LBC Roundtable: Looking Back at 2014

The Litter Box crew gathers to toast the best and not-so-best of the past year.

We start this edition of the LBC Roundtable with a simple show of hands (at our secret Everglades hunting shack bunker) as to how many people remember finishing 29th in the league last season....and of course we all do, because it makes where we sit here - in the earliest days of 2015 - that much sweeter and more enjoyable. "Looks like we made it," to quote one of the greats. None of us take pleasure out of watching Edmonton's struggles, we have been there for far too long ourselves, and we sympathize (we could easily even return there the second half of this season), but it feels good to be the franchise that may have finally escaped that lottery pick fate. Very few of the greater North American hockey press has recognized the turn-around here in Sunrise, or the stellar management Dale Tallon has provided (especially when compared with a host of Oilers GMs), but that's o.k.-- that's why you come to LBC. So, here then, is the LBC roundtable discussion reviewing the year 2014, with it's highs and lows, and promises for the future. Any entries that seem a bit off, just blame the spiked nog from a week ago:

Start with the bad: worst part of 2014 as a Panther fan was:

JC: It would be easy to say the 29th place finish, with all the attendant embarrassment that brings with it, but there was a true silver lining to that cloud in the form of Aaron Ekblad. This leaves me with the attendance issues in several games, or the loss to New Jersey in the home opener. I am going with the New Jersey loss. To take whatever energy was left from last season, from the draft, from the pre-season (and this was really a crawl to the finish line type energy already) and open in front of 11,000 die hards with a 5-1 humiliating loss to a smug DeBoer and company was the lowest I have felt all season.

Kevin: The end of last season was nothing to write home about, but that pales in comparison when I'm forced to defend this team's attendance woes. People call into question the existence of "die-hard" Panthers fans - and clearly, this blog is loaded down with them. Still, it's hard to argue with the fact that Florida has the 30th most-filled arena, both in total quantity and in average quantity. Add to that fact, most of the time, a large portion of the crowd is populated by out-of-towners. I mean, the total figure is less than half that of 11 other teams. On October 13th, only 7,311 fans packed the rink when the Ottawa Senators came to town. I honestly believe that success will breed increased box office sales, but in the meantime we're stuck with bad figures and labelled with this notorious distinction.

Shane O: Having to listen to the trade rumors that surrounded the Panthers after we won the draft lottery. Aaron Ekblad's Barrie Colts team was so pathetically devoid of talent that it was estimated by a number of OHL scouts that he played 33-37 minutes a night. That's absolutely insane, especially when it's considered that he did almost all of it in a defensive role. People were concerned about his offensive production, but his apparent lack of it in juniors was a result of his team and usage, not his own skill. I was terrified that we would give that type of player up, even if the return was big. I'm glad we didn't.

Francisco: I'm going to go with that stretch of games between March 27 and April 4, which saw the Panthers in another long losing streak. It was just the culmination of everything that was terrible about last season. A team that was completely inept and just trying to finish the miserable year just so we could all stop suffering. That was the saddest twentieth anniversary celebration in sports history, especially in comparison to the Ducks who skated circles around the Panthers in celebrating their club.

Todd: This may sound funny, but I'm going to go with the winless exhibition season. I know those games don't count, but after an exciting offseason that saw the club hold on to the number one overall pick, securing Ekblad, and show a willingness to spend big money to add some nice pieces during free agency, the dread-inducing preseason sucked away a big chunk of that momentum, giving fans and the media that feeling of "oh no, here we go again." Combine that with the no more freebies policy and the ugly home-opening loss to the Devils, and you go a long way towards explaining the early season attendance woes. Things would have been bad, but not as shockingly bad, in my opinion, if the Cats would have showed something during the exhibition slate.

Donny: There was a lot to choose from between January and May of 2014, but I'm going to roll with Florida's Free Agency performance on July 1. Now, please hear me out as this is simply a case of my own feelings at the time: Dave Bolland? Willie Mitchell? Derek MacWho? These dudes were The Answer to what ills the Cats? Took an entire summer - and a good portion of the season in Bolland's case due to injury - to see the logic but yes, there were the answer, at least to this point at their positions. Each has brought a different spice to the entree; Mitchell has been a superb captain who refuses to hide behind excuses, MacKenzie - much missed in 'Lumbus - is a gritty and tireless defensive forward, while Bolland continues to crash the net, providing opportunities up front. Not planning the proverbial parade route but these three are far better as part of the collective than their individual stats would indicate. Being direct, I didn't expect much from any of them, which made for a long summer.

Best moment of 2014 as a Panther fan was:

JC: There have been a lot of very enjoyable moments this season to choose from, including the fact that we are sitting in a playoff spot- or around one- at the time of this discussion. But for me the best moment was November 1, watching Aaron Ekblad get his first career goal. To see his energy and joy, and the team's genuine outpouring of happiness for him was really very special.

Francisco: Luongo's first game back with Florida on March 7. I attended that game and the outpouring of love and the shutout performance by Luongo made that night the lone bright spot (on the ice) in what was a miserable season 2013-14. Luongo wanted to be here and we wanted him to be here.

Kevin: I hate to give such an insular answer, but I've spent the last 12 months repairing and rebooting the Calgary Flames blog, Matchsticks and Gasoline. My favorite moment as a Panther fan was when SB Nation's main NHL blogger, Travis Hughes, asked me if he thought my co-manager (the inimitable Ms. Ari Yanover) was ready to take the reins full time. I was truly late for the door - I emailed Donny and was back writing for LBC within the hour. Definitely ranked highly as far as being a Panthers fan. I'm super stoked to be back here, and Florida hasn't disappointed so far.

As far as being a part of the viewing public, my favorite moment was my first game back, when the Panthers scored five times in elimination situations against Washington, then Nick Bjugstad deked Braden Holtby out of his skates for the game winner in the 20th round of the shootout. The score was just 2-1, but that game was just - symbolic of something larger than one game in the standings.

Todd: From an off-ice perspective, the Panthers being the center of attention at the draft was a really nice change. From a personal perspective, being in the building, representing LBC, for the NHL record shootout win over Washington was pretty cool. I also loved that third period comeback against the Maple Leafs. Brushing aside a two-goal deficit to a team you are trying to run down for a playoff spot proved to me beyond a doubt that the Panthers mean business this season.

Donny: Winning the Draft Lottery. Take Ekblad - an 18 year-old defenseman - out of the equation during this current season and you instantly remove 5 goals and 16 assists from a club desperately searching for offense. I really believed Tallon, Inc. would deal the pick but The Architect held firm, taking on a "prospect" which would force the world to see him as nothing less than a formidable and legitimate NHLer by November 1. The recent 20-round shootout victory over Washington was pretty darned pleasing as a runner-up; Caps scored, Florida answered back, wash-rinse-repeat, until Bjugstad decided he'd seen enough. You could feel the confidence.

Best Personnel subtraction of 2014 as a Panther fan was:

JC: O.k., how many people beside myself went back on this question to see when Versteeg got traded? Any player whose name is now an adjective for describing lazy, uncommitted, one-way play, with destructive attitude to go along with it should have this award forever named for him (and "yes" I know he is once again producing, but please people, Fleischmann would have 15 goals playing with Patty Kane). But alas, Versteeg was traded in December 2013. So, it pains me to say this, but it has to be Ed Jovanovski. I love Jovo and want him affiliated with this team forever, but it was painfully obvious that the game had left him behind. It is also clear that for whatever reason, Willie Mitchell is a better (or at least more) effective locker room leader than Ed was. It was a difficult thing for Tallon to have to do, but it was the right move to buy out his contract. Jovo stayed on for too long.

Shane O: I can't believe JC didn't say it, but Yormark. Sure, he wasn't on the roster, but his horrible policies with fans killed attendance and ruined whatever feelings the community had for the team. Good riddance to him.

Francisco: With most everyone focused on who I refer to as "he who shall not be named", I'm going to go with Craig Slaunwhite, former strength and conditioning coach of the club. The Panthers from the 2010 season to the 2014 season ranked 11, 10, 7, 1, and 11 in man-games lost. But that was just what was reported by the team. If anybody knows anything about the Panthers when "he who shall not be named" was team president, it is to not take the Panthers at their word. It seemed like players were dropping like flies and if they weren't, then they were playing with injuries when they should have been sitting out. The Cats were not physically ready for the rigors of the NHL and I had always pointed to Slaunwhite and company as the reason why.

Kevin: I was going for Jovanovski but then noticed JC said it already, so I'm going to say Krys Barch. God love him, he tried, and he's a great interview, but who's got room for an aging forward who plays five minutes per night and contributes nothing offensively. Don't get me wrong, I'm not one of these fans that say "fighting should be outlawed," but the times, they are a-changing. Giving a roster spot to an enforcer-type has gone the way of the dodo. Now what do we have? Usually 18 players who all skate more than 10 minutes per game.

Todd: I'll stick to the roster, I was happiest to see Jovanovski say goodbye. Nothing against him as player and I have a loads of respect for what he did in his career, but I was never onboard with bringing him back. Too much money, too many years, too many things that could go wrong, too little return.

Donny: Being the last to contribute here (as usual) I have the advantage of seeing what others have posted before me. Agree with everything stated so far, but saying nothing more would be a cop-out so I'll single (double?) out the Yormark and Jovanovski deletions. To the former, no better front office move could have been foreseen by season seat owners. His business decisions were pure poison to fans (and a few big-dollar advertisers, I'm told); losing Yormark may have been the tipping point for many current and previous SSO to renew despite the immediate on-ice future being a muddied collection of hopes. That said, I credit the man for keeping the Panthers a viable commodity in South Florida during a very dark period, and he deserves to be recognized for his efforts. To the latter, buying out Jovo was a brutal decision upstairs. No one wanted it to end in such a fashion, but management had to do what was best for the team, and it did. We lovingly mocked him as "Captain Poolside" for a Fox Sports Florida 'Inside The Panthers' episode which was run seemingly on an endless loop throughout 2013-14, but the man should be heralded as a hero for going above and beyond the call of duty in his comeback attempt. JovoCop should be the first Panther to have his number retired, ASAP.

Best Personnel addition of 2014 as a Panther fan was:

JC: If this was a multiple choice exam I would freeze up and fail right here. So many to choose from that are doing great, from Ekblad to MacKenzie. But there is really only one correct answer (despite all the additions contributing) and that is Roberto Luongo. We at the LBC can pat ourselves on the back with this one, because all the writers here predicted that Bobby Lu would be the most important change and have the most impact on turning this team around, and he has. The fact that we got him for practically nothing (Shawn Matthias could have been one of our best subtractions as he is never going to be all fans wanted or expected him to be) just makes it that much better. The long term contract? Well if there is one place in our farm system where the cupboard is looking bare its at goalie, so the longer the better. Lu has been spectacular, and a great teammate, and hilarious tweeter.

Shane O: Brian MacDonald, by far. I've noticed the influence of advanced stats in Gerard Gallant's personnel decisions over the course of the season (sheltering the Bjugstad line, putting Upshall and Kopecky with Mackenzie, pairing Ekblad with Campbell) that have helped the team. I would love to see what the team continues to do with him helping them make decisions.

Francisco: Willie Mitchell. There was something eerie about the Panthers not naming a captain throughout the 2011-12 season and then the horrendous-ness that was the captaincy of Ed Jovanovski. The team had no one in the locker room with the gumption to call them out when they needed it and the presence to shepherd the youngsters through the ups and downs of the NHL. He had me after a loss to the Blue Jackets and gave this post-game interview.

Kevin: So much win here, it's hard to choose just one, but I have to say Aaron Ekblad, and I'm surprised that the fourth guy to answer this particular question is the first to choose him. He's so far beyond most other defensemen in the NHL - and I'm using seasoned veteran's for comparison sake. Never mind that he's only 18-years-old. They say that blueliners generally don't really come into their own until they've played in the neighborhood of 300 NHL games. Consider that his play right now is the "floor." Can you imagine his "ceiling?"

Todd: As much as I agree with everything Kevin's is saying, hands down it's Luongo. I thought Lu's return was a good thing, but he's exceeding expectations. He gives the team a sense of confidence that was severely lacking and covers up for not only an offense that still struggles too much of the time, but for a defense that's probably not quite as good as some of us might think it is. There are still some warts on the blue line and they would be more apparent if someone else was in the net more often.

Donny: Luongo, though Mitchell being a good friend of his didn't hurt. Rory Babich, replacing Yormark as CEO and Prez, has been outstanding off the ice. Why? He's letting Hockey Ops do proper Hockey Ops stuff without interfering.

Biggest disappointment of 2014 for Panther fans is:

JC: Many of you want me to say Aleksander Barkov, but I am not disappointed in him and see the quiet additions he adds. I am going to make the controversial choice of Jonathan Huberdeau. BEFORE you get to taking swipes at me though, I am not saying he is not playing well: he is. I am not saying he is not playing hard: he is. Its merely this: a #3 overall pick, playing on a line with Nick Bjugstad, should be producing at a greater rate than .5 points per game (over 30 games this season). Maybe 2011 was just not a great draft year, although Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is producing for a terrible Oilers team, and Gabriel Landeskog is also putting up better points, and has in his other full seasons with the Avalanche. I am pleased with Huberdeau's play, but I was truly expecting more of an explosion from him this season.

Francisco: The power play. It is terrible. It has not improved this current season either. The joke is that they should decline the power play. Another joke is that PP means "passing practice." But even then they can't even get the passing right. It's like watching a bunch of chickens with their heads cut off. It's not even funny anymore. The joke is over. The power play has to be better. This team will not play beyond April 11 if the PP does not improve.

Todd; Going to with Francisco on this one. The players and new coaching staff have managed to sort out the awful penalty kill, but the power play remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside a enigma. I know part of the problem is personnel, but come on, there is enough skill on this team to have a decent power play. This ongoing problem could cost the team the playoffs this season.

Kevin: Scoring punch. I'm not sure how the Panthers are putting up these results without more scoring. Buffalo, Carolina, and Edmonton are the only teams that can say they've scored less than the Panthers, and each of those teams is in last place in their respective divisions. The only thing that has kept them relevant is goaltending and defense. Nick Bjugstad, Jussi Jokinen, and Ekblad are the only Panthers who have racked up more than 18 points (or a half point-per-game) for the team this season.

Donny: The anti-Southern Market "voice". Absolutely pathetic waste of pixels and bandwidth, as the team is tied to Broward County for another, well who cares. Deals have, can and will be broken. That said, Panthers ownership can do as they wish with their franchise, but I'm impressed by everything I've seen to this point. And I don't mean on the ice; this bunch has reached out to fans in a highly accessible and personal fashion on social media, restored relations with the Booster Club (a longtime Yormark face-palm), and giving casual fans a reason to think twice about this being just another toy for the mega-wealthy ready to be flipped and relocated, as evidenced by the actual owners roaming the halls of BB&T Center, approaching attendees and asking for their take on the club. Every night. The "Move 'em to ______!" Twitter accounts will always be there, but more for hits than actual activism. Thick skin, buds.

Most pleasant surprise of 2014 for Panthers fans is:

JC: After what I said about Huberdeau, this has to be Aaron Ekblad. He has been as good (or better) than the hype. He is the special player he was claimed to be. Whether his minutes are sheltered or not (and they are becoming less so), who would expect an 18-year-old rookie, playing the second hardest position in hockey (only goalie is harder), to come in and put up 21 points in 36 games and be plus-8? I understand that Brian Campbell is helping him, as he did Tom Gilbert last season (and who is not playing nearly as well for Montreal now without Soupy), but Ekblad has looked tough, and calm, and energetic out there. I figured, like all young d-men, Egg-man was going to need a few seasons to hit a stride, but he has been terrific in all aspects of the game. I am very happy that Dale kept the pick.

Shane O: Roberto Luongo. I knew that he would be much better than Tim Thomas, but I didn't expect him to put up a save percentage north of .920. He's been great for the team.

Francisco: Going with who is hot right now and it is Jimmy Hayes. He's playing with confidence and the competition among the forwards on the team means he is going to have to keep it up. Also we got him for Versteeg. Kinda nice having someone who cares on the team, right?

Todd: Have to go with Ekblad here. Luongo has been amazing, but I expected him to be the team's lynchpin. Eggs has been playing well beyond his years and is on course for a historic season. As long as he stays close to his current pace, he will end up with the third, or maybe even second, most points ever by an 18-year-old defenseman. Bobby Orr is second on that list headed by Phil Housley. That's pretty heady company to be rubbing elbows with. That he's doing this on a team as goal-starved as the Panthers makes it that much more impressive.

Kevin: I'd go with Nick Bjugstad's play so far, but I don't think that his play has surprised anybody. The most surprising thing to me has been the upgraded defensive play of Dmitry Kulikov. A lot of people were calling for his trade while last season was winding down, and really all of 2013-14. I haven't heard a lot of that lately, despite the disappearance of his scoring statistics. That is due entirely to his growing from an average NHL defenseman to a slightly-above average NHL defenseman.

Donny: The record. Very pleasant, and a complete surprise going back to July 1, which is why I'm fan and not running a team. Seriously, couldn't be happier. Also, glad that Colby Robak was given a spectacular new opportunity by being dealt to Anaheim when it was clear he'd be sitting a long LONG while. Good kid who earned it.

Playoffs, yes or no?

JC: Yes, 2nd wild card spot, 1 vs. 8.
Shane O: Yes, 1st wild card spot, 2 vs. 7.
Francisco: No, we'll finish 9th. The power play is too terrible.
Todd: Yes, 2nd wild spot. Hoping we draw the Canadiens. The exposure would be huge and if the Cats won... Oh, how Canada would love that.
Kevin: Yes, the top wild card seed. Florida will face off against the second best Division Title winner, probably the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Donny: Obviously I want to see the postseason being the greedy Panthers fan that I am, but at this point - on January 3rd - I'm guessing Cats fall just short by a single point.

Finally, finish this sentence: The thing that made me the happiest as a Panther fan in 2014 was....

JC: The firing of Yormark.
Shane O: The team's play in the month of December. I smell playoffs...
Francisco: The team broadcasting their games in Spanish again.
Todd: Actually holding down a playoff spot here and there. This is something I expect to see a lot more of as the season progresses.
Kevin: Listening to the Marek and Wyshinski podcast and hearing Puck Daddy say "Cats? Eh? Eh? Eh?" It was indicative that the outskirts of mainstream media have started to take Florida into consideration when discussing the playoff picture.

Donny: A return to respectability by the business end of the club, i.e. dropping the "comp" seats and giving SSOs fair market value for their investment. This was an enormous public admission regarding attendance by a professional sports club (but the numbers were by no means a surprise). An easy overlook in the press but important beyond words. I also share Francisco's excitement over games being broadcast in Spanish via local radio. No idea if this is actually gaining fans among the Latino community as yet, but a postseason berth could change that for the better.
A very happy New Year to everyone, and our thanks for being a part of our family!