Risk Factors: Florida Panthers edition

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From the same bunch of pessimists who brought you “Why your team won’t win the Stanley Cup,” PHT presents a new series called “Risk Factors,” i.e. three reasons to be worried about each NHL team in 2014-15.

1. Panthers will only go as far as Luongo takes them.

Roberto Luongo is a star goalie. No disputing that. His return to the Florida Panthers prior to last season’s trade deadline essentially ended a long-running goalie soap opera in Vancouver.

And he saw plenty of rubber upon his arrival back with the Panthers. In his second game, against the Boston Bruins, he faced 41 shots and turned away 37 of them. On one occasion, he was in goal when the Panthers gave up 54 shots. He likes getting shots, likes getting the work to get in a rhythm.

But Luongo is also 35 years old. Not exactly ancient, but definitely at the age when bodies with over 800 NHL games played start breaking down.

Behind him, in the back-up position, is Al Montoya, a former sixth overall pick from the 2004 NHL Draft. Since then, Montoya has appeared in just 91 games on three different teams. His numbers last year in Winnipeg were decent — 13 wins in 28 games, and a .920 save percentage and 2.3 goals-against average.

From a two-time Olympic gold-medal winning goalie to one that has never gotten his NHL career on track. That’s the immediate scenario should an injury or prolonged absence to Luongo occur, and he has dealt with groin ailments during his time in Vancouver.

How will Luongo’s body hold up over the course of the season, and just how many games does Florida’s coaching staff intend to play the veteran puck stopper?

His Panthers teammate Willie Mitchell — they were together in Vancouver for a time, too, and named the club’s captain this week — remains optimistic Luongo will put together a strong season.

“No one wants to win a Stanley Cup more than Roberto; he cares so much that sometimes I hate to say this but you care too much and you start chasing it trying to make other people happy … instead of trying to be Roberto Luongo, one of the best goalies in the game,” Mitchell told the Sun-Sentinel.

“Coming back down here is a breath of fresh air for him because, who’s kidding who, it’s not [the same] market, there’s not that pressure and he could be himself. I think you’ll see the best of him.”

Anything less, and the Panthers, even with a young and upstart roster, might be in for a long season.

2. Aaron Ekblad’s inexperience is a concern.

There is less risk here in the short term, we admit.

The Panthers can choose to keep Aaron Ekblad, the first overall pick in this year’s draft, in the NHL on a nine-game trial and then send him back to junior after that. Or, they can choose to keep him up with the big club for the entire season and his entry-level deal would set in.

From the Miami Herald on Oct. 3:

Rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad played his biggest minutes of the preseason Thursday. He said the game was “tenfold” different from his preseason opener last weekend in Nashville.

“I was much more confident, very excited to play,” said Ekblad, the top pick of the 2014 draft. “I was more calm, more patient. I made some plays I wanted to make.”

(Florida GM Dale) Tallon said Ekblad would remain with the Panthers for “a while” and will get at least his nine-game NHL tryout.

There is a huge difference between playing defense in junior compared to the NHL. It’s faster in the big league. The players are bigger and stronger. If Ekblad does play a full season, how will he cope with the demands of the schedule, the travel and adjusting to a much different game?

He’s only 18, by far the youngest of the eight defensemen still on Florida’s roster. If he struggles, will his confidence take a hit? If it does, how might that affect his development?

3. Not so home-ice advantage.

The Florida Panthers did play to some capacity crowds last season. Lucky for them, the Montreal Canadiens were in town and suddenly attendance for one night only skyrocketed.

In the end, though, they averaged just 14,177 fans per game, according to ESPN. Only the Phoenix Coyotes, now known as the Arizona Coyotes, were worse.

From the Miami Herald in March:

The team tried to create excitement in a market that yawned. The Panthers slashed prices on season tickets — some were going as low as $7 per game — with a number of perks to those who signed on.

The numbers may have been low for the Panthers in the past, and that’s with lowered ticket prices and different deals. Then, just last month, owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu spoke to the Miami Herald and the message about declining attendance didn’t sound positive whatsoever.

No more discounted tickets or giveaways, according to the Miami Herald.

“We are 100 percent ready for the reality that we’ll have smaller attendance this season,” Cifu told the newspaper.

“We want people who are there to be paying a fair price, the same price and enjoying a great product on the ice. We can get 15,000 in there if we gave away 5,000 seats. We don’t want to do that. It’s not fair.”

This may not translate to a risk on the ice. The Panthers are coming off a season in which they were at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.

But dwindling attendance would perpetuate a grim opinion for the future of NHL hockey in south Florida even if the owners state they are committed to keeping the team in that area despite “tremendous losses of money.”