At first glance, it’s easy to assume that the Florida Panthers will be buried in the newly re-imagined Atlantic Division. That isn’t to say that they were particularly successful in the now [mercifully] dissolved Southeast Division, but it’s difficult to envision the Panthers keeping pace with the tough, storied—and largely successful—franchises that make up the new Atlantic. With the exceptions of Buffalo and Tampa Bay, every team in the new Atlantic Division made the playoffs last year, and each of those teams finished last season with at least 20 more standings points than the Panthers. Since reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996, the Panthers have won four playoff games (and, unfortunately for the Panthers, the four victories did not come in the same series). By contrast, since 1996, every other team in the new Atlantic Division has won at least 35. In other words, the Southeast Division may have had its moments of glory, but the Atlantic Division is going to be tough.
But the Atlantic Division is much more than a collection of good teams; the Atlantic Division has a history, and an attitude that did not exist in the Southeast. The Panthers will not only have to learn about new rivals, they’ll have to acclimate to an entirely new culture.
If the Southeast Division had any culture to speak of, it certainly was not one of “passion” (nor was it one of winning, for that matter). While there were certainly bright spots, the Southeast could generally be characterized as a division full of underachieving teams, incompetent management, and frequently disinterested fans. Consequently, as a team in the Southeast Division, the Panthers could easily fade into the background, content to play fairly meaningless games against equally complacent division rivals. Expectations were low, and interest was even lower.
After all, was anyone tuning in to watch those mid-January games between the Panthers and the Thrashers for the last ten years? Was the roar of the crowd ever deafening as the Panthers stepped onto the ice for a regular season match up with the Carolina Hurricanes? Did the players grow up dreaming of the opportunity to play in front of the rabid fans at the historic Verizon Center? Indeed, the Southeast Division afforded the teams and players within that rare opportunity for anonymity within a major professional sport.
But with realignment, the Panthers will be thrust into the spotlight. They will now be counting amongst their rivals teams that expect to win, year in and year out. They will be playing against historic franchises, in loud, sold-out arenas, full of fans that really care. Occasionally, their games will even be broadcast nationally (like their December 28th matchup against new division rival Detroit!).
What all of this means is that it will no longer be possible for the Panthers to continue along the same monotonous, and usually uncompetitive path. True, they may have a tough first couple seasons, but over time, they can only benefit from playing among the league’s best teams, and in front of the most demanding fans.