David J. Neal: After playoff tease, losing with youth has gotten old fast for Florida Panthers

04/13/2014 12:01 AM

04/13/2014 1:12 AM

We are gathered here today to officially put to rest another Florida Panthers season without any extras.

Yeah, though the Panthers contain the spirit of youth, they also contain the shortcomings of youth, which is part of the reason they’re out of the playoffs for the 12th time in the last 13 NHL seasons.

The 2013-14 season got put to rest on a decently-attended, but half-hearted Fan Appreciation Night. It was light on the giveaways compared to past years, when every break saw a batch of fans get jerseys, signed pucks, signed sticks, game used skate laces, whatever. Even most of the filmed “thank you, fans, for consuming another season of this burnt Spam” from the players resembled apologies from bored teenagers who put cow poop on your porch.

With 5:33 left in the 3-2 loss to Columbus, the game operations folks showed part of “Network’s” most famous scene, rain-drenched anchorman Howard Beale commanding his audience to rise. It was, of course, a lead in to a “Let’s go, Panthers” cheer. But it showed true chutzpah or at least the surety that the BB&T Center crowd didn’t remember that Beale wanted his viewers to yell out windows “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Panthers fans have justification for that. Two years after a thrilling, heartbreaking Game 7 double overtime playoff series loss to eventual Stanley Cup Finalist New Jersey, the Panthers once again sink into the abyss of failure, without enough resistance from owner’s wallets or mature talent.

Hockey continues to grow in South Florida while the NHL team flounders through another generation of potential South Florida fans. Saturday’s NCAA title game between NCAA champion Union and traditional power Minnesota featured two players from South Florida, exactly the same number of playoff appearances for the Panthers since 1997. This year’s NHL draft features players born during The Year of the Rat, players for whom the Panthers have always existed but only as a regular season entity.

The Panthers have doubled down on that whole last shall be first, first shall be last thing. Only Winnipeg keeps them from being dead last in playoff appearances this century. They’re now last in points for a team’s leading scorer in the NHL’s modern era, rookie Nick Bjugstad’s 38. They finished last on the penalty kill, which coach Peter Horachek said can steal games for you. They finished last on the power play, which Horachek said can win games for you. They’re the first team to reach that special teams Bizarro quinela since the 2009-110 Toronto Maple Leafs. Anytime you’re mentioned as an equivalent to the Leafs, unless it’s ticket or merchandising sales, you’re living in The Carter. Time to move.

That’s move metaphorically. The Panthers aren’t going anywhere. Nowhere else in the United States or Canada (outside of Toronto) with this many television eyeballs would dare offer a team such a favorable arena lease.

Panthers general manager Dale Tallon will meet with new owner Vinnie Viola in May and determine the status of everyone on the hockey side of the organization, including Horachek. Expect the Panthers to bring in a few free agents this year and get out from under some of those deals from their 2011 Oprah summer (“You get a fat four-year contract! And yoooouuuu get a fat four-year contract!”).

Tightening finances forced the Panthers to go with youth. Though most analysts put their under-24 talent among the NHL’s best and center Aleksander Barkov turned out to be a good choice, so far, from last year’s draft, that’s submitting to the pain of professional adolescence.

“You’re going to expect that,” Horachek said. “If we’re going to play young players, we’re going to have mistakes on the defensive side. A lot of the players have been coming from systems and teams where they’ve been doing something one way if you’ve been in college, four years of doing something the same way and they’re not on board yet.

“Individually, we have to make that next step. We have to make the commitment to conditioning. We have to be harder. Our conditioning has to be at the highest level. You can see we’re in these games against playoff teams. Defensively, we have to get better, though a lot of times, it looks like offensively. If you look at the numbers, we still outchanced [Columbus]. We outchance most teams we play against. We have to find a way to make those count.

“We’re getting them. It would be a lot worse when we weren’t getting chances.”

We’ve heard it before: we’re close, we’re maturing, we’ve got some of the best young talent around. Maybe that’ll bear fruit this time. And it is the right way to build a successful team.

But talking about “potential” and “youth” after one playoff appearance since dial-up Internet counted as cutting edge is a tease. The promise of youth gets old when each spring brings another death.

About David J. Neal

David J. Neal


David J. Neal joined The Herald in 1989 and South Beach in 1990. He covers FIU after covering the Panthers for over a decade then the Dolphins for half a decade. The only day he won't work is Indianapolis 500 Race Day.

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