The Florida Panthers may not own the NHL’s longest postseason drought, but there is no organization in the league that is more synonymous with losing than them.
How bad has it been?
In the first 25 years of their existence the Panthers have qualified for the playoffs just five times. Only two of those playoff appearances have come in the past 19 years and they have not played beyond the first-round since their improbable 1996 run to the Stanley Cup Final (the year of the rat). Other than that, it has been nothing. This is why it’s hard for me to be critical of Panthers fans (or potential Panther fans) for staying away from the arena or not showing up at the box office or, more simply, just not caring.
The best (and only) way to build a fan-base in any sport is to put an entertaining, successful product on the ice, court, or field, and no franchise in the NHL has failed more consistently at that than the Panthers. Refer back to two playoff appearances in the past 19 years. That is an almost unbelievable and unprecedented run of futility in professional sports, especially in a league where more than half of the teams make the postseason every year.
Just take a look at the teams with the fewest playoff games in the NHL and NBA since the start of the 2000 season. I am combining those two leagues because they have the most similar setups in the postseason (16 playoff teams each year; eight playoff teams in each conference; best-of-seven setup in the playoffs).
Look at how far below the Panthers have been behind the next worst teams. It is staggering.
If you are a sports fan in South Florida, even if just a casual one, what incentive has there been for you to get emotionally invested in this team?
They have lost on the ice consistently.
They have had PR nightmares (most recently the expansion draft debacle; the saga around Gerard Gallant’s firing and the organizational dysfunction overhaul that was taking place at that time).
They have, more often than not, been poorly run from a hockey and roster standpoint and never had any postseason success on the rare occasion they have qualified.
Hockey can work in any region, in any city, and any market, and there is great example as to how it can work in Florida just a few hours north of Miami. But you have to give people a reason to invest their time and money in your team, and in two-and-a-half decades the Panthers have never done that with any regularity.
It has to start changing, and this year’s team might have the potential to finally start shifting things in a positive direction. They have a star in Aleksander Barkov, hired one of the most successful coaches in NHL history (Joel Quenneville), and spent real money this offseason, including on one of the biggest free agents on the market at an important position of need (starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky).
There are risks with some of these moves and contracts that could result in even more change and turnover if they backfire, but there is at least some reason to be optimistic.
They just have to start getting results on the ice to turn that optimism into something that sticks around and gives their fans a reason to show up and keep returning.