What if … Florida had traded Roberto Luongo for Joe Thornton?

(Ed. Note: It’s the NHL Alternate History project! We’ve asked fans and bloggers from 31 teams to pick one turning point in their franchise’s history and ask ‘what if things had gone differently?’ Trades, hirings, firings, wins, losses, injuries … all of it. How would one different outcome change the course of history for an NHL team? Today: Broadcaster and journalist Matt Lichtenstadter on the Florida Panthers. Enjoy!)

By Matt Lichtenstadter

The Florida Panthers have quite a lurid history of mismanagement, horrible decisions, in-fighting and tomfoolery that it’s almost impossible to decide on one thing I’d like to permanently change. Knowing this franchise, even if something went right for them, they’d still inevitably screw it up. It’s all they know how to do.

Before I tell all of you great people what I’d definitively change about this dumpster fire of an organization, here are some of the “greatest hits” of moments in Panthers history that would be awesome if they never happened and left a stain on our collective souls.

What if Wayne Huizenga and Micky Arison didn’t feud over arenas?

Huizenga was the man that brought professional hockey and baseball to South Florida, and Arison’s father brought pro basketball as well. Both the Heat and Panthers shared the absolute dump that was the Miami Arena, which made the Nassau Coliseum look like the Bell Centre. Both teams couldn’t stay in that building for long, and the Panthers were already losing money to the tune of reportedly $1 million per day, even on their march to the Cup Final. So, Huizenga went into negotiations with Broward County on a deal that would eventually spawn the now BB&T Center.

As Huizenga was raising a fuss, so too was Micky Arison. Both teams threatened to leave Miami and South Florida altogether if they didn’t get new buildings. It seemed a match made in heaven that the Heat and Panthers would work together to find a new collective home. At first, the partnership was going swimmingly.

“Micky and I are happy to sit down and talk to whoever’s interested,” Huizenga said. “A city. A county. Whoever’s interested,” Huizenga told the Miami Herald in 1995.

Why then did that beautiful looking working relationship collapse so spectacularly? A very, very tiny loophole that prevented a Heat-Panthers revenue sharing agreement in Sunrise to the tune of just $1 million when splitting operating profits from the new building. Seriously.

“’If there’s not a million [more dollars) in this deal, then I’m a banana,” County Administrator B. Jack Osterholt said on Friday. “I don’t think this is a hard thing to do.”

The Heat has told Broward it wants an even split with the Panthers, so each team would get $12.5 million a year.

No way, say the for-sale Panthers.

With the hockey team in the arena, the building becomes eligible for a state sales tax rebate of $2 million a year for 30 years. The money would help pay off the building’s bonds.

The Heat aren’t eligible for the money, which the state has made available only to sports franchises created after 1990. The Heat started playing in 1988.

Because they bring the money to the table, the Panthers want to keep for themselves an extra share of profits equivalent to the $2 million rebate. The hockey team envisions getting $13.5 million a year, leaving $11.5 million for the Heat.

So the county has to find $1 million a year to bring the Heat’s split up to the acceptable $12.5 million figure.

A legitimate disagreement? Sure.

A deal killer? No.

“I can’t see that breaking the deal,” said County Commissioner Scott Cowan, who predicted the impasse would be solved by next week.

It turned out to be a deal-killer, because negotiations went south fast, so much so that the men reportedly didn’t want to share the negotiating rooms with each other. That story was from February of 1996, and by November…

“”I really do not view Broward as an option,” Arison said.

Arison’s feud with Huizenga prevented the Heat and Panthers from cooperating to build one arena in Broward or Dade County. Instead, the teams played the counties against each other, and Huizenga sided with Broward.

Huizenga got his taxpayer funded arena in Broward, and Arison got his in Dade, and the teams have been in different ecosystems since.

What does the history of the Florida Panthers look like if they and the Heat shared an arena, in Broward or elsewhere? Does Arison, whose net worth is $9.1 billion, buy the team when Huizenga wanted out? Do he and Huizenga build an arena in Dade together, or in Ft. Lauderdale? Who knows, but it’s hard to talk about what-ifs with the Panthers without broaching the arena and ownership questions. But because of high school drama, pettiness and rampant egos, the two men drifted apart, and so have the teams they owned.

What if the Panthers didn’t trade away two consecutive #1 Entry Draft Picks?

In the early 2000’s, the Cats were a laughing stock. After having traded away their only player worth a damn in Pavel Bure, it was time to rebuild. But thankfully, they had a No. 1 overall Entry Draft selection in 2002 to help buoy the franchise’s fortunes. Except they didn’t, because they loved themselves some Jay Bouwmeester. So much so that they traded the No. 1 pick in 2002 to Columbus, who then selected Rick Nash, and the Cats took their coveted D-man at No. 3.

All Florida received was the right to swap picks with Columbus the next year, which they didn’t do since they got the #1 pick again. And to make it worse, they gave two picks to Atlanta, who took Kari Lehtonen, to make sure that they had J-Bo available at #3. Said famous hockey savant Mike Keenan about this move: “We shouldn’t have done that … Jay would have been number-one if we’d kept that pick.”

No (expletive), Sherlock.

While the Oilers became famous for consecutive drafts with the No. 1 pick despite making mistakes with said picks, these Panthers pulled off that feat first. We know now that the 2003 Draft is one of the deepest in the history of the league, and the Cats had their pick of the litter. But they made the same dang mistake again, trading their second straight No. 1 to Pittsburgh (who took Marc-Andre Fleury), and in exchange, they got the pick they used to take Nathan Horton, a second rounder who did nothing, and one season of Mikael Samuelsson. This, right after a year when they traded away the #1 pick for no reason, is painful to even think about.

So instead of Bouwmeester, Horton and a ton of lost draft capital, the Panthers could have had Rick Nash in 2002, and in 2003 a host of players who would have done more for the Panthers than Horton did, including Eric Staal, Ryan Suter, Ryan Getzlaf and the list goes on. These two blunders at the top of the draft set the franchise back for years, and who knows what would have happened if they had gotten these moves right and another big move in the future materialized…

What if the Panthers traded Roberto Luongo for Joe Thornton in 2005?

In those early post-lockout days of the 2005-06 season, Joe Thornton was unhappy in Boston and the Panthers were angling to trade Roberto Luongo, since he was going to ring the bell with his next contract. Thornton was shipped off on the last day of November to San Jose for an underwhelming return and in June of 2006, Luongo was sent to Vancouver in one of the most lopsided trades in league history. Those trades defined the early post ’05 lockout NHL, but what if another trade was consummated that could have been even crazier than those two combined:

What if Roberto Luongo was traded straight up for Joe Thornton?

Jeff Marek has said that this trade was ready to be sent to the league’s office to be officially consummated except for our old miserly friend Alan Cohen, who didn’t want to take back money in the deal, so he put the kibosh on it. Luongo was on a $3.25 million AAV one-season bridge deal at the time and Thornton had just signed a three year, $20 million contract in the summer. Cohen would have had to have taken on salary to change the fortunes of his franchise for the better, and of course, there was no way that would ever be possible. Thornton then became a Shark, and Luongo was traded for… I can’t even say it.

What does the history of the NHL, let alone the Panthers look like if Jumbo Joe is in Sunrise and Roberto Luongo is a Bruin?

For one, Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss don’t dramatically underperform their expectations, and those middling Cats squads post-lockout that averaged around 86 points probably see that total jump by 10, in which case their playoff drought ends way sooner than it actually did. They would at least have had two and a half seasons of the league’s best assist artist ever, and who knows what they could have done in that time with him, to say nothing of how Vancouver, San Jose and Boston’s fortunes would have changed.

But sadly, this trade remains a great what-if in NHL history thanks to another famously miserly owner, who didn’t want to spend more on his team than he absolutely had to. How the Panthers fortunes could have changed if Alan Cohen could have found $3 million in his couch cushions.

What if the Panthers make the playoffs in 2008-09?

Pete DeBoer’s first season coaching magic may have gotten more famous in New Jersey and San Jose as he took both of those teams to the Stanley Cup Final in his first year on the bench with those teams, but his first season as a NHL head coach in 2008-09 with the Panthers was just as successful (by garbage Panthers standards): they were a tiebreaker with Montreal away from making the playoffs.

Those Panthers were surprisingly OK for being a floor team thanks to DeBoer’s magic. Until last season, it was the last time any Cat had scored 30 goals in a season, and they had nine players score 15 or more goals. By recent Panthers standards, it was a great year. But even though they finished the season with the exact same record as Montreal, OTL’s and all, their inferior record against the Habs kept them out of the playoffs.

What changes if the Panthers do make it in that year? They probably still get destroyed against Boston anyway, but making the playoffs would have been a remarkable moment for a franchise that hadn’t in nine years. The bottom would have likely fallen out under the team regardless of whether it made the dance or not, and since Jacques Martin walked out on the team to go to Montreal anyway, it’s likely that the 2009-10 would have still been really bad. But the perception of that team may have changed a little bit for prospective GM’s, including Dale Tallon, if they had just gotten an extra point that season to make the playoffs.

What if “The Purge: Sunrise Edition” didn’t go down after the 2016 Playoffs?

The 2015-16 season in Sunrise was a remarkable one. From the bonkers winning streak, to Spacey in Space, to young players blossoming before our eyes and a 100 point plus season and a division title, the Panthers were potentially on the verge of something very special. Even being denied justice of two tripping calls that would have sent the Cats-Isles series to a Game 7 couldn’t really dampen our collective enthusiasm. But there was a disturbance in the force…

On New Year’s Day, Dale Tallon signed a new contract with the caveat that then AHL head coach Tom Rowe became assistant GM. That was weird, but the Cats were in the midst of a franchise long winning streak so most of us didn’t notice. But after the season ended, there were bigger issues to come.

Out of nowhere, Dale Tallon was “promoted” to President of Hockey Operations and Tom Rowe was elevated to GM. At the same time, around 30 people, from front office staff to the equipment and training staff were gutted for no apparent reason. Discord was back in Sunrise after a brief trip to Hollywood Beach. Whatever the motives behind the bloodbath, it raised more questions than answers about a franchise that finally looked as if it was righting the ship.

It didn’t take a psychic to see where this was going to end up.

“But overall, this smacks of an ownership group trying to exert its philosophy on the hockey operations side. They’re hiring numbers guys. They’re hiring guys that fit into a militaristic operational structure favored by owner Vinny Viola, who has a financial background and is a West Point grad: Streamlined, cost-effective and based very much on predictive outcomes than ‘gut.’”

Mindless analytics debates aside (the Panthers used analytics before the Purge and still do after their April course correction), the decision to totally change front office structure and fire 30 or so people de-railed any positive momentum the team had. Injuries contributed to their bad start in the new season, but then Gerard Gallant was fired, told to hail a cab and the house of cards collapsed.

Not two weeks later, it seemed that Dale Tallon was wresting his power back. The dream of a new front office structure for the Panthers was immediately in tatters as players, coaches and fans didn’t really know what was going on or who was in charge. And the entire mess culminated gloriously in April with a South Florida sporting tradition:

There is a plane flying around #FlaPanthers arena, BB&T Center, with a flag that says "Rowe must go! Call him a cab!"

— Cats On The Prowl (@Cats0ntheprowl) April 3, 2017

What happens if the Purge is just a horrible movie franchise without a Florida Panthers chapter? Gerard Gallant for one is not fired, leaving the team somewhat more stable. The world is spared the Tom Rowe experience, though the Mr. Magoo jokes were enjoyable, and 30 or so good soldiers to the Florida Panthers wouldn’t have had their lives up-ended the way they did after a wildly successful season, owners wanting to put their folks in charge or not.

Most importantly, the Panthers would have been able to build on the positive momentum they carried from their best regular season ever to a new year, and fans would be able to trust and believe in the direction of the team. Now, it’s just more of the usual, and ownership and the front office have yeoman’s work to earn back the trust of a very tired and very jaded fanbase despite their moves to try and erase last year’s debacle.

There are many bad moments in Panthers history to erase and change. Which one would I change?

How the Panthers would have evolved under other ownership in an arena not in Sunrise is always a great thought experiment, but one that always forgets something definitive about South Florida sports: if you don’t win, they won’t come. Erasing last season’s gruesome front office and staff purge is necessary in hindsight, but it may not have changed that much outside of perception of ownership in terms of the on-ice product.

If I had a Puck Daddy Golden TicketTM to change one part of Florida Panthers history, I’d want to see how the team evolved if Joe Thornton came to Florida in exchange for Roberto Luongo.

Even if he was to have been traded away at the 2008 trade deadline because of contract issues, there were plenty of good players available then who could have laid a solid foundation for the future, and it seems obvious that he would have taken a decent team post-lockout and made it a playoff team at least once. And for once, penny-pinching ownership would have spent some money, which would have been a great sign in of itself.

Instead of changing owners, arenas or #1 draft picks, I want to see the world in which Joe Thornton didn’t go to San Jose, he goes to Florida for Roberto Luongo. Maybe there’s a Puck Daddy summer spectacular on a NHL in which Joe Thornton is a Panther and Luongo is a Bruin.

That’s a NHL, Panthers fan or not, that I want to see.

Matt Lichtenstadter is a sports broadcaster and journalist who is an actual real-life Panthers fan.


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