It's here. We're less than eight hours from the first puck drops of the 2011-2012 NHL season, and it can't come soon enough. Most of the Panthers fan community has been waiting for this day since at least last season's trade deadline. Dale Tallon had to blow up the team to rebuild it, but it was a painful last quarter of the season to watch. It was a big offseason for us. The Panthers' opening night roster contains only ten players who finished last season with the team. The remaining twelve are new to the team, if not the organization. There are two more returning players starting the season on injured reserve, but that doesn't change that almost half of this year's team was playing somewhere else last year and over half were playing somewhere else two seasons ago.
The off-season wasn't all good, though. The hockey community lost a lot of players and the Panthers weren't spared from the tragedy. Former Panther Wade Belak was one of a trio of enforcers that included Rick Rypien and Derek Boogaard who apparently died at their own hands, whether accidentally or intentionally. A few weeks after the last of these deaths, an entire team was wiped out when the plane carrying the KHL's Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to their first game crashed on takeoff. Among the deceased were former Panthers defensemen Ruslan Salei, Karlis Skrastins and Alexander Karpotsov and former NHL regulars Brad McCrimmon, Pavol Demitra and Josef Vasicek. As affected as the fans are, there are many players who lost good friends in the disaster, particularly Marion Gaborik and former Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun.
For most fans, this was the worst off-season ever, worse even than the lockout.
After two years of various bidders trying to buy the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes organization and the threat of relocation hanging over their heads, it was the hockey fans in Atlanta (yes, there are some) who surprisingly lost their team after the Glendale city council voted on funding to keep the Coyotes in the desert for another year. Almost as soon as the vote ended, True North in Winnipeg, Manitoba turned their eyes towards the Thrashers, who have been mismanaged as badly as the Panthers for their entire 10 year existence. Thrashers ownership dearly wanted out from under that team and took their opportunity while they had it.
I hold nothing against True North, who came by the team honestly, but the Thrashers ownership mishandled that team from the beginning. And many of the citizens of Winnipeg were less than respectful of the fans who just lost their team, forgetting perhaps how badly it stung when the Jets of old were moved to Arizona. One would think they of all people would be sympathetic, but in their excitement they grabbed on to the often Canadian idea that Canada "owns" hockey and that NHL teams don't "belong" in certain places or that the people in those places don't "deserve" a team. (Not that this second part is an exclusively Canadian idea, it's a fairly common belief in the northern United States as well).
But the beginning of the season is here and we have the games to temporarily take our minds off of these and other things that trouble us. You never know what you're going to get until the games are played. Once again, Panthers nation is hopeful, but we have more reason to be so this year than most. The Panthers may miss the playoffs and extend their record drought, but they may surprise a lot of people and make it. Even if they don't, it's going to be exciting watching this team come together. The results may not be what we want in the short term, but in the medium and long terms, Dale Tallon, Mike Santos and company have begun the long, arduous task of righting the ship of mismanagement. They have 10 years of poor decisions to erase and it's going to take more than one good off-season to do so.
But is it ever going to be fun to watch.
There are storylines in the rest of the league as well: Will the new Jets look like the same old Thrashers? How will Pete DeBoer's New Jersey Devils fare? Will the Brad Richards acquisition finally put the New York Rangers in position to make it out of the first round of the playoffs? Did the Flyers make the right decision in shipping Mike Richards and Jeff Carter away in favor of the solid goaltending they've needed for over a decade? Will Sidney Crosby be the same player when he returns from injury? Will the Penguins return to the Stanley Cup Final even if he doesn't? Will the Sharks ever make it to the Final?
Seriously, is it time for the puck drop yet?