Joel Quenneville

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Can Panthers finally give fans reason to pay attention?

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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.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Under Pressure |  Three Questions | X-Factor]

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.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Pressure is on Tallon for Panthers to win after big offseason

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the Florida Panthers. 

Even with their lack of recent success there has still been a lot to like about this Florida Panthers team.

Aleksander Barkov is one of the best all-around players in the world and just now entering his prime years. He is a star and a cornerstone player that you should be able to build a championship contending team around.

Along with him, the Panthers just finished the 2018-19 season as a top-10 offensive team and have a pretty promising core of forwards in Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck, Mike Hoffman and Evgeni Dadonov. When combined with Aaron Ekblad and Keith Yandle on defense, there is a foundation here they should be able to compete with. What’s even better is that a lot of those core players (specifically Barkov and Huberdeau) are signed long-term to team-friendly contracts under the salary cap.

The key was going to be for general manager Dale Tallon and the front office to put the right people around them to allow that to happen. That was the mission for this offseason.

[MORE: 2018-19 summary | Three Questions | X-Factor]

The only question that matters for the Panthers — and Tallon specifically — is if he acquired the right people.

Among the new additions to the organization…

  • The hiring of Joel Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup winning and future Hall of Fame coach that has a history of success with Tallon.
  • One of the biggest free agent signings of the offseason in starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on a massive seven-year, $70 million contract. In the short-term it could be a huge addition and maybe even help put the Panthers back in the playoffs. Given Bobrovsky’s age, inevitable decline, and size of the contract it could also become a long-term headache.
  • The additional free agent signings of defender Anton Stralman (three years, $16.5 million) and forward Brett Connolly (four years, $14 million)

Those are some big contracts, all of them carrying varying degrees of long-term risk. It will probably become very apparent very early in the process if they are going to make a positive impact on getting the Panthers to where they want to be. That means Tallon’s long-term future with the team could be riding on the success or failure of those signings.

Tallon has been in a position of power with the Panthers since 2010 and during that time the team has seen its roster get overhauled, is now on its seventh different head coach, and has just two playoff appearances (and only five playoff victories) to show for that time. Given the talent the Panthers have at the top of the lineup, the high-profile coach they just hired, and the money they handed out this offseason (not to mention the eight-year contract defenseman Mike Matheson just signed a year ago) the expectation has to be for the Panthers to win, and to win right now.

The longer the team goes without winning, the more likely it is more changes get made and the Panthers are running out of people to change before they get to Tallon. You can’t trade every player, and it makes little sense to trade a Barkov or Huberdeau because the rest of the team isn’t good enough.

Quenneville is going to get some kind of an extended leash to start because of his resume and the fact he literally just arrived.

That leaves the person responsible for the final say over what the team looks like.

In the end the Bobrovsky contract will probably be what makes or breaks Tallon’s tenure in Florida.

If the Panthers get the Vezina-caliber goalie he was in Columbus it might be enough to propel them back to the playoffs this season and beyond.

If they do not get that goalie it is probably going to be more of the same for the Panthers on the ice, leaving the team with a pricey goalie on the wrong side of 30. That simply will not be good enough.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Panthers take huge risk on Bobrovsky: 7 years, $70M

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The Florida Panthers just cleaned their hands of the expensive, risky Roberto LuongoJames Reimer in net … only to get even riskier with Sergei Bobrovsky.

With Bobrovsky set to turn 31 on Sept. 20, the Panthers are throwing caution to the wind. They handed Bobrovsky a whopping seven year contract, and that term didn’t really buy them much savings – particularly with Florida’s tax perks in mind – as it’s roundly reported that the cap hit will be $10 million per year. The Panthers didn’t confirm the AAV in their release, but did include that seven-year term; The Athletic’s George Richards ranks among those reporting it at $10M per year.

Richards also notes that this is the richest contract in Panthers’ history, surpassing the $50M Pavel Bure received way back in 1999.

Unfortunately, goalies simply aren’t as easy to forecast as Hall of Fame, speedy snipers. While Bobrovsky is the most prominent goalie to hit UFA status in ages, it doesn’t guarantee the Panthers much.

[ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker]

The most obvious comparable who comes to mind is Carey Price at $10.5M, and while Price enjoyed a relative bounce-back season in 2018-19, his contract remains terrifying for the Montreal Canadiens. The Panthers are rolling the dice in a big way that Bobrovsky will turn out better than Price, but it’s a big gamble. Really, it might be even bigger, as at least Montreal knew more about what they were getting. The Panthers, meanwhile, invest this $70M before Bobrovsky’s stopped a single puck behind their hit-or-miss defense.

None of this is to say that Bobrovsky isn’t good.

He was probably the best goalie in the NHL if you combine his efforts between 2016-17 (fantastic .931 save percentage) and 2017-18 (still strong .921 save percentage). Really, Bob has arguably been the league’s top netminder since the Flyers recklessly traded him to Columbus, if you look at the big picture. Even if that’s off the mark, Bob easily ranks in the top five.

Past accomplishments don’t stop pucks, however, and the aging cure is a concern. It’s also a little worrisome that Bob had an up-and-down 2018-19. While he salvaged his season with a strong finish, Bobrovsky still ended up with a middling .913 save percentage.

The bottom line is that the Panthers are taking a leap of faith. There’s talent there, but it’s dangerous to assume that Bobrovsky will be able to deliver, and it’s important to realize that even the most reliable goalies are … well, not all that reliable. With Florida’s state tax edge, the Panthers have to feel some regret in not dialing down the AAV, especially since they rolled the dice with the seven-year term, the largest they could offer.

Heading into the offseason, it was easier to square away the idea that the Panthers were rolling the dice with Bobrovsky if he was a package deal with fellow blockbuster free agent Artemi Panarin. It turned out that the pals were not a package deal, however, as Panarin is bound for Broadway with the New York Rangers.

Such a thought had to be enticing for Joel Quenneville, not to mention Panthers fans as a whole.

Instead, this is a less certain step forward, although it’s certainly another bold (and expensive) statement that the Panthers aren’t satisfied after suffering through decades of irrelevance. They haven’t made the playoffs since 2015-16, haven’t won a series since that unlikely run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, and have only appeared in the postseason on four occasions since 1996-97.

Betting on Bob to be the difference is extremely risky, but it shows that they’re trying. Goaltending was the biggest hurdle for the Panthers as they failed to take an expected next step in 2018-19, so on paper, they squared that up in a big way.

It just remains to be seen if Bobrovsky is worth anywhere near that much paper.

NHL coaching news: Blackhawks add Crawford; Quenneville finalizes Panthers’ staff

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The Florida Panthers and Chicago Blackhawks made some noteworthy additions to their coaching staffs on Tuesday, finalizing both of their staffs for the 2019-20 season.

Let’s take a quick look at the hirings.

Blackhawks add Marc Crawford

Let’s start with the Blackhawks where the team announced that Marc Crawford was added as an assistant to serve under coach Jeremy Colliton, joining a staff that already had Sheldon Brookbank, Tomas Mitell (assistants) and Jimmy Waite (goaltending coach).

Before joining the Blackhawks, Crawford had been a part of the Ottawa Senators’ coaching staff since the 2016 season when he was hired as an associated head coach under Guy Boucher. When the Senators fired Boucher late in the 2018-19 season they made Crawford the interim coach to finish the season where he compiled a 7-10-1 record.

Marc’s son, Dylan Crawford, is an assistant video coach with the Blackhawks.

“Jeremy has an extremely bright and innovative mind and I am totally impressed by his presence and enthusiasm,” Crawford said in a statement released by the team.

“I know we will have a terrific relationship and my experience should benefit the entire coaching staff.”

Crawford definitely has plenty of experience having been a head coach for parts of 16 seasons in the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques/Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles, Dallas Stars, and Senators. He has compiled a 556-431-182 record in the league and won a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche during the 1995-96 season. Despite that strong record and championship his teams missed the playoffs in each of the past five full seasons he was a head coach (with Los Angeles and Dallas).

The Blackhawks hired Colliton as their head coach early in the 2018-19 season after firing Joel Quenneville. They went 30-28-9 after the change.

Speaking of Quenneville…

Panthers finalize Quenneville’s coaching staff

After making Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup winning coach, one of the highlights of their offseason the Panthers finalized his coaching staff on Tuesday with the hiring of Mike Kitchen, Andrew Brunnette, and Derek MacKenzie as assistants.

Robb Tallas will also return as the team’s goaltending coach.

Kitchen is a long-time NHL assistant, while Brunnette spent several years working for the Minnesota Wild organization following the conclusion of his playing career.

MacKenzie spent the past five seasons as a player for the Panthers (he was limited to just one game this past season) and served as the team’s captain during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.

“We have assembled a talented coaching staff with unique perspectives and a wealth of hockey experience,” said Quenneville in a team statement.

“I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to work with a proven coach and a quality person like Mike Kitchen again, as well as Andrew Brunette who is a bright, young, hockey mind who I coached as a player. It’s exciting to welcome former Panthers captain Derek MacKenzieto our staff as he enters the NHL coaching ranks following a great playing career. Together with longtime goaltending coach Robb Tallas, we are motivated by the task ahead of us. Our staff is eager to begin working towards our goal of bringing playoff hockey back to South Florida.”

The Panthers have a strong core of talent in place and are looking to rebound from a disappointing season and snap their current three-year playoff drought.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Quenneville sees Panthers roster with right ‘ingredients to win’

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As his new players watched from the back of the room, Joel Quenneville had a message to them during his introductory press conference as Florida Panthers head coach.

“I want everyone of you guys to remember where you’re at right now, and remember the feeling that you have today,” Quenneville said Monday. “Next year we want to be right now coming off the ice with our skates on and we’re preparing for our first-round opponent, and you’re going to know that when you’re on that ride it’s the ride of a lifetime and the memories are going to be ever-lasting.”

The Panthers, who have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs once in the last seven seasons, hope that is the reality a year from now. The move to open up the wallet and splash the cash for Quenneville — a reported five-year deal worth north of $30 million — is the first step in an aggressive off-season for the franchise.

“We need to win now,” said team president and CEO Matthew Caldwell.

“This is a great start. This is a good kick off to it, I think,” said Panthers general manager Dale Tallon, who added he was “giddy like I’ve never been before” after landing Quenneville. “We’re going to put our heads together and we’re going to come together with a great plan. We have a great core of young players and we’re going to take this to another level.”

Quenneville’s resume put him on a level where he would be sought after hard by NHL teams and would have his choice of where he coached next. So why the Panthers? He sees a parallel with his new team that he did in 2008 when Tallon promoted him to the Chicago Blackhawks’ head coaching job.

[NBC 2019 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF HUB]

“I believe that this team is close to winning,” said Quenneville, who was fired in November by the Blackhawks. “I was fortunate to be the luckiest guy in the world when I walked into the Chicago situation there — a team ready, sitting on go to win. I feel the same thing here now.”

The young talent is certainly there with Aleksander Barkov, Vincent Trocheck, Jonathan Huberdeau, and Aaron Ekblad, plus the still-developing Henrik Borgstrom and Owen Tippett, among others in the pipeline. Building around that group this summer in free agency could go a long way to realizing the playoff vision the franchise has for next season.

Quenneville has seen it from the outside, saying he believes the Panthers have the “ingredients to win” and that he wasn’t going to return behind a bench if didn’t believe the team was a Stanley Cup contender.

“I meant that, and I believe it,” he said.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.