Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Florida Panthers enter pivotal season for future of franchise

Florida Panthers owners Doug Cifu and Vinnie Viola said the franchise will remain in South Florida.
Florida Panthers owners Doug Cifu and Vinnie Viola said the franchise will remain in South Florida. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The Florida Panthers are upon their 21st NHL season. In human chronology that is supposed to be a magical, watershed year that signifies one is fully developed. Grown. Many veteran parents know better, of course, from experience. So do most South Florida hockey fans.

Sometimes growing up isn’t easy. It takes a little extra time. The Panthers are still trying to make their way, to find their way and, in many ways, this franchise, at 21, sees the Cats at a crossroads.

Ice hockey in the subtropics was quite a revolutionary concept in the early 1990s. A “nontraditional” market, they called it. Well, the idea has neither melted away nor flourished. The Panthers are in between, still fighting.

The responsibility and challenge on a team and a fan base to step up is laced with urgency now. Both have much to prove.

The team has struggled for years to win and support has eroded, the deadly combination leading the club’s new ownership, in its one year, to assure season-ticket holders in a recent letter that rumors and speculation about the team relocating were not true.

Funny enough, or not, that speculation had barely made a ripple locally, because the Panthers have nearly fallen off the radar in their own backyard. Nationally, though, the hockey literati had identified Florida as vulnerable team, ripe for poaching. Part-owner Doug Cifu fed the speculation in August when he said, “The current business model is not sustainable.” New arenas being built in Las Vegas and Quebec City and looking for tenants also fed the rumor mill.

Majority owner Vincent Viola and Cifu aimed to calm concerns with that letter but, clearly, as Cifu said, “We have to earn the trust back in the community.”

The Panthers, Miami-born but skating in Sunrise since 1998, have a lease with Broward County that lasts through 2028 but are attempting to negotiate changes in it that would include eliminating a $4.6million annual bond payment. For its part, Broward County hired a consultant to gauge the financial impact if the Panthers departed. In any case, you know what they say about contracts. It is hard to imagine the club’s local future as solid or indefinite unless the winning starts soon and increased interest follows.

We’ve been spoiled early down here. The Dolphins won a Super Bowl in their seventh season, and the Marlins a World Series in their fifth. The Panthers reached the Stanley Cup Finals in their third season, in 1996. The difference is, football and baseball have a broader natural audience here. And the Panthers have done very little since those halcyon days when rubber rats slapped onto the ice — almost 20 years ago now.

Florida has not won an NHL playoff series since; only the New York Islanders (1993) have gone longer since their most recent postseason series advance. And the Cats have not won more games than they lost since the 1999-2000 season; no team’s drought is longer.

No surprise, then, attendance bottomed out at 29th in a 30-team league last season, the 14,177 average amounting to only about 73 percent capacity — and even that was misleading. Paid attendance was a fraction of that because previous administrations made a habit of papering crowds with free and heavily discounted tickets, angering season-ticket holders who were paying full fare.

“An operational mistake,” Cifu called it.

The freebies for sponsors, employees and others have been eliminated. Starting this season Panthers attendance will be legitimate but likely significantly lower because of it. The team’s two home preseason games drew only about 2,800 fans each. Even Saturday night’s regular-season home opener against New Jersey might be far from a sellout.

I found it curious and that Viola and Cifu volunteered to reporters about expectations for significantly smaller crowds. It sounded like a dubious exercise in self-fulfilling prophecy. It also invited a certain cynicism about those reassuring letters to fans. If a team owner was to explore relocating to another city at some point, wouldn’t bad attendance reflecting lack of support be a major justification?

That’s why I said earlier that the onus is on the team and fan base together to make this work.

Winning is the surest cure.

Also, for this franchise, the most elusive.

Instability has littered the club’s time line without relief.

Viola heads the fifth different ownership group. Dale Tallon, roster architect since 2010, is the ninth different general manager. Gerard Gallant, hired in June, is the 13th different coach, including interim guys. No coach has lasted longer than three years.

Again, winning tends to cure such instability, as well as attendance, but for Panthers fans — as for Dolphins fans — winning seems to be an annual promise forever delayed.

There are signs of optimism (again). But there also was an 0-6 preseason record raining on excitement and buzz and whispering, “Same old Panthers” in our collective ear.

Despite that, Cats fans desperate for optimism have their ammunition:

▪ Ownership: Viola this year cracked Forbes’s list of the 400 richest Americans with a net worth of $1.76 billion. That does not put him in the company of Heat owner Micky Arison ($6.5 billion) or the Dolphins’ Stephen Ross ($6 billion), but it makes him the deepest-pocketed Panthers owner since founding father Wayne Huizenga. Florida’s $66 million payroll this season is mid-pack in the league, not penurious. Viola has the wherewithal to be a positive Panthers owner, if he wishes.

▪ GM: Tallon, into his fifth season, lends stability and bears a credible hockey résumé that includes having helped build a Stanley Cup champion in Chicago.

▪ Coaching: We know for sure Gallant has the perfect surname for a coach riding in on a white steed to rescue a team. We don’t yet know if he will do so. But at least we know he has prior NHL head-coaching experience, which none of his three immediate predecessors did. Gallant is the first Florida coach hire with that experience since Jacques Martin in 2005.

▪ Team: Cats are seen as an ascending team that could be in the playoff chase in a wide-open Eastern Conference if a few ifs fall in line, starting with goaltender Roberto Luongo enjoying a rebirth at age 35. Tallon imported pedigreed veterans such as Willie Mitchell, Dave Bolland, Shawn Thornton and Jussi Jokinen to blend with rising young stars like Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Erik Gudbranson and top rookie Aaron Ekblad.

Florida has solid goaltending and defense (anchored by Brian Campbell) and a nice mix of veterans and rising young talent. But Florida also still lacks offensive punch, let alone a scoring star to conjure memories of Pavel Bure, and could be a year away from playoff-caliber.

Here’s another truism about the Panthers, and it is the one that overshadows everything:

No NHL franchise is more desperate to put a winning team on the ice and to see its fans respond.

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