Florida Panthers: After They Squandered their Gift of a Playoff Chance, What’s Next?

With the pandemic induced pause, the Florida Panthers received a gift. In a normal season, they were well on their way to missing the postseason as per usual, but thanks to the return to play, they found themselves with a ticket to the extended postseason.

In a five-game series against the New York Islanders, the Florida Panthers had a unique opportunity to finally end their postseason rot and prove that they were more than what they showed in the abbreviated regular season.

Naturally, they didn’t take advantage of that chance. They scored seven goals in four games, and only three at even strength. Outside of a few spurts throughout the series, they were thoroughly outclassed by a team that’s at their level. Their postseason wait continues and now the franchise is at another crossroads. What happens to the roster with a flat cap and numerous free agents? What happens with Dale Tallon and the front office? What is the vision for this franchise and its future?

Even with the massive and necessary investment in Joel Quenneville and Sergei Bobrovsky, the Panthers’ chronic issues kept coming up again and again not just in the regular season but in the bubble. They were a mess defensively, with only Aaron Ekblad and MacKenzie Weegar consistently playing at a basic playoff level. Outside of the Barkov line, there was almost no depth of play at even strength from anyone else, and Barkov’s line was more often than not clamped down on.

Bobrovsky was under the microscope during this series and largely acquitted himself well, but mistakes are magnified with the defense he plays behind and the offense largely absent. Put it all together and you get a team that looks completely out of its depth against a team that by this point they should be better than.

This result is not entirely unexpected, but it should still be alarming. This was supposed to be the year the Panthers finally took that step towards relevance and competitiveness and as their season splutters to an end, they’re exactly where they always are: the messy middle of mediocrity. No matter the coach, the goaltender, the GM, the players, this team cannot get out of its own way. Failure is endemic to the organization, no matter who is cycled in and out. In the end, those at the top stand responsible for a failure like this, and ownership has to answer as to why the Panthers have flopped again.

Constantly re-litigating past mistakes have gotten the Panthers in an endless cycle of chasing their own tail. There are always sudden changes of direction with this organization, and what appears to be patience from the outside is actually nothing like it on the inside. One season they’re spending lavishly on Bobrovsky and Quenneville, and the next they’re cutting payroll. Rightly or wrongly, ownership blew up their front office after winning a division title. How can there be any consistency in an organization that veers wildly from approach year to year?

Accountability, chronically lacking with the Panthers, is never present in any quantity because external and internal expectations are always out of whack. This warped, twisted organizational culture is a culture of failure; one that is ever-present no matter who is in control. Organizational cultures start from the top, and investment from new ownership hasn’t erased what was present before they arrived.

Now, the Panthers reach a crossroads. There are questions at every level of the team that must be answered. Will Dale Tallon return as GM? His tenure in Florida, particularly since being reinstated in 2017, has not been up to par. Many millions of precious cap space are tied up in bad contracts for Mike Matheson, Anton Stralman, Brett Connolly even before getting to Bobrovsky. His contract is expiring and reports suggest his time may be up. Tallon’s tenure has not been nearly as bad as some have said but his record speaks for itself.

If Tallon is gone, who comes next? Some reporting has suggested Eric Joyce might be next in line. Joyce has been the Panthers assistant GM running their AHL affiliates in San Antonio, Portland, and Springfield. Under Joyce’s stewardship, those teams made two playoff appearances with no series wins, and like the big club, a distinct level of mediocrity. Development of key prospects like Henrik Borgstrom, Aleksi Heponiemi, Owen Tippett among others has been staggered at best, stunted at worst.

For an AHL team, results aren’t necessarily critical, but they can be indicative of the growth of an organization, and Springfield’s results since 2016 say everything; no postseasons and no growth. If he’s the next man up, he not only has to rescue an organization that is listless in the wind by giving it direction but also find a way to prove that what he did in managing the Panthers’ prized prospects is an aberration. But most damningly, he could be a symptom of the larger problem. He’s entrenched in a culture of losing, a culture of failure, and a culture of low expectations. Can he be the one to rise above that when he’s already knee-deep in it?

This organization is crying out for a new voice; an external voice who can bring a consistent vision to a club without one. For a decade, the only voices the Panthers have turned to are internal ones; ones who are deeply rooted in a culture of failure. This is not to say that external choices will automatically be good ones, since Peter Chiarelli, Ray Shero, and other re-treads will inevitably be linked with the job and neither (and others like them) are not good enough. But for an organization that is always caught in a spiral downward because they can’t get out of their own way, looking to new voices outside the organization who are hungry to prove themselves is the path worth following.

Whoever that new GM is, they have quite a task ahead of them. There is no depth at the center position, the defense needs a complete overhaul, and these “prized” prospects need to be given an opportunity to thrive that they have not been given yet. He must give Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau a legitimate chance to win with a worthy supporting cast before their contracts expire and they could head elsewhere. He must find a way to get around some of the worst contracts on the books without giving up the farm to do so, and he needs to find a group of scouts he trusts (keeping Jari Kekalainen is a must) to help him build a farm system with a vision and plan. Those before this new GM failed spectacularly at many of these tasks.

Is this the moment where the Panthers finally head down a road to sustained success and relevance, or will be they be stuck spinning their wheels as they’ve been for 24 years without fail? Decisions made in the next few weeks will go a long way to determining that. Every time they’ve gone down this road before, they’ve picked the wrong path. Going down the wrong path again is not an option. Organizational resets like this are rare and when they come around, they should be the last reset for a long time to come.

For a decade, the Panthers have been the definition of mediocre. Their mulligan of a “playoff” appearance proved that and then some. They may have a chance now to rise above mediocrity, but when they’ve had chances to do so before, they’ve slipped backwards time and time again.

There aren’t going to be any more mulligans, from the fanbase or from a horrific global pandemic to get things right. Patience is thin, and what’s left of the fanbase is at the end of their rope. Ownership must create a plan, stick to it and see it through because what they’ve done for seven years clearly hasn’t worked, and in the end, everything starts and ends with them.

Next: Florida Take Game 3, 3-2; Live to See Another Day

When a team throws away a chance like the Panthers just did, that clearly shows: they didn’t deserve to be in the position they were in, to begin with. 

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