Not too long ago, the Florida Panthers hung a framed picture of Derek MacKenzie on the wall facing their locker room entrance at their training facility in Coral Springs.
The photos of all of Florida’s past captains take residence on the wall across from MacKenzie’s portrait and they all have something in common: As captain of the Panthers, guys like Brian Skrudland to Olli Jokinen to Bryan McCabe all faced plenty of adversity in trying to lead their team.
MacKenzie appears to be handling Florida’s challenging season as best he can.
“He has been unreal and it starts with him off the ice, in the room talking to the guys and being real positive,” said general manager and interim head coach Tom Rowe, who was part of the Florida management team which decided on MacKenzie as the ninth captain in franchise history.
“He has been invaluable. I would hate to think what would [have] happened if we didn’t have him here as the captain. He’s the guy who kept the whole team together.”
Said Jussi Jokinen: “It has been a real challenging year with a lot of things going on but I think our leadership group have done a good job handling things in the best possible way. Mac is the captain and he leads the way and has been very good in a tough spot.”
In September, the selection of MacKenzie as captain of what was thought to be a young team on the rise caught some by surprise.
With so many rising stars — notably defenseman Aaron Ekblad — many thought the ‘C’ would go elsewhere.
“He does everything we ask and more,” then-coach Gerard Gallant said in September.
“His teammates love him not only for his work ethic, but what he does for this team. He's a good leader, a character guy. We put a lot of thought into this, thought about one of the young guys becoming the next captain.
“We have young leaders, everyone see that. But maybe now isn't the right time for that. We just didn't want to push it on them right now.”
With Florida’s season a disappointment to date — MacKenzie is the first to point out the Panthers still have plenty of games left to make the playoffs — perhaps it was a good selection to pick a veteran player to carry the leadership role.
Not only did the Panthers have to fight through injuries to key players such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Sasha Barkov, Jokinen, Alex Petrovic and now Ekblad, but they went through an early-season coaching change in which Rowe replaced Gallant after a 11-10-1 start.
“I have definitely learned a lot,” MacKenzie said before Tuesday’s game against Toronto. “Things would have definitely been different if we didn’t have guys like Roberto Luongo, Jussi Jokinen and Shawn Thornton here to lean on and help keep guys motivated.
“We have some young guys who are going to make great captains and they have had to deal with things this season so for that, I’m glad it fell on me this year.”
While MacKenzie is a first-time captain, he definitely seems to have the respect of his teammates and his peers for his off-ice work ethic and hard-charging play on the ice.
And although MacKenzie tries to put a positive spin on things, it’s obvious this season has weighed on him.
The Panthers came home from a historic road trip in which they went 5-0 and put themselves not only in a wild card spot, but legitimately had thoughts of chasing down Atlantic Divison leader Montreal and repeating as division champs.
Yet since that 5-0 road trip, Florida has picked up just three of an available 18 points as it has lost eight of nine and likely walked itself out of a playoff chance.
“We had a lot of changes, but as players, you try to eliminate the distractions and focus on the game. Players play and coaches coach and managers manage,” MacKenzie said.
“The quality of play falls on us every night and we have tried to bring that. But at this point, anyway, we have fallen a bit short.”
▪ Roberto Luongo was spotted in the Florida locker room Tuesday but Rowe says the goalie isn’t all that close to a return.
Luongo will be out two weeks on Thursday after leaving a game in Philadelphia following one period after apparently aggravating an injury related to his offseason hip surgery.
“He’s still going through some rehab and some treatment so we’ll see what happens; it’s probably another week,” Rowe said.
TUESDAY: MAPLE LEAFS AT PANTHERS
When, where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.
TV/Radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640, WMYM 990.
Series: Toronto leads 38-33-7.
Scouting report: The Maple Leafs are 3-0 against the Panthers this season with two more games left including the finale in two weeks in Canada. Toronto has won its past three games and holds the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.