Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Florida Panthers try to get out of rut

It’s a big and exciting week for our forgotten franchise, for all the wrong reasons. The Florida Panthers have introduced a new head coach and are now preparing to make the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft on Friday — both of those things indicators of what you have been more so than where you’re headed.

Successful clubs don’t change coaches, let alone as consistently as this one does.

Winning teams don’t keep getting the loser’s consolation of high draft choices.

“We can’t keep drafting in the front,” general manager Dale Tallon said by phone Wednesday from the draft site in Philadelphia. “I want to be picking 30th, 29th. We’ve got to turn the tide. I realize we have to start turning the corner, and do it now.”

Beleaguered Cats fans have been hearing the same thing, in some form, from somebody, for seemingly forever. How long can you claim urgency? How long can you ask for patience?

With this club, the future is always now, but somehow it never gets here.

Panthers fans last cheered a Stanley Cup playoff series victory in 1996, sustained by a meager two playoff appearances since. Only 10 of 122 franchises in America’s Big Four sports have made their fans wait longer to see their team advance in a postseason.

The drought has left the Cats clawing for relevance in the market, languishing on the local sports landscape behind the Heat monarchy, the flagship Dolphins, the entrenchment of UM football and a Marlins franchise buoyed by its new stadium. And hockey could find itself also being passed by MLS soccer if David Beckham and local government can ever agree on a stadium site.

The drought also means that local hockey fans recall the rubber rat-strewn, halcyon days of ’96 with some of the same what-else-have-we-got desperation of older Dolphins fans still kneeling at the altar of 1972 and the Perfect Season. At some point, paying homage to ever-distant glory days mostly serves to remind us of the lack of them lately.

A year ago, the Panthers had the same rote urgency and vague optimism, yet Florida led the league in sad consistency, finishing 29th of 30 teams in standings points, 29th in goals scored and 29th in goals allowed.

“We took a couple of steps back,” conceded Tallon, GM since 2010.

Enter the latest new coach, Gerard Gallant. We don’t know whether he will be the answer, but for now at least give Gallant credit for instantly rivaling Hurricanes football coach Al Golden for the most fabulously heroic surname in South Florida coaching.

He will be the club’s 13th head coach entering its 21st season, and the fourth on Tallon’s watch — crazy turbulence. Encouragingly, Gallant, 50, at least has previous NHL head coaching experience, unlike the club’s three previous hires. It also was smart to get a new coach in place prior to the July 1 start of free agency, because the only thing free agents like less than Inexperienced Coach in a prospective new team is No Coach.

This is on Tallon, though, more than on the incoming coach. Tallon told me he interviewed 12 candidates. Reports are that he preferred recently fired Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma, but that money got in the way. In any case, the GM steers the future here more than the coach.

It is Tallon who has built a roster of considerable young talent but who now must find a way to accelerate beyond “potential” and get to winning. Reacquiring veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo this past March was a positive step, a tangible sign of the win-now mind-set that starving, parched fans deserve.

Florida has bright young rising stars in centers Aleksander Barkov and Nick Bjugstad, left wing Jonathan Huberdeau, and defenseman Erik Gudbranson. There are also stout veterans such as Luongo and defenseman Brian Campbell.

“I saw a team with a lot of great young prospects, a team on the upswing. I really feel that,” said Gallant, the new coach, most recently a Montreal Canadiens assistant. “A great core of high draft picks over a number of years.”

What the Cats most lack is a major right wing presence and, in general, a dynamic goal-scorer. (This is where Panthers fans make sighing, pining, longing references to Pavel Bure the way Dolfans still do with Dan Marino). Nobody scored more than 21 goals for Florida last season, a pathetic team-leading total.

Is there a big scorer in the farm system?

“Not yet,” Tallon said.

It may be time for Tallon to get creative, be bold, and trade from a win-now mind-set. Holding the No. 1 draft pick is a nice bargaining chip for that. The trouble is, this is what Tallon calls a “solid draft,” which is GM-speak for one not top-weighted with any sure-fire superstars.

Neither is the looming free-agency period especially well-stocked.

The Panthers’ new owner (since 2013) Vincent Viola has pledged to spend up to the NHL salary cap, but this may not be a great off-season to create a tidal wave, let alone a splash.

Still, it starts with a mind-set — win now — and Tallon seems to have arrived at that.

“We’ll listen to any deal to make us better,” he said of the No. 1 pick.

Tallon also conceded, “Maybe it’s time to package some of our youth in a deal.”

I asked what he meant. Here’s what he meant:

If the Panthers were to make defenseman Aaron Ekblad the No. 1 pick on Friday, as most mock drafts suggest, he would be the team’s 12th defender who is 6-3 or taller.

“You can only dress six,” Tallon said. “Might be able to package one or two defensemen for a young forward, somebody who’ll be with us seven to 10 years. Maybe we can package assets to get that goal-scorer. We’ve been building the foundation. Now we’re deep enough.”

Now the Panthers need to start winning. Finally, and consistently.

They need to stop the new-coach introductions from being what seem like an annual occurrence.

They need to stop being the stars of draft day for the high picks that come with big losing.

“We need to start going forward,” Tallon said.

It’s been so true for so many years.

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