At the midpoint of the season, the Panthers are in a familiar place: 11th in the Eastern Conference with 40 points. At the halfway point last year, following a New Year's Eve loss to the Canadiens, the Panthers had 39 points and a tough road ahead. Nonetheless, there are several key differences between this season and last: the ownership and management situation, the roster situation, the Panthers' overall performance and the schedule. When looked at as a whole, the Panthers' situation is better than it has been in a long time, giving fans some reason for optimism.
Last season was the first in a long time not under the watch of owner Alan Cohen, as operation of the club was taken over by a pair of previously minority partners: Cliff Viner and Stu Siegel. Both Viner and Siegel made themselves available to fans and pledged to make the Panthers a winning organization again. At the time of the change, General Manager Jacques Martin had already bolted for the Montreal Canadiens head coaching job and Assistant General Manager Randy Sexton named Interim GM. After an apparently unsuccessful search for a replacement, the interim tag was removed but only for the remaining year on Sexton's contract. The club's summer moves mostly consisted of trading the rights to Jay Bouwmeester to Calgary for the rights to Jordan Leopold, picking Dmitry Kulikov in the first round at the draft and getting him out of his KHL contract and signing a number of free agents to one year contracts (Leopold, Dominic Moore and Dennis Seidenberg) as well as defenseman Ville Koistinen. Koistinen had been sold to the fans as a great acquisition, with Sexton saying he was "right at the top of our list" of prospective free agents. By the midway point, Viner and Siegel promised "changes" but with a long-term focus the club had previously lacked, asking the fan base to not judge until the changes were complete. Koistinen had been waived and sent to Rochester after playing 17 games for the club and David Booth, newly signed to a four-year deal, had been out for two months with a concussion after a vicious hit by Flyers captain Mike Richards. By the trade deadline, Sexton hit the panic button and traded most of the players he'd signed to those one-year deals along with a few prospects. Koistinen was bought out in the summer.
This season, Viner took over as sole owner and Sexton was replaced with former Blackhawks General Manager Dale Tallon. Tallon brought on Mike Santos as Assistant General Manager. Tallon started the off-season by asking all of the players if they wanted to play for the Panthers. Nathan Horton said no and was immediately shipped off to Boston with Gregory Campbell in exchange for defenseman Dennis Wideman and the Bruins' first round pick, plus a third-round pick in 2011. Wideman made Keith Ballard expendable and he was traded along with Victor Oreskovich for forward Steve Bernier, prospect Michael Grabner and the Canucks' first-round draft pick. Tallon would also add a number of picks at the draft, ending up with twelve, including three each in the first and second rounds. He also picked up two free agents: former Montreal Canadien and New York Rangers forward Chris Higgins along with defenseman Mike Weaver. In what appeared to be a stumble out of the gate, first round pick Erik Gudbranson was sent back to juniors after apparently making the Panthers out of training camp when management and his agent couldn't agree on a contract. Tallon promised more changes, accountability and the long-term goal of winning the Stanley Cup over the previous managers' yearly attempts to just make the playoffs. Highly touted prospect Michael Grabner was outplayed in training camp by former Predators prospect Mike Santorelli and was picked up from waivers by the New York Islanders just prior to the start of the season. Soon after, veteran forward Steve Reinprecht lost his spot on the second line to Santorelli and watched the first few games of the season from the press box.
At the midway point, Reinprecht has been loaned to a German league club and presumably will have the final year of his contract bought out in the summer, Santorelli is one of the team's leading scorers and Gudbranson was the highest scoring defenseman on Canada's Gold medal winning team at the World Junior Championships. Chris Higgins, while still not on his 20-plus goal scoring form of a few years ago, has equaled his last season total of 8 with 41 games to go.
More changes are in store. Most of the team, including starting goaltender Tomas Vokoun and captain Bryan McCabe, are restricted or unrestricted free agents after this season and Tallon has publicly stated that the players will let him know if they want to stay. The whole team is auditioning for next year, be it with the Panthers or another club and for that reason alone, the likelihood of the players tanking the season again is small. All forwards save Booth, Stephen Weiss and Rostislav Olesz have contracts that expire this year while most of the defense have one more season left on their current contracts. Tallon has made it clear that he is not afraid to make moves, he is committed to filling the roster with players with character and he is not interested in the team losing games for a better draft position, so major roster changes can be expected should the Panthers fall too far in the standings. For the first time in many years, the Panthers have a good number of prospects is the farm system challenging veterans for roster spots and playing time and should the current crop be deemed unsuitable, a lot of them will be traded at the deadline with more likely gone after the season, whether through trades, buyouts or just letting untradeable free agents walk away.
This season, as with the previous two under coach Pete DeBoer, has seen the Panthers once again unable to put together more than three wins in a row. However, this season the team has not had the losing streaks of previous teams. By the halfway point last season, the Panthers had put together a three-game losing streak, three four-game losing streaks, and a five-game losing streak. This season, the Panthers have lost three in a row twice. Once during a Thanksgiving week homestand and last week in three divisional games. The Panthers, although they still have some trouble holding leads, have kept games close. Last season, ten of their eighteen losses (55%) were by three goals or more. This season, only 6 of 20 losses (30%) were by three or more goals. Last season at the midway point the team had seven overtime losses in thirteen overtime games, but are have five wins in only seven overtime games this season. Additionally, the Panthers have lost as many games on bad calls as they have by lack of effort. Several one goal games were decided on either dicey goals that should have been reviewed or called differently or on non-goals that should have been reviewed, while the biggest contributor to the Panthers' lack of wins this season is a league-worst power play. While this is cause for serious concern, it is not as serious as last year's large number of losses based on lack of effort or a complete team collapse after taking an early lead.
While all of this except for the power play performance is good as far as the development of the team and stepping stones for long-term improvement, what does this all mean for the short-term prospects? Fans are beyond angry about the playoff drought and no one in the club wants to set a new record, which is a danger this season. The logistics of the schedule this season are such that the Panthers are the only squad in their position in the standings with a real chance to make the playoffs. Sports Club Stats currently has the Panthers with a 27.7% chance to make the playoffs. This is not ideal, but when one considers that every other team with less than 47 points has less than a 10% chance, it is something. The next two in line in the Eastern Conference are division rivals Atlanta and Carolina.
The Panthers are at the bottom of the Southeast Division by 8 points in a year that the division looks to send three or more teams to playoffs. A weak Northeastern Division combined with two atrocious Atlantic Division teams in the New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils have put three Southeast Division teams in a playoff spot, with Carolina three points out, behind Atlanta and Montreal. The Panthers have a winning record (7-6-0) in the division and though they have spotted three teams an overtime point, they have won every overtime divisional game they've played. Where the Panthers have made it difficult for themselves is their losing records against the two teams directly in front of them in the division. A win to tie the season series with Carolina and continued good play against the rest of the division will help the Panthers make a second-half push towards the playoffs. With games in hand on most of the conference, the Panthers also have a little more room than it might otherwise appear. They're 11 points out of a spot now, but have four games in hand on the eighth place team (Atlanta) and three on the seventh place team (Montreal). The team also played a lot of road games in the first half. Long homestands in January (6 games), February (5 games) and March (7 games) along with plenty of games against struggling teams like the Devils, Islanders, Maple Leafs and Senators give the Panthers the opportunity for a playoff push in the second half.
The question, as always, is what will they do with that opportunity?