With a 32-37-13 record, the Florida Panthers finished third-last in the NHL this season. (Photo by Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Florida Panthers were an early expansion success story. Three years into its existence, Florida shocked everyone by making it to the Stanley Cup final. They weren’t a powerhouse by any means, led in scoring by Scott Mellanby at 70 points, with Rob Niedermayer (61) and Robert Svehla (57) the next two in line.
It was the Year of the Rat in the Chinese Zodiac. Tenacious, hard-working and industrious are a few of the characteristics of this sign and they can fittingly be attributed to that Panthers team as well.
The team’s 1996 home-opener provided a little foreshadowing. After the pre-game warmup, the Panthers returned to their dressing room when a rat darted in, causing a little panic and resulting in a defining point of the team’s season.
“Guys started kicking at it and some jumped up on the benches and I was just standing there; it was on the other side of the room,” Mellanby remembered. “All of a sudden it just stopped and made a bee-line towards me. And as it got to me, really out of self defense more than anything – and probably fear – I just one-timed it. Probably the best one-timer of my career, because I certainly wasn’t going to rival Brett Hull for one-timing the puck.”
Mellanby scored two goals that night and afterwards goalie John Vanbiesbrouck credited him with a ‘Rat Trick’ and the momentum built from there. And it’s actually kind of eerie that Mellanby already had a connection with these rodents from when he first moved to the peninsula.
“My wife and I got married just before our first year in Florida in ’93 and I lived in a house in Boca Raton, which apparently means mouse mouth,” Mellanby laughed. “And we rented a place from a guy in Boca Raton and two months into it we had rats in our attic and (my wife) was scared to death and she was pregnant so we actually called the guy to get out of the lease. So talk about foreshadowing.”
Everything was falling into place for the franchise that started with three pretty successful seasons. The Panthers had missed the playoffs by a single point in each of their first two campaigns before going on the 1996 run of destiny. It seemed like they were going to be the model expansion franchise from their year, as the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim left a lot to be desired.
Fast forward 14 years and we are in the Year of the Tiger. Characterized as unpredictable, reckless and impatient, the current Panthers organization plucks all the negative connotations from the cat connection and provides many examples of how not to build a franchise, while the Ducks sit with a Stanley Cup banner.
After picking Rob Niedermayer, Ed Jovanovski, Radek Dvorak and Marcus Nilsson in the first round of the draft from 1993 to ‘96, the Panthers didn’t pick another first-rounder who became a reliable NHL player until Stephen Weiss went fourth overall in 2001. Florida had eight first round picks from 2001 to ‘05: Weiss, Lukas Krajicek, Jay Bouwmeester, Petr Taticek, Nathan Horton, Anthony Stewart, Rostislav Olesz and Kenndal McArdle.
Five of those eight picks were in the top 10, two of them are currently central pieces on the Florida roster and none who have left were traded for anything substantial. The Panthers are a prime example of how being a bad team for an extended period doesn’t mean you’re a lock to recover through favorable draft positions, especially if you don’t manage your assets properly.
We’ve seen Mike Keenan get promoted from coach to GM after two-plus seasons of utter failure. His legacy with the Panthers is the Roberto Luongo trade, which didn’t make sense at the time and looks foolish today. While Bryan Allen is still around from the trade, none of the other pieces lasted more than one season in Florida.
A major problem the Panthers have faced in trying to climb back to respectability has been a lack of stability and Monday marked the latest change when former Chicago GM Dale Tallon was hired to replace Randy Sexton. Tallon is the Panthers’ third GM since last June and the seventh since 2000, the last time the team made the post-season.
In Tallon, Florida gets the GM who drafted Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, and also shrewdly traded for Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg. Tallon turned the Blackhawks from post-season outsiders to a playoff favorite before being fired in favor of Stan Bowman this past summer, due in part to the fact paperwork was mishandled in dealing with RFAs Versteeg and Cam Barker.
Of course, a big reason Tallon was able to turn that trick in Chicago was because ownership awoke from its slumber and aggressively pursued championship goals; without this change in philosophy, it’s unlikely Tallon would have been as successful. Panthers ownership isn’t trying to ice poor teams, but clearly doesn’t ‘get it’ when it comes to what it takes to win.
Sexton had done a lot of good things in his short time with Florida, signing a couple key pieces and moving out depth players for decent draft picks. But it never felt like he was given a chance to build anything and it seemed ownership was counting down his days from the moment he was named GM.
With the third overall pick at this year’s draft, the Panthers are once again building from the bottom rung and can’t afford to keep whiffing on these opportunities. Tallon’s resume shows he’s got the pedigree to build this team up, so long as it doesn’t tear him down first. He has to be given the keys and the freedom to drive the bus for at least a few years and see what happens.
Next year is the Year of the Rabbit. Cautious, thorough and lucky; or moody, detached and stubborn: How will the Panthers define themselves in 2011 and beyond?
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