This is Getting Old: When I think of the Florida Panthers, my mind takes me to the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals when the Panthers defeated the Penguins and all those rats on the ice. When did you become a Panthers fan?
The Rat Trick: I became a Panther fan around the same time the team was making their Stanley Cup Finals run in ’96. I grew up in New York, so me becoming a fan of the Florida Panthers was pretty random. I was only six when the team made the Stanley Cup finals and at that point I did not follow the NHL closely.
Like many elderly people in the Northeast, my grandparents had a condo in Florida where they would spend their winters. Knowing that I was into hockey, my grandparents would send me Florida Panthers paraphernalia in the mail. Since my grandparents were not into sports, I received no influence from them regarding what professional teams to like, so, being young and impressionable I chose the Panthers to be my team.
Since then I have stuck with the Panthers through thick and thin. My number when playing hockey was always 27 in honor of Scott Mellanby. Unfortunately most of the Panthers’ success came before I followed the team so last year’s run to the playoffs was in a way my first taste of playoff hockey. Anyway, for better or worse, I became a Panther fan living in Upstate New York.
TiGO: Name one player on the Panthers you would never want to see leave and one players from the Penguins you would like to have.
TRT: I would have to go with Jonathan Huberdeau as the Panther I would never want to see leave. Even though he is only 16 games into his Panther career, his play has been so exciting that I could not imagine a Panther team without him in the near future.
Just last night against the Flyers, he logged an impressive 2 goal, 2 assist night including a nasty move to beat Bryzgalov on a penalty shot. Just imagining what his future holds is enough to get any Panther fan going. So yeah … I would not want to see Jonathan “The Franchise” Huberdeau leave.
As for a player on the Penguins, I think I would have to go with the obvious choice and take Sid the Kid. I mean any other choice would be madness, except I guess Malkin, but I think Crosby is going to be one of the greatest of all time before he is done so choosing him is a no brainer.
TiGO: Where do you expect the Panthers to finish in the Eastern Conference?
TRT: This is a tough one. I suffer from a fans bias here which leaves me incapable of objectively judging my team. When I read all the experts picks with the Panthers missing the playoffs I think, “wow these guys are crazy, the Panthers are gonna be tops in the East this year.” When the Panthers lost five out of their first six games this season and were around the bottom of the Eastern Conference I was sure the team would bounce back and rattle off five straight wins to get right back in the thick of things.
I’ll give you two answers. The first, my die hard fan expectation is: I expect the team to finish first in the Southeast again and be battling for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
My sane, objective, still somewhat biased because I cannot help it projections would be: the Panthers are not a playoff team. They have a chance of squeaking in as the eight seed but a lot of things would have to break their way. More likely the team will finish 9th to 12th in the East, still a respectable season for a team implementing so much youth on the fly.
TiGO: Did the lockout hurt attendance so far this season?
TRT: What attendance? But all joking aside, the Panthers attendance is actually up from last season so I would like to say the lockout had little effect on attendance this season. Last year the Panthers averaged 16,628 per game while this year through eight home games they have averaged 17,115.
This higher number is inflated by the Panthers home opener which was a sell out. I think with less home games due to the lockout, there will be higher demand for tickets so overall the Panthers may finish the season with a higher attendance than last year.
So much depends on how the Panthers play. Last year’s trip to the playoffs got fans in South Florida excited about hockey again and talented rookies like Huberdeau and Drew Shore are becoming strong draws.
TiGO: Last season was a good one for the Panthers. Is this season a step forward or a step backward?
TRT: I think no matter where the Panthers finish in the standings this season will be looked at as a step forward. There is so much talk around the Panthers about GM Dale Tallon’s blueprint and it is generally agreed upon that real success will take some time to produce.
The Panthers have built their team by stocking up on draft picks and filling their farm system with capable prospects. With each passing year, if these prospects continue to develop as expected then the year has to be viewed as a success. Florida also just called up their goaltender of the future Jacob Markstrom, who may even start tonight in Pittsburgh.
Last season the Panthers were a surprise to make the playoffs and while the success was good it should not jeopardize the Panthers long-term plans. Florida has the talent to become one of the better Eastern Conference teams for years to come. Even if Florida finishes out of the playoffs, this season can be looked at as a step forward if the Panthers make progress in realizing their long-term plans.
Thanks to Pat for taking a few minutes to talk some hockey. Pens vs Panthers tonight at 7 and also Tuesday at 7. Both games will be on Root Sports.