The Florida Panthers struggled last season.
On the ice, they were a team on the playoff bubble, finishing seven points out of a wild card spot. They sported some promising young stars who hadn’t quite come of age and a handful of well-known commodities who are are getting up there in years.
Off the ice, things were worse. In the 2013-14 season the team averaged just 14,525 fans per game, according to For the Win. To start the 2014-15 season they implemented a curtain to cut off parts of the upper deck, lowering capacity from 17,040 to 15,720.
The curtain didn’t make the arena look any more full. For the Cats’ home opener last year the team drew just 11,419 fans, an opening night record low.
The next game was even worse.
It was October 13. Columbus Day. The team drew a franchise record low of 7,311 fans, toppling the previous low of 10,063, set on Halloween of 2007.
Here’s what that game looked like:
— Bruce Garrioch (@SunGarrioch) October 13, 2014
The Panthers were expected to be horrible and fans were tired of watching the Cats lose. They made the playoffs just once since the 2000-01 season.
However, the team actually started to deliver after years of getting top draft picks, quietly stockpiling prospects. The Panthers weren’t great. They didn’t make the playoffs, but they were a team battling for a playoff spot down the stretch, not a team selling off spare parts to earn an extra ticket to the Connor McDavid sweepstakes. That’s something.
They had clawed their way up to 20th in the league after two seasons where they finished 29th and 30th.
Opening Night, 2015
Opening night this season had an entirely different feel. No more curtains blocking off the upper deck. No more gimmicks to sell tickets.
The arena was sold out.
— Willie Mitchell (@Willie_Mitch33) October 11, 2015
It wasn’t just the atmosphere (which will help quiet talk about the Panthers becoming the Nordiques in a few years), but what was happening on the ice that should have Panthers fans excited. No, you can’t bring in a 2×4, lay it across the entire row and take a nap on it any more, but the Panthers are going to win some games. They’re a serious playoff contender this year.
GM Dale Tallon has put together a formidable team with 13 roster players who are 24 or younger. That leaves out guys like Lawson Crouse, Kyle Rau, Rocco Grimaldi and Jayce Hawryluk who, long-term, could be a piece of this roster. Just having young guys is one thing, but leaning on them and having them deliver is another. Three of the team’s top four point-getters last season were 22 or young (including an 18-year-old Aaron Ekblad).
It’s not just young kids, but future stars in that group. Nick Bjugstad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov and Reilly Smith headline that group, which also boasts Brandon Pirri, Dmitry Kulikov, Vincent Trocheck, Erik Gudbranson and Alex Petrovic, among others.
The Philadelphia Flyers found out just how formidable the kids are in a 7-1 beating on opening night, which saw the youth take a pivotal role. Trocheck had a goal and three assists, Smith had two goals, Barkov had two assists, Pirri had two assists, Ekblad had an assist, Huberdeau had an assist and Bjugstad had a goal.
— FOX Sports Florida (@FOXSportsFL) October 11, 2015
It’s not just the number of goals they scored on the Flyers — seven — but how the team is structured right now that is exciting for the team’s future. The current depth chart pairs some of the teams top young players with veterans who they can learn a lot from, putting Huberdeau and Barkov out with Jaromir Jagr, Trocheck with Jussi Jokinen and Dave Bolland, Ekblad with Brian Campbell.
Part of the process of handing over the keys to the car is also getting them some power play time too, trusting them and putting the responsibility to win on their shoulders. Gerard Gallant ran with Smith, Trocheck and Pirri on the unit that saw the most time Saturday and had Bjugstad, Huberdeau, Barkov and Ekblad on the other unit.
This isn’t out of the ordinary necessarily for teams in the same position as the Panthers, but it’s clear that this team is rounding the corner and the young guys are ready to take ownership of the team. The Panthers aren’t going to win the Stanley Cup this season, but the team is driving toward the horizon with a trunk full of loot.
Dustin Nelson writes about news and the Minnesota Wild for The Hockey Writers.