The most exciting team you haven’t been watching

Sports Sports | Lifestyle
Jessica Coleman (graphic)
Jessica Coleman (graphic)

Alright, I’ll admit it. I am a major Florida Panthers fan, and apparently I’m not the only one getting jazzed about a hockey club located 5561 kilometres away. Over the past six months, I’ve gone from being ridiculed by my friends to publicly defended by strangers for my affinity with “The Cats.”

I believe there are good reasons behind this perception that support is building for this NHL franchise.

First and foremost is the fact that the team is trending upwards. Last season the Panthers placed a dismal 29th, and they have only made the playoffs once in the past 13 seasons. Near the midpoint of their 2014-15 campaign, the Panthers are in the thick of the playoff race and sit only three points outside of a wild card spot behind the Boston Bruins with three games in hand. They are also averaging 30.6 shots per 60 minutes of play—the same number as the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins.

This uptick in offensive play has been complemented with tightening up on the blue-line. With the arrival of Willie Mitchell from the LA Kings via free agency and the appearance of last year’s first overall draft pick Aaron Ekblad, the Cats are tied with the likes of defensive powerhouses Boston and Anaheim in terms of goals allowed per 60 minutes of play.

Another major contributor to the Panthers’ improved defensive play will be exceptionally familiar to Vancouver Canucks fans—Roberto Luongo.

With the Vancouver “Goalie Controversy” behind him, Luongo is again posting impressive numbers with a .924 save percentage and a 2.32 goals-against average. In a recent TSN article, titled “The surprising development of the Florida Panthers,” Travis Yost used advanced stats to argue that Luongo’s play as of late is “virtually indiscernible” from the New York Rangers’ elite goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Add a fast-developing nucleus of young players and a coach worthy of Jack Adams’ consideration and you have an emerging force to be reckoned with. Not only are the Panthers getting better, but they are keeping hockey fans on edge of their seats. 26 of their 41 games played have been decided by a single goal, the overwhelming majority of which Florida has won or at least collected a point for an overtime loss. Earlier this year they also set the record for the longest shootout in NHL history, a shootout they won.

The team’s situation off the ice is also drawing fans’ attention. As rumours of possible team relocations to Quebec City, Seattle, or Ontario run rampant, a record of dismal attendance numbers have caused some to question the financial feasibility of the franchise in Sunrise, Florida.

Meanwhile, Broward County, where the Panthers call home, is in the midst of analyzing the sustainability of the Panthers home rink without an NHL team. Nevertheless, Panthers owners Vincent Viola and Doug Cifu wrote in an open letter to fans in the fall that “[they] view themselves as stewards of the team for the community and [their] plan is to build an organization that makes South Florida proud and to win the Stanley Cup in South Florida.”

If the Panther’s survive the onslaught of opposition to their existence, they’ll live up to their underdog image. If not, they may just be Canada’s next NHL team. Either way, they’re worth paying attention to.