No Cat’s Sky

It’s okay to be frustrated with the Panthers

When I think of the Florida Panthers’ 2016-17 season so far, I compare it to the release of No Man’s Sky. For those of you who do not know, No Man’s Sky is a video game that garnered an obscene amount of hype before its release in August 2016. The creator of the game was making promises to no end of how amazing the game would be and the gaming media picked up and added more fuel to the hype train. However, when No Man’s Sky finally released thousands of people who spent $60 on it soon realized it was not a great game that it was promoted to be. If anything that game was average. Which in many people’s minds meant it was terrible because the creators could not live up to the expectations placed in people’s minds although the product was not the worst thing ever to be created in video games. In the above image was the frustration that even the development studio felt with not living up to the hype.

Where am I going with this? I feel the Panthers 2016-17 season thus far is that very same thing and maybe some other things. After the Panthers overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens on December 29, 2016 which ended a 5-game homestand in which the Florida Panthers handed out 8 points to 4 division opponents and only took 5 for themselves, I tweeted this:

That second sentence up there is a completely irrational statement. The Florida Panthers will not fire Tom Rowe for this team’s play this season. It is frustration at its purest. And my outburst is probably the most tame of the ones I have seen and heard from Panthers fans out there. I tried so hard to reel my feelings in that I decided I needed to do a live stream of a workout just to try and make sense of the Florida Panthers since they were eliminated by the New York Islanders back in April 2016. I believe every Panthers fan is going through this right now.

What is the philosophy of this team and is it being executed?

The most divisive topic among the Florida faithful and even the NHL at large is the now openly admitted embrace of analytics by the Panthers’ front office. The Florida Panthers are all in on this new wave of using numbers to scope out talent and even to coaching the team as evidenced by the firing of Gerard Gallant only a quarter into the current campaign. The Panthers’ way of doing things has now drawn heavy scrutiny from the hockey world and the pressure is on this team to perform better only to show that the decisions were not mistakes.

Here is where I understand the plight of the team. Teams can and will make mistakes. People make mistakes. Sometimes things do not turn out as one had planned for. In business law, there’s a thing called the “business judgment rule” that protects a directors decisions from being scrutinized by shareholders in court which protects a director good-faith decision that ended up being a mistake. Players are under-performing which they did not want to happen. Vinnie Viola didn’t want this to happen. Neither did Doug Cifu, Matt Caldwell, Steve Werier, Eric Joyce, or Tom Rowe. Dale Tallon’s hard work being undone is not the team’s goal. The goal is to win the Stanley Cup and very few people from top to bottom in Sunrise know how exactly to do that. So yes, mistakes will be made. I understand that.

However, I understand the plight of the fans. My reaction to the latest overtime loss proves that. My relationship with the Panthers is strange because I have learned to look at the team subjectively and objectively.

From a subjective perspective I feel the team is mediocre. They are neither good nor bad. They are not the Columbus Blue Jackets at the top although that was what the team hyped us all up about in the offseason. The Cats are not the Colorado Avalanche either as some how they have found ways to comeback from behind or blow a lead but stick out enough to get to overtime. But the Panthers are just “meh.” And “meh” is a bad thing to be. Being bad enough to be in the run for the lottery at least gives fans hope for the future. Being good enough to be in a playoff race obviously means optimism is high as the NHL playoffs could yield a surprise run for even low seeds. Being “meh” is what the Panthers fans had seen enough of during the mid-2000s in which the Cats mired along with teams that could not be good enough to make the playoffs but not bad enough to turn their fortunes around with a young star draft pick. Dale Tallon ended that era and I understand why this season has many Cats fans saying “same old Panthers.”

From an objective standpoint, I understand the full-on embrace of analytics. The Florida Panthers do not have the benefit of being an original six franchise or some other hockey hotbed where they can be terrible but people will still care enough to go. The Panthers have not earned that type of following yet even after the great 2015-16 season. With almost 15 years of chances to grow trust in the market squandered the Cats have to make sure they make decisions that are carefully executed and will not hinder them in the long-term. The Panthers believe that analytics will help them manage the team smarter. And from a guy who last took a math class in 2009 and completely forgot everything, I like this idea. And I believe many fans out there do too.

The fans who are not liking analytics are focused on one thing: the standings. The wins are not coming for the Panthers and this is a scathing indictment that the analytical shift is failing. Fans bicker with one another as to whether the old-school way was better. I do not believe that is the problem here. The problem is I have heard all these things about the Panthers embracing analytics and yet I do not see them practicing what they are preaching.

I have read things from some of my more analytically inclined colleagues that indicate that the numbers are showing why the Panthers are failing. The sample sizes are big enough. My confusion lies with not seeing the team fixing those mistakes. After Gallant’s firing I still see:

  1. The team still allowing too many odd-man rushes
  2. Blown leads in the third period
  3. The complete ineptitude of the power play
  4. The disappearance of many players including Jokinen, Bjugstad, and Smith
  5. Playing players in situations where both the eye-test and analytics indicate they should not be playing in

I could go on but it’s all stuff every Panthers fan is wrestling with right now. I do not see the execution and that frustrates me.

It’s okay to be angry at the team

It’s okay Panthers faithful. It’s okay to be angry with this team. It’s okay to think all the dark thoughts you have about the team. It’s fine. I get it. I am pretty sure a lot of the people within the team have the same feelings. Nobody is having fun. It’s okay to boo Tom Rowe. It’s okay to want to trade Bjugstad. It’s okay to even say the new logo is to blame (however silly I think that is). It’s okay to scoff at the radio interviews by team personnel as fluff pieces.

I say it’s okay because it’s the relationship we all have with the team. We get most angry with those we love the most.

I love the Florida Panthers. I did not know anything significant about hockey in my life until 2011 when I was 24. The Litter Box Cats community embraced me. I began to look into hockey and was given an opportunity to write for this site and then some. Then when Mr. Viola and Mr. Cifu bought the team they embraced the fans and even this site and I have had even more great experiences around the team that I am truly grateful for. I began to learn how to actually play the game in 2016 and have only grown more of an appreciation for how hard it is to be an NHL player. The NHL is hard for everyone involved. Those folks chose to do this and chose to either bask in glory or face the animosity. Those folks also know that the most vocal and most angry of fans are the ones who love them the most.

My father is in Nicaragua and has called me the past two days just so I could describe the game to him and he even attempted to find a way to watch the game over there. I have my law school friends ask me when I will get the next group together to go see a game. My love for the team has stretched out to others as I try to be a fan, an objective observer, and an unofficial ambassador and so I know that my anger comes from a good place. And for all of the other fans out there I know your anger is from a good place too.

It will get better

Florida Panthers fans have endured some bad seasons. It feels like this season is the worst of them only because it was the first since 1996-97 that there were actual high expectations.

I have chalked this season up as an experiment. Much like the experiment Billy Beane of the Oakland Athletics took when he full-on embraced analytics to run the team. The 2016-17 Florida Panthers have a 10% chance of making the postseason the way the season is going so far.

Like any experiment, whether it succeeds or fails, findings will be made. The Florida Panthers will find out a lot about themselves this season. They will know what mistakes they made and what things they did right. The team cares and that’s why there is reason for hope.

Ownership is doing things in utmost good-faith. The BB&T Center is finally becoming a venue that has hockey and some shows rather than a place that has shows and some hockey. The ownership spent money on players the likes of which this franchise has never seen. The team’s staff is open to communication from executives to broadcasters. They too have love for this team. I think that gets lost in the fervor over losses.

This is an opinion piece only everyone. I just hope I could encapsulate the frustrations of everyone who cares about the Panthers in this. I rambled but hope I did not come off as ranting. Ranting is just an adult temper tantrum.

The 2016-17 season is not pretty as the 2016 portion of it goes away.

Here’s hoping the Cats enter 2017 with good fortune.