In two weeks the Florida Panthers have made huge strides toward a much brighter future; two weeks that resulted in the drafting of 10 prospects, 3 trades and 8 major free agent signings, but make no mistake: the Panthers are still a rebuilding team. A long summer awaits the commencement of the 2011-12 season and a lot of questions need to be answered, but until the onset of training camp there is still business at hand that needs to be dealt with. Much of the Panthers sphere of fans, reporters and management are buzzing with prospect of a winning season, and optimism is building for the team to finally make the postseason once again. Yes, rebuilding teams can win and can make the playoffs, but the idea behind a rebuild is sustain the winning ways; a process that can't be done only through free agent signings. The Florida Panthers still have a lot left to do before next season starts.
Poll and more after the jump...
Dale Tallon and Mike Santos had laid much of the foundation for the Panthers success during the first season after assuming their duties, and much has been done so far this summer. The progression to a competitive, contending team is far from being complete, but Tallon is taking the right direction in the draft and through free agency (say what you will about his signings). What's left for the Panthers to do is to attend to the other facets and qualities of a successful organization this offseason and into next season.
Don't underestimate the importance of the men behind the benches, in most instances a group of players is only as good as the coaching staff who initiates the chemistry between them. Even Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos need coaches who can push them to achieve greater goals, and holdovers from last year could really benefit from a new head coach and offense coach. What GM Dale Tallon has amassed with the hiring of Gord Murphy, Kevin Dineen and most recently Craig Ramsay is the (although unproven except for Gord) equivalent of a coaching jackpot. A rebuilding team doesn't have to fire the entire coaching staff to be successful, but it certainly helps when a general manager can bring in guys who can coach a team in the right direction, and to make these changes relatively quickly. Former coach Peter DeBoer deserved the benefit of the doubt to keep him aboard for one season, but it was clearly time for a different man. As of today, the coaching aspect of the Panthers rebuild is complete.
With all sorts of new line combination and endless options for the coaching staff, the Panthers cannot maintain the identity of a weak offensive, strong defensive team. With the new additions to the team, the coaching staff can hopefully assume the nature of variation. When the Panthers are playing a weak offensive team, defense can be relaxed and the offense can be given the opportunity to strike at will. When the Panthers play a strong offensive team, the defense can tighten up and the offense must backcheck and capitalize on whatever chances they get. When playing a team that is simply better than the Panthers, the key is effort and grit. Winning teams have to play two styles of hockey, and elite teams can shift between these styles within the same play. Florida no longer has to be the one trick pony we've seen in recent years.
The change in coaching philosophies must be accompanied with a change in general philosophies, the organization has to demonstrate that they can "walk the walk" instead of "talk the talk". The trade for Brian Campbell created a domino effect on July 1st that brought in some of this year's top free agents, and as the players signed the dotted line, Florida enjoyed a swell of credibility. Although the Panthers finished 15th in the Eastern Conference and 28th overall, Scottie Upshall may have spoken for all of the UFAs when he said, "My agent had a lot of calls, but Florida just made a lot of sense...I really believe in what [the Panthers are] doing." Now that is an example of walking the walk when you can bring in a defenseman like Campbell and end up signing Tomas Kopecky, Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann and a whole slew of others because of it. No, Florida isn't exactly a hockey 'destination', but that designation is slowly working itself south to Sunrise.
The way I see it, the Panthers have a lot more left to develop than just credibility, the team still has a relationship to build with the San Antonio Rampage, rivalries to strengthen within the Southeast division and beyond, and of course prospects to develop when they are ready to play in the AHL or even with the Panthers themselves. Since most of the Panthers' drafted players hail from the CHL, they cannot play in the AHL until they are 20 years old, so for players like Erik Gudbranson, Quinton Howden and Rocco Grimaldi, San Antonio will have to wait. Until then, the Panthers can still build a good relationship with their Texas affiliate (an integral piece to the Cat's rebuild is to please their affiliates and forge a talent pipeline through the AHL) using Jacob Markstrom, Scott Timmins and Michal Repik until other players come along. As far as strengthening rivalries, the Panthers may have raised some eyebrows with the Washington Capitals after swiping away their precious Matt Bradley as well as signing recent Capitals Fleischmann and Jose Theodore. Of course the rivalry is still there with the Lightning, and the NHL schedulers must be trying to start something with two games last season against the Chicago Blackhawks and two games against them in the upcoming season. A rivalry can give a team that extra motivation to win and is certainly welcomed by both fans and players alike.
As long as the Panthers club is rebuilding the team, they might as well try to rebuild the team's attendance figures. We all know that winning is the best way to bring in fans, but for a team trying to claw a niche into the Miami-Fort Lauderdale sports market, the impending lockouts of the NBA and NFL should be exploited to bring fans to the BankAtlantic Center. The way in which the club takes advantage of this possible occurrence may be a slippery slope, but it is a golden opportunity for hockey to grow in South Florida.
Remember that this second season comes with no guarantees, the Panthers could finish last in the league or they could make a playoff run. The uncertainty of a new season can bring out the optimist in everyone, especially after an offseason like the Panthers'. Remember, the goal was never to just make the playoffs, the goal was to win the Stanley Cup. The second year of a rebuild doesn't always have to include losing, but it should include whatever steps needed to make the organization better, whether it be through signing promising players, hiring a new coaching staff or reaching out to fans.