There are some great players down there that just need to find that little edge.”"
There can be well-run teams in non-traditional markets, like Tampa, Nashville, etc. and poorly run teams in places like Edmonton. But the dynamic in Florida has always been about expecting the bare minimum, if that.
For an organization that has made the playoffs five teams in 26 seasons (technically six if you go by the NHL’s “ruling” on the qualification games), there are no expectations anymore. What coverage there is isn’t exactly critical; not in the same way you’d see in places further north, and the number of outlets covering the Panthers on a consistent basis can be counted on one hand. The fanbase, what’s left of it, wants the bare minimum of competence because even getting that has been a struggle. There is next to no external force pushing in on the organization to be better and expect more than the bare minimum.
Success is defined by doing what other organizations do on a consistent basis because for the Panthers, that’s a rarity. The penalties for losing aren’t intense public scrutiny and hand wringing, it’s apathy, it’s people saying “it’s the same old Panthers.” That rot has seeped in everywhere in the organization because there simply aren’t penalties for failing to win anymore because failing to win is the rule, not the exception. And if there is internal pressure to win, the punishment for not winning might well be leaving and going to a better organization, which isn’t much of a punishment at all.
Imagine an alternate timeline in which there’s no pandemic and no pause. If the Panthers failed to make the playoffs after all of the offseason investment, would Dale Tallon still have his job? Perhaps Pronger is now the GM in that scenario (or perhaps even more frighteningly Eric Joyce), but Tallon’s history with the Panthers shows he can easily navigate choppy waters and come out relatively unscathed.
If he wasn’t removed in this alternate timeline, what would it have said about the organization? But with the pandemic and all that it entails financially, let alone on the ice, Tallon will keep his job at least through next year. In few other markets could a GM get nine seasons at the helm with so few playoff appearances, let alone zero series wins, and have strong job security, pandemic or not.
Chris Pronger may have brought something new to the table for an organization that’s increasingly stale, but for whatever his personal reasons are for leaving, that is now off the table. Reading between the lines, he’s pretty open in saying that what’s going on inside the BB&T Center is not conducive to winning, and it’s not solely because of where they play. More can’t just be expected of the Panthers, it must be demanded of them. That starts from ownership on down.
No one can settle for the ceiling being the floor; in other words, expecting the bare minimum. If the Panthers want to get anywhere close to being what they desperately covet, that must change. Beating the Islanders won’t do much to change that. Losing and lucking into Alexis Lafrenière won’t do much to change that. There is too much talent, too much money invested and too many false starts in this team’s history at this point to settle for the bare minimum anymore.
Can the Panthers change what they are, and what people perceive them to be? They will need to work even harder than they ever have before in order to do that. Winning in the NHL’s return to play likely won’t change anyone’s opinion dramatically, so it must be the start of something more. It must be the start of people on the inside and outside saying that the same old Panthers cannot return from the pandemic break. Chris Pronger’s quotes may have been diplomatic, but they show a man frustrated with a team and a culture that is deeply rooted, and deeply rotten no matter his own efforts to change that.
His departure should serve as a wake-up call to everyone the same old Panthers cannot be acceptable anymore and certainly should not be in the future. That goes to the players, Dale Tallon and his staff, ownership and the fans. It’s time to demand more of the Florida Panthers because expecting nothing has led sadly to fulfilled expectations over and over again.