Panthers have some real bite

Leafs' Nikolai Kulemin (left) and former teammate Kris Versteeg battle for the puck during a...

Leafs' Nikolai Kulemin (left) and former teammate Kris Versteeg battle for the puck during a November game. (AFP)

Mike Zeisberger, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:49 AM ET

Prior to the arrival of former Maple Leaf Kris Versteeg and friends, this was hockey’s version of The Island of Misfit Toys.

Indeed, the world of the Florida Panthers pretty much was a depressing place in the decade leading up to the 2011-12 NHL season. Losing was a way of life. South Florida fans seemed disinterested. Stories of potential financial ruin were plentiful.

Remember the old adage about selling you some swampland in Florida? With Florida’s beautiful arena situated just a slapshot away from the Everglades, it seems the Panthers actually purchased that very thing.

But, thanks to additions like Versteeg and Brian Campbell, the willingness of owner Cliff Viner to finally spend money, and a winning formula between GM Dale Tallon and first-year coach Kevin Dineen, these are not your father’s Florida Panthers.

Sure, it will take time to entrench this franchise on the south Florida sporting radar. And after the injury-ravaged team, missing seven regulars from its lineup, suffered an 8-0 thumping to the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins on Friday, the odd widecrack of “Same ol’ Panthers” could be heard.

Having said that, such drubbings have been few and far between for these Panthers, who found themselves coming off the Christmas break atop the Southeast Division standings.

When is the last time they could make that claim heading into the new year?

Versteeg is a prime example of how a kid unwanted or deemed expendable by so many others, has found a home here.

In the past 18 months Versteeg has played for four teams. After winning the Stanley Cup in Chicago, the Blackhawks shipped him to the Leafs. Toronto eventually sent him to the Philadelphia Flyers for a cache of draft picks. And when the cap-stressed Flyers opted not to retain him at the end of last season, Tallon, part of the Hawks management team when Versteeg was there, snapped him up.

Why the lucrative early-season success in Florida for Versteeg, whose 16 goals entering the Christmas break put him among the league leaders?

“First off I think he’s healthy,” Tallon explained. “He had off-season sports hernia surgery. Secondly we have a good relationship. Thirdly, he’s playing with (Steven) Weiss and (Tomas) Fleischmann and they developed chemistry from training camp on. And I like his spunk, his personality. He’s fun to be around.

“In Chicago they had success and he won a Cup. They had cap issues so it was not so much his play. It was a matter of the business side. Expectations were high in Toronto and Philly had cap issues. That probably had a role in if he was going to re-sign or not.

“I wanted to bring back to Florida someone who wanted to win and who I had a relationship with. I wanted it to be a fun environment here with people who enjoy the process and not have guys not enjoying where they were.”

Tallon, whose Panthers host the Leafs on Tuesday, knows “changing the culture,” as he calls it, won’t happen overnight. There will still be empty seats and game stories buried pages deep inside the local sports sections. But there has been progress, however minor.

‘Good place’

“I’m surprised a little bit at how the success has come so early,” he said. “ All the credit goes to Kevin and his staff, and the players for working so hard since training camp.

“It’s changing, slowly but surely, I think we are getting into a good place. We’re starting to feel the energy. It’s a good positive upbeat feel right now. A lot more buzz. More media coverage, more walk-up ... All those things are starting to come.

“It just takes time.”

There are still gimmicky ticket promotions. For example, if you spend $25 or more at a local Hair Cuttery on any Tuesday that the Panthers play, you receive two “complimentary” tickets to a Panthers home game.

Mohawk anyone?

If you believe the league’s figures (and many skeptics don’t), the Panthers finished 22nd in attendance last season with an average gate of 15,685. This season, they are 21st at 15,765.

Baby steps? Sure.

But any steps in these parts, however small, must be construed as positive.

 

WILL TICKET SALES HEAD NORTH

SUNRISE, Fla. — More games against the Leafs, Sens, Habs = more snowbirds = more $$$.

When it comes to the NHL’s proposed realignment that would see the Florida Panthers join Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Boston, Buffalo and Tampa in the same conference, that is the key formula. With so many Canadians and folks from the northern U.S. now living or visiting south Florida, the Panthers are hoping that the new format will result in increased ticket sales.

“I think it’ll be good for us from a business side,” Panthers GM Dale Tallon said.

“We’re going to get three Original 6 teams who come to our building three times each. It’s a little more travel, sure, but it is what it is.

“Overall it’s what’s best for the league and it’s what’s best for hockey, not just what’s best for Florida.”

— Mike Zeisberger


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