”It’s like turning around the Titanic and not a rowboat.” – Panthers GM Randy Sexton.
When your General Manager uses Titanic references to describe the team that he is responsible for putting together; then you know something is horribly wrong.
Once again in 2009/10 the Florida Panthers has been at the wrong end of the table and the butt of many hockey fans’ jokes. This latest setback makes it ten years now since the team last had a taste of the playoffs.
Randy Sexton, since the conclusion of the season, has been busy deflecting culpability from his own actions—preferring to highlight the injuries suffered to David Booth and Nathan Horton instead.
Truth however, is that it is not that simple.
There is no one single reason to blame this unmitigated disaster upon. There is, rather, a whole clutch of explanations. Injuries to key players, is only the tip of the iceberg.
So, let us now do what the new owners are claiming to do; sit back and “digest the season”.
• Blue-line Reshuffle, Lack of Defensive Solidity
When the Florida Panthers in 2008/09 made a credible playoff push and was foiled only by less W’s in the win column by the Habs, the Cats had a strong roster with seasoned players that we’re willing to play their hearts out for the club. Many of those disappeared in the offseason to pastures new.
On the blue-line the Panthers lost their franchise defenseman Jay Bouwmeester at the draft to Calgary. Two other top defensemen in Karlis Skrastins and Nick Boynton also left for the Western Conference.
In came Jordan Leopold, Dennis Seidenberg and Ville Koistinen.
While Leopold and Seidenberg played big minutes they were still not able to fill the void from previous campaign—without rendering the D in a weakened state. At the deadline they were both moved. Koistinen meanwhile, lost his place to rookie defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, was played out of position at forward and then finally waived and sent to the minors.
Apart from late acquisition Seidenberg, the only defensive defenseman in the line-up was Bryan Allen—who was just coming off a year of season-ending knee surgery.
Considering this it should have come as no surprise to anyone that the Cats were utterly unable to keep a lead when entering the final period of games. They simply lacked that defensive solidity to see games out.
Had it not been for the stellar performances of goalie Tomas Vokoun behind this haphazard looking defense, the Cats would surely have been steamrollered and left for dead much sooner than the Olympic break.
• Offensive Ineptitude, Injury Crisis, and Lack of Depth
“On the assumption we’re healthy, I’m pretty happy with our top five forwards” said Randy Sexton when analyzing the poor offensive output by the forwards this past campaign.
Most likely, Sexton is the only one happy with any player—let alone five—on the inept forward compartment that comprises the Florida Panthers.
Losing David Booth to that sickening hit from Mike Richard’s of the Philadelphia Flyers was undoubtedly devastating to the season and significantly impacted this team’s chances of being competitive.
The unfortunate puck that Seidenberg tried to dump into the offensive zone which hit and sidelined Nathan Horton for eight weeks with a broken leg—added misery to an otherwise already dangerously anemic Florida offense.
Other niggling injuries to the forward compartment forced the Panthers to call up half a dozen players from its Rochester affiliate of the AHL.
While those American Hockey League players certainly did their best to help the cause and did in fact inject much needed energy and enthusiasm to the team, they couldn’t contribute consistently toward the scoreboard.
Rather than trying to use these injuries, in thinly veiled attempts by Randy Sexton and coach Peter DeBoer to make excuses for this poor offensive Panthers showing, one must see the results for what they were; a clear indication that the Florida Panthers are not offensively strong enough to compete at this level.
Compelling evidence to that statement was how many times the Panthers managed to miss the empty net. Not even with virtually the whole goal unguarded to take aim at, did the Cats manage to find themselves that elusive goal to further their cause.
In addition to not having enough talent and skill on the offensive part of the team, they also clearly lacked depth within the organization to deal with the injuries to the first team.
Whose fault, at the end of the day, is that Mr. Head Coach and General Manager?
• Specialty Teams Trailing the Yellow Bus
A poor offense and leaky defense can sometimes be overcome by great specialty teams and a gritty determination to be successful no matter what.
The Panthers had none of that.
Again this year the Panthers specialty teams found themselves lodged among the worst respective power-play and penalty killing teams of the NHL (29th on the PP and 23rd on the PK).
And for the second year in a row assistant coach Jim Hulton was in charge of the specialty teams.
Does anyone else see a pattern emerging here?
Hulton has had two seasons to try and rectify the embarrassing play of the specialty teams, especially the poor power-play. But, rather than getting better they just seem to be getting progressively worse.
Most embarrassing of all, is all the wasted 5-on-3 opportunities that the Cats have had. I cannot for the life of me remember us scoring even once on such a glorious opportunity.
Something else I can’t remember us doing is scoring in the dying minutes when playing 6-on-5 or 6-on-4. I do however; vividly remember plenty of empty netters being scored by the opposing teams.
Do you think this might have anything to do with Coach Pete DeBoer’s propensity to pull the goaltender with several minutes left to play?
No, surely not…
Jim Hulton’s contract meanwhile is up for renewal after this season. Knowing the Panthers management—they’ll do just that.
• Missing: Grit, determination, toughness, and heart
Hockey is not just a sport comprised of speed, skill, and big hits. To be successful any team will need a lot of other intangibles as well. The mental aspect of the game cannot be underestimated.
The Florida Panthers have been missing these intangibles on the team for a long time. At the same time they have missed the playoffs for a record nine seasons.
Is there a connection, perchance?
Apparently not, if you are to believe Panthers management over the years, or why else would they not attempt to rectify this glaring deficiency?
In the 2008/09 season the team actually had some spunk about it, for the first time in many years, some willingness to get dirty and fight for success. Rather than lethargically sitting back and hoping a puck will bounce their way—which seemed to be the attitude on display this season.
So what happened?
Well, the Panthers in all their wisdom decided not to renew the contracts of players such as Karlis Skrastins, Ville Peltonen, Nick Boynton, and Richard Zednik. These were players that oozed professionalism and infected everyone in the dressing room with the same desire to accomplish something.
No one has since stepped up to firmly take the mantel and show the way.
Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton—to their credit—did try, but their efforts on the ice did not inspire other players to do the same. If indeed, those other players were ever able to do so in the first place.
Especially sorry to see was that none had the guts to stick up for David Booth when he got injured or help rookie defenseman Dmitry Kulikov when he was being targeted by opposing teams.
General Manager Randy Sexton has himself publicly noted and criticized the players for what is evidently a missing element of mental fortitude.
A lack of team chemistry he has called it.
Sexton is of course right. But just who does he think is responsible for puzzling this team together in the first place?
That—to me—is what remains the most puzzling mental exercise in this whole sorry situation.
• Ownership Flux and Mismanagement
The season started with rumors of the franchise being sold. And to add to the unfortunate situation the organization took their sweet time in trying to find a new General Manager after Jacques Martin’s early summer exit to Montreal.
In the end management did nothing. Instead they simply removed the inter-rim tag from former assistant GM Randy Sexton’s title.
It would seem Randy became the new GM by default.
One can only assume this management paralysis and ownership uncertainty handcuffed what Sexton was able to accomplish in the summer of 2009.
In the free agency he signed players mainly to one-year deals: Jordan Leopold, Dominic Moore, and Dennis Seidenberg. All three were eventually offloaded at the trade deadline.
The only exception to this shortsighted strategy was the signing of Ville Koistinen, to a two-year $2.4 million deal. Undoubtedly this was the worst signing of the bunch as coach Pete Deboer clearly didn’t want to have anything to do with Koistinen—who was soon waived and sent down to the minors.
So much for communication between management. You know; everyone being on the same page and all that, which we hear Randy Sexton frequently talking about.
There was also a glaring lack of any real action from coach and GM when it soon became clear that this team was not going to live up to expectations.
There were no trades or other affirmative moves from management to try and jump-start the team—until it was already too late.
When the franchise finally got a new majority ownership there were yet more pretty words of “accountability”—but yet again—no action.
In an effort to be open with the fan-base the new owners instead made the naïve move of lambasting the players in an open letter. Little wonder then that the team folded in and hastily gave up any preemptions of going out fighting.
The season rather whimpered out with an embarrassing double-defeat to cross-state rivals Tampa Bay instead.
The management now had the poor taste and sheer lack of class, which it has become notorious for, to shower the players and fans with confetti after the final blow of the horn (which we’ll have to scratch down as another striking resemblance to the sinking Titanic).
Apparently to the Panthers management, with COO Michael Yormark at the helm, this season is to be considered a successful one and should thus be celebrated as if we just won the Stanley Cup.
There is, at this moment, no word if they are also planning a parade. But, when the Panthers caravan rolls around your way, be sure to renew your season tickets. The money will go to giving the management a healthy bonus—which no doubt they worked very hard for.
OK, the latter paragraph was sarcasm, but the all the previous is regrettably true.
• Separating Cause from Effect
When looking at the Panthers’ poor season record, you might be inclined to blame it on the team’s glaring inconsistency all season long (which naturally presents us with a fine paradox in itself).
Well played games and surprising victories against teams such as San Jose, Pittsburgh, and Detroit, was never followed up by a consistent run of good form. In fact the Panthers never won more than four games on the trot at any point in the season—if my memory serves me right.
In addition, the Panthers failed to give fans anything to cheer about. The Panthers were the worst team in the NHL on home ice, only managing to win a paltry 14 times at the B.A.C.
However, when sorting through all these stats and opinions about why the Panthers were so poor, one must separate cause from effect.
The meager numbers are an effect of the Panthers being such a poor team. So is the number of shots on goal and blocked shots. The inconsistency of the team and inability to win games on the trot should be seen in the same light as well.
If you are not a very good team, you won’t win many games and are unlikely to win consistently.
What I have outlined in previous points, however, is what I believe are the main causes behind this rollercoaster of a season. A campaign which conspicuously ended with a nosedive down the standings—not finding firm ground under their paws until the third worst record of the league had been secured.
Now, the solution to these consistent problems that keep thwarting any Panthers progress is a completely different matter, and I’ll save that specific can of worms for another day.
I will, however, say this: If the club is ever to get better, it must first be run and maintained in a professional and dignified manner. When the foundation is rotten, you can’t expect any growth.
And it is here that change must come.
The underpinnings of the entire franchise must be rebuilt. Patching the worst holes is not going to secure its long-term survival.
The Florida Panthers need a new core to its structure.
A President of the franchise that knows and understands hockey is a good and necessary start.
From there and on, it can surely only get better.