Florida Panthers

You want to try to name the most pathetic team in the NHL? There are a few contenders for that title, but from creation to present, they probably don’t come any worse than the Florida Panthers. The Panthers are the southernmost team in the NHL, and while they once showed a world of promise, they’ve since turned into everything northerners mock about hockey in the south. They suck, they do dumb things constantly, they willingly trash themselves even on those rare occasions when they manage to do something right, and they play to stereotypically tepid crowds who don’t come out for the games.

The Panthers were the brainchild of Wayne Huizenga, the CEO of Blockbuster Entertainment. He was going through a period where he wanted to be the mad owner of a team in every sport; he already managed to talk Major League Baseball into giving him the Florida Marlins, and he had part ownership of the Miami Dolphins in the NFL. That seems to have been the sole impetus behind the Panthers. The ownership office was established just a few months before the official expansion announcement, and Dead Jordan, the Vice President of Business Operations, later admitted that no one who worked there, including himself, knew anything about hockey. And in other news, water is wet. The team named itself after the Florida panther, a large cat that lives in the everglades. But, well, the team name is the Florida Panthers. The Panthers are one of those names that’s a little black dress of team naming; it looks fine, but you’re only throwing it on because you need something that looks decent NOW and can’t be bothered to make the effort otherwise.

The Panthers looked like they may have been doing things right at first. The team’s first president was Bill Torrey, who was the general manager of the early 80’s New York Islanders, a team that won the Stanley Cup four years in a row. The Panthers general manager was Bobby Clarke, a legend who won the Cup twice as Captain of the Philadelphia Flyers and who had also been general manager of three teams that made it to the Final but couldn’t close. (Two were for the Flyers and one was for the Minnesota North Stars. All three had gotten run through by near-invincible powerhouses.) In the Expansion Draft, they managed to pluck goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck from the Vancouver Canucks (the Canucks having traded for him from the Rangers as a way of protecting other players on their roster) and drafted Rob Niedermayer. They tied their first game, a road game against Chicago. Their first win was a shutout of the Tampa Bay Lightning. They finished just two points under .500, with coach Roger Neilson playing the team using a precursor version of what soon evolved into the Neutral Zone Trap.

On the night of the home opener in 1996, Scott Mellanby spotted a rat scurrying along the locker room floor. He one-timed the poor critter against the wall, killing it, and then went on to score two goals during the game. Vanbiesbrouck quipped that Mellanby just scored a rat trick. It took all of two days for that story to make it out into the big wide world, and fans started celebrating goals by tossing rubber rats onto the ice. That goal celebration began the start of a magical season in South Florida. The Panthers went 41-31-10, putting up 92 points. They made the playoffs as a fourth seed, they were thrown up against the Boston Bruins. Bill Lindsay scored the goal which clinched a five-game series in favor of the Panthers. Florida then went on to face the Flyers, the top seed in the playoffs, and managed to win that series in six games. The second-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins awaited the Panthers in the Eastern Conference Final. The Panthers managed to win THAT series too, in seven games, and were looking like the team to beat as they went to the Stanley Cup Final. Let’s be clear about this: This was a lucky run. And when a hockey team played against an ultra-powerful team like, oh, say, the Colorado Avalanche, they needed a lot more than just good luck to win. They would need speed players, skill players, stickhandling players, big guys on defense, great goaltending, and divine intervention. And hey, guess who happened to be waiting for the Panthers in the Final! Yeah, you can guess how this series went. The Avalanche – which had relocated from being the Quebec Nordiques just that very season – showed hockey fans how apt their new identity was. Although the Panthers managed to drag the fourth game out to three overtimes, they were buried in four games. The Avs restricted the Panthers to only four goals for the entire series.

The Panthers started the follow-up season by going unbeaten in their first 12 games, but they also made the mistake of trading their second-line center, Stu Barnes. That was a mistake – Barnes was a spirited leader who gave respectable depth to any roster, especially when he resurfaced in Buffalo a few years later for a Sabres team he later captained. Returning to the playoffs, there wasn’t going to be another miracle run. The Panthers were dumped by the Rangers in five games in the first round. A year later, the Panthers finally plummeted into the great depths to take their traditional expansion team beatings. They started 7-12-4, went on a 15-game winless streak, and won just 24 games all season, which was their worst as a team. Vanbiesbrouck got shellacked during a game against the Blackhawks during the winless streak, never played another game for the Panthers, and later signed with the Flyers.

1999 brought a trade with Vancouver for Pavel Bure, the legendary Russian Rocket. He got them to the playoffs again, to lose in the first round again, this time to the Devils. Valeri joined Pavel for the 2002 season, but by then the team managed to get worse. They went 22-44-10-6 (which is 22-44-16 to those who view loser points as, you know, FUCKING LOSSES!), which was their worst record ever.

In 2002, Jay Bouwmeester arrived to save the day! Or at least that’s how the narrative should have gone. What happened was that Florida’s then-general manager, Rick Dudley, sent Florida’s first pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who used it on Rick Nash. One of the details about that trade was that Florida also got the right to trade with Columbus again in 2003 for their first round selections, but the Panthers didn’t use it because they got the first overall selection that year. The Thrashers got the second overall pick, and they selected goalie Kari Lehtonen. After making that selection, they announced that the Panthers had given them two more Draft picks for the guarantee that Bouwmeester would still be around for Florida to pick him third overall. (Don’t ask – Draft strategy eludes me.) The Panthers got him, at any rate, but they had to surrender a couple of picks for the right when they could have taken him for free.

2006 brought the next big-ass trade with the ‘Nucks. Lucas Krajicek, Roberto Luongo, and a sixth round pick were exchanged for Todd Bertuzzi, Alex Auld, and Bryan Allen. This was a one-sided trade, and its key was Luongo. Luongo turned Vancouver into arguably the best team in the NHL, and was an epic meltdown away from winning the Stanley Cup in 2011. Florida got stuck making another goalie trade the next year, this time for Tomas Vokoun from Nashville, who managed to become an All-Star but didn’t help his team very much.

By the 2011 season, the Panthers had missed the playoffs for ten years running. That was a record for missed consecutive missed playoffs for a single team in one city. It doesn’t sound like much, but this is the NHL, where getting into the playoffs means you were able to take a gun and shoot the broad side of a barn. Management hired Dale Tallon as the general manager, and Kevin Dineen was hired to coach. The two of them got to work, and when the 2012 season concluded, the Panthers had lost some 300 man-games to injury… But they managed to win their division! It was the team’s first-ever division title, and that was reason enough to celebrate given what the Panthers had endured in their existence. So celebrate the Panthers did! They were so excited to get to the celebration that they let themselves lose to the Devils in the first round of the playoffs!

That was a blip. Right afterward, the Panthers went right back to sucking again. Dineen ended up getting fired after the 2014 season, when the Panthers finished 29th out of 30 teams. The next coach was Gerard Gallant, who spent the 2016 season setting a tone of team records: 12 straight wins, 47 total wins, 103 points, and being a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, which he should have won. Jaromir Jagr had a revival year with them. They got booted from the first round of the playoffs again, this time by the Islanders, but they looked like they had a real foundation to grow on now. Unfortunately, the team couldn’t take that, because good hockey just wouldn’t be a trademark of the Florida Panthers. So they started looking for an excuse, any excuse really, to fire him. The team’s 11-10-1 start to the following season was exactly what they needed, so out Gallant went, in came Tom Rowe to guide the Panthers to a 35-36-11 record, out went Rowe, Gallant went to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, and the Panthers went right back to square one.

Dear god, what a depressing team. Their only number retirement is for Bill Torrey, who got the Panthers through their best years as team president. And by “best,” well, with a team this pathetic, that’s more by default than by deserved recognition; if you had to rank eras in Panthers history, one of them would HAVE to be better than the rest. That’s not to say the Panthers haven’t had a few stars worth watching. Jaromir Jagr currently plays for them. John Vanbiesbrouck was their first recognizable face. Pavel Bure had a couple of good years. Some of the more recent guys include Brian Campbell, Aaron Ekblad, Jay Bouwmeester, and Olli Jokinen. Doug MacLean and Gerrard Gallant have been coaches for the All-Star Team.

Fans once made a tradition of throwing rubber rats onto the ice when the Panthers scored a goal. I don’t know how that’s going these days. That was a variation of a common tradition done by other fans of other teams at various points, most notably by the Detroit Red Wings, whose octopus-throwing fans are famous. Other than that, though, it’s tough to get a read on an identity for the Panthers that doesn’t revolve around their constant losing. They are one of the least-followed teams in social media, with under 200,000 fans on Facebook; 200,000 is a number most professional teams in the major sports soared over back before everyone was on Facebook. As a point of reference, the Chicago Blackhawks are the most-followed NHL team on Facebook, with over 2.9 million followers. The Boston Bruins pull up a respectable second, with over 2.2 million. If you want to bring other sports into it, the most popular football team is the Dallas Cowboys, with 8.7 million. The New York Yankees lead baseball by a country mile with 8.5 million. And with basketball being America’s world symbol of athleticism, the most popular American teams on Facebook are all from the NBA. Leading the pack is the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, with over 21 million. The Chicago Bulls have a healthy lock on second, with 18.8 million. The Miami Heat have 15.9 million, the current champion Golden State Warriors are up to 11.2 million, LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers have 9 million, and the Boston Celtics – who have more titles than any other team – have 8 million or so. And if we bring world soccer into it, the numbers get downright embarrassing. The best-known team in the world is England’s Manchester United. They have 73 million. Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona are both in nine figures. Bayern Munich, the best team in the world, has 42 million. You won’t exactly be following the Florida Panthers to be a part of a big fan community is what I’m getting at.

To get an idea of how hapless the Panthers have been, here are a few numbers: In 25 years, the team has had 14 coaches. They’ve had 11 general managers.

Okay, here’s something unique: The Florida Panthers have had an existence which runs oddly parallel to that of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. They were both created in the mid-90’s. Both of them found success almost immediately with aging stars finding new life again: Florida got to the Stanley Cup Final in three years with John Vanbiesbrouck, and Carolina made the NFC Championship after two years Kerry Collins, and the Super Bowl a few years after that. Both the Stanley Cup Final and Super Bowl appearances came from lucky plays and good circumstance which the teams couldn’t repeat. Both have been surging lately with solid coaching around promising stars: Carolina returned to the Super Bowl with Cam Newton while Florida posted a 103-point season with Aaron Ekblad. Both got stupid afterward. So that’s something, I guess.

The Florida Panthers were a hit ticket that looked smart for a minute. Now, love them, hate them, or be like Miami and forget about them.

Pros

Recent uniform upgrade turned out great; Aaron Ekblad is a promising star; aren’t often mentioned in conversations about hockey teams that will move in the near future

Cons

Are second fiddle to the better Tampa Bay Lightning; winning seasons are usually nothing more than blips; are called the Panthers; played an earlier version of the Trap

Should you be a fan?

You may have to play elimination games with teams on every level of every sport before someone says, “oh, THOSE Panthers!” Otherwise, the best thing you can say about these guys is that they’re inoffensive.

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