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It Is Time To Acknowledge The Panthers

Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Florida Panthers have existed for almost 30 years, and you haven't noticed them for almost the entire time. They are almost certainly the most persistently obscure team in North American sport, by performing indifferently in a city that has matched that industrial level of ennui with its own. The team's attendances have been persistently among the weakest in the National Hockey League, and they have sold out only 24 games in their last 11 years. They have made the playoffs only five times since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their third year of existence (six, if you want to count the qualifying round in 2020) and have won none of those series. Even the Arizona Coyotes cast a longer shadow in the NHL, though that's only because they are known to be tardy with the rent.

Put another way, their brightest spotlight this season came thanks to people not having sex. But we bring them up because while they are usually just ignorable in plain sight, this year they are fascinatingly good in plain sight, and we are preparing you for that magical day when they finally gain Miami's attention and win its heart, or to be honest, your attention wherever you live. Consider this your 15-year warning.

As day dawns upon your hangovers, the Panthers possess the league’s best record, the best home record, the most goals, the best goal margin, and quite possibly the most enjoyable roster. They endured the forced resignation of head coach Joel Quenneville in November for his involvement (or more to the point, lack of involvement) in the Chicago Blackhawks’ sexual assault scandal, and missed nothing under interim coach Andrew Brunette.

Since the league's Christmas COVID break, they are averaging—AVERAGING, DAMN YOU—six goals per game, and are about to embark on a five-game Canadian-Plus (including Seattle) road trip in which none of the five teams they face are currently in a playoff spot and are lucky even to play a game. To wit:

    1. Calgary is 2-12-11 (two wins, 12 losses, and 11 postponements) since December 5.
    2. Edmonton is 3-12-9 by the same metric since December 1, and most of the talk surrounding them is when Connor McDavid can be paroled from this underachieving hellscape.
    3. Vancouver has been better than both Calgary and Edmonton but that may just be the Bruce Boudreau Bounce that eventually ends in Game 7 of some playoff series. Florida kicked them, 5-2, a week ago.
    4. Seattle is an expansion team, doing expansion team things like losing nine in a row before last night's overtime win over the dreadful Chicagii, and 13 of its last 16. They also have seven postponements as the zenith of their achievements in the last six weeks.
    5. Winnipeg is enjoying what can only be called the Dave Lowry bounce after head coach Paul Maurice went out on his sword, daggers, and steak knives a month ago. The key here is that the Jets are 4-2 in Lowry's games, but with nine postponements.

The point is, February looks like a scheduling nightmare for the league. The ancillary point is that Florida is already very good, is entering an easy stretch of its season, and has finally become a team worth enjoying and even admiring, if only anyone was there to do either. In the meantime, they remain loaded with the kind of folks your hockey fantasy league deeply prizes and nobody else is even remotely aware of, and in these times where an attention span is considered akin to a skin disease, that's almost worse than losing. Anonymity is tied culturally to irrelevance, which is therefore tied to lack of value and eventually the most contemptible of epithets, disinterest.

In fact, I am not mentioning any of their elite players deliberately, just in case they prefer their hyperprivacy, but I will say the name Joe Thornton because he may have chosen the least likely team with which to ring-chase one could even imagine.

There are clear disadvantages to having never been seen as the Panthers are, but there are clear disadvantages to every approach. Try being the omnipresent and never successful Dallas Cowboys of the new century, just to name one.

The Panthers, for their part, peaked way too early in their existence and haven't been close to anything since, so their most obvious comp is, sadly, the Jacksonville Jaguars. Like the Jags, who reached the conference title game in years two and five and have been a consistent laughingstock ever since, the Panthers hit the ground too soon to know how much to enjoy it, reaching the Stanley Cup Final in a hail of toy rats in year three, and then fully disappearing. They have largely avoided the playoffs in the ensuing 25 years and have left them immediately the few times they did make it.

By comparison, their neighbor to the north and west, the Tampa Bay Lightning, has won three Stanley Cups including the last two, and has announced sellouts since early 2015. They are the enduring success story of the Gary Bettman Sun Belt Era, while Florida is, well, a member of the league who keeps its dues paid. One rather hopes the two meet in the Eastern Conference final if only because the last time they met, Florida won 9-3 and there was much mutual late-game villainy. These two teams might actually learn to hate each other when there are people to see them do it. One can only hope, right?

In the meantime, Florida remains the team you most want to see without actually bothering to see them. Maybe as an intermediate step you can watch them from the next room with the sound muted—you know, just to ease yourself slowly but properly into that Panthers experience. Whoever they are.

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