Greg Cote

Now or never for Florida Panthers to finally stop wasting the prime of Aleksander Barkov | Opinion

It has been something of a running joke in South Florida sports. “This is the Florida Panthers’ year.” Yes, so this feels like about the fifth anniversary of hearing that, right? Every year it’s “but this time we mean it!” And then the NHL season starts and gradually the hyped-up Cats lose air as inexorably as a helium party balloon.

High hopes, ultimate disappointment, rinse, repeat.

Nobody is more sick of this treadmill than Dale Tallon, the Panthers’ general manager.

“Talk is cheap, so let’s see. Let’s stop talking and start acting,” was Tallon’s message to his 2019-20 team as it assembled for training camp. “We’ve got the pieces in place. Everybody is excited. ‘Great summer, great summer.’ Now let’s prove it!”

The proving needs to start as fast as a puck leaves a stick for a franchise more accustomed to slow starts. Florida opens its 26th season Thursday night in Tampa Bay and makes its home debut Saturday vs. the same Lightning — owners of the NHL’s best record (by a lot) last season.

Tallon’s great summer co-starred the hiring of a new head coach in Joel Quenneville and the free agent signing of a new goaltender in Sergei Bobrovsky, a starpower quiniela not to be understated.

Quenneville — “Q” to all who know him — is merely the second-winningest coach in NHL history, a three-time Stanley Cup champion with Chicago in 2010, ‘13 and ‘15. Don Shula did not have such a coaching resume when he arrived in Miami with the Dolphins. Only Pat Riley, of the Lakers titles, did when he joined the Heat in 1995.

Bobrovsky is a five-time all-star and twice has won the Vezina Trophy as hockey’s best goalie. Defense was the Cats’ problem last season, and Bobrovsky will be a fundamental upgrade over Roberto Luongo, the franchise icon who was much-loved but, at age 40, more than ready for retirement.

Tallon failed to land a third offseason target, scorer Artemi Panarin, who signed with the New York Rangers. Still, adding a proven, championship-pedigreed coach and an elite goalie made Florida’s summer a blockbuster.

They join an existing nucleus led by budding superstar Aleksander Barkov, 24, and fellow center Jonathan Huberdeau, 26. Defenseman Keith Yandle calls Barkov “one of the best players if not the best player in the world.” Though just entering their prime, Barkov and Huberdeau are entering their seventh and eighth seasons with Florida. That’s about how long this franchise has been poised for a breakthrough yet to happen.

I recall Dolphins owner Joe Robbie in the late ‘80s lamenting about “wasting the Marino years.” The Panthers are in danger of wasting the Barkov years. He is the best at what he does of any athlete Miami has right now. By a lot.

Despite local optimism this season might finally be different, the Cats bandwagon still has plenty of open space, alas, at least nationally. As an example Florida is rated a mid-pack No. 16 in ESPN’s latest NHL power rankings, and its 22-1 Stanley Cup odds are tied for 10th.

Some of that surely reflects a franchise that has mostly disappointed, both recently and historically. The Panthers’ halcyon days are more than 20 years past — that magical skate to the 1996 Stanley Cup Finals, the time of rubber rats on the ice and “The Beezer.”

And that wold be the last time Florida would advance in the postseason. The Cats have made the playoffs only four times since (last in 2016), losing in the first round each time.

Perspective is needed to underline how long Panthers fans have been waiting for a team that not only made the playoffs but won in them.

There are 123 teams in NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL combined. Only six of those 123 teams have fan bases that have waited longer to win in the playoffs than Cats fans. Those teams are Bengals, Lions, Browns and Bills in football, and the Prates and Reds in baseball. That’s the misery-loves-company Florida is trying to escape.

Enter Quenneville, the 61-year-old drill sergeant with the white pushbroom mustache, and Bobrovsky, the 31-year-old Russian puck stopper. The pair has “energized the team,” Tallon says.

Florida’s problem was not scoring last season. The power play was strong, and the Cats ranked ninth of 31 teams in goals scored. But only three teams gave up more goals.

That’s why Bobrovsky was a free agent priority, and why Quenneville has emphasized puck-handling to limit turnovers, playing without the puck. The coach raves about his new netminder.

“You’ve got to love the way he competes and prepares himself,” Quenneville says. “He’s as competitive a goalie as you’re going to find. He’s excited about being here. He wants to make a difference.”

The Panthers are flat-out of excuses. This must be the year.

Are all of the pieces in place? “Definitely. Finally,” says Tallon.

Did the team’s offseason meet expectations? “I think we exceeded them,” answers the GM.

Can this be a top-four playoff seed that has home-ice advantage and makes a run at the Stanley Cup? “Yes,” Tallon says, quickly. “My expectations are very high. You don’t want to just sneak in. You want to get in with momentum like a snowball down the mountain.”

I believe the Panthers are closer to a championship parade than any of South Florida’s big teams who’ve all had those. Closer than the Heat, the starting-over Dolphins or Marlins, and the football Hurricanes.

Again, though, we have been here before, surrounded by the highest hopes when the puck drops.

So, last word to Dale Tallon: “Now let’s prove it.”