Their numbers are getting smaller with each passing season. But the fans that do attend Florida Panthers' home games must be the most patient in the league.
Without a playoff appearance in the last seven seasons, and early tee-times in nine of the last 10 springs, it's no wonder the Panthers had the smallest percentage of home capacity (80.2 percent) last season. And those who choose to return this year, along with any other new fans the franchise somehow might have attracted, are being asked to endure a youth movement.
That generally means only one thing – root for the kids, but don't expect great things. At least not yet, anyways.
Really, Florida doesn't have any other choice. The way of the new NHL is draft, develop and plug holes through free agency. And, to the Panthers' credit, their recent draft picks are showing promise along with a number of young veterans in the lineup.
It just has to be frustrating to a fan base that looks around the division and sees a young superstar with each rival – Alexander Ovechkin in Washington, Vincent Lecavalier in Tampa Bay, Ilya Kovalchuk in Atlanta and Eric Staal in Carolina – while stars on Florida rosters, including Roberto Luongo and Olli Jokinen, are cast off in trades before helping the team find success.
Whether it was bungled negotiations, a personality conflict or just wanting a change of scenery, Luongo has moved on and Florida has moved on as well. Current starting goalie, Tomas Vokoun, was, without argument, not only last year's most valuable player but also the best thing to happen to the Panthers in a long time.
The franchise can only hope trading long-time captain Jokinen to Phoenix in exchange for a pair of prime-aged defensemen – Keith Ballard, 25, and Nick Boynton, 29 – will turn out as well. Ballard is the key in the deal. With 233 games under his belt, he had enough experience to convince Florida to sign him to a six-year extension that begins next season.
In addition to tying up a potential young star, the Panthers are sending a message to Jay Bouwmeester, who averaged 27:28 minutes per game last year but was reluctant to sign more than a one-year deal in the offseason, instead wanting to keep his options open. The biggest factor in his decision to stay or go next summer will be based on the moves made and support shown by ownership and management this season.
Bouwmeester and Ballard, who figure to comprise the top pair, anchor a blue line that has potential. If youngster Noah Welch rebounds from a season lost to a shoulder injury, and fellow newcomers Bryan McCabe and Boynton can blend in with Karlis Skrastins and Bryan Allen, the Panthers should be able to cut down significantly on the excessive average number of shots (33.6) they faced on a nightly basis last season.
Up front is where youth will have to be served. And the man who will try to bring it all together is Peter DeBoer, Florida's new head coach who has no previous NHL experience. Highly touted for his work in the Ontario Hockey League, DeBoer replaces Jacques Martin, who will drop coaching and wear just one hat as general manager.
Last season: 38-35-9, 85 points, third place Southeast Division, 11th place Eastern Conference. Despite playing at a .700 clip the final 15 games of the season, the Panthers fell nine points shy of a playoff spot, which would have been their first in eight seasons.
Imports: D Keith Ballard (2007-08 team: Phoenix Coyotes), D Nick Boynton (Phoenix Coyotes), D Bryan McCabe (Toronto Maple Leafs), LW Cory Stillman (Ottawa Senators), D Rory Fitzpatrick (Philadelphia Flyers), G Chris Beckford-Tseu (St. Louis Blues), C Janis Sprukts (Finland).
Exports: C Olli Jokinen (Phoenix Coyotes), D Mike Van Ryn (Toronto Maple Leafs), D Steve Montador (Anaheim Ducks), C Jozef Stumpel (Russia), D Jassen Cullimore (available free agent), D Magnus Johansson (available free agent), D Branislav Mezei (available free agent), LW Garth Murray (available free agent).
Three keys to the season: First, the Panthers need to continue to develop from within, and they must put players in a position to succeed. Top prospects Shawn Matthias and Michael Frolik are a pair of 20-year-old centers who show promise. Matthias is a powerful skater and Frolik is highly skilled. Considering the question marks Florida has at center ice – the top three include Stephen Weiss, Brett McLean and Kamil Kreps – the organization would love to see one of the rookies stick after training camp and have an impact. But the Panthers have to be careful not to force the issue if it's not in the best interest of the player's development. Goal-scoring, however, is needed with the departure of Jokinen. That onus falls on newcomer Cory Stillman and yet-to-break-through Panthers Nathan Horton, David Booth, Rostislav Olesz and Weiss.
Second, the successful and productive return to the ice of Richard Zednik could serve as an inspiration not only for his teammates, but also for the franchise and community as well. No one can forget the gruesome image of Zednik getting accidentally cut in the throat by an opponent's skate blade last February. Zednik even said he wanted to return late last season after surgery, but obeyed doctor's orders to stay away until the fall. It would appear the mental challenges have already been met, now it's just up to Zednik to display his veteran scoring touch.
Third, the Panthers and DeBoer have to hope the 40-year-old's impressive junior hockey resume translates into success at the pro level. During 13 years as a head coach in the OHL, DeBoer-coached teams had winning records 12 times. Twice honored as AHL coach of the year, DeBoer was in charge for the last seven years of the Kitchener Rangers, who won the OHL title twice and captured the Memorial Cup once. Normally, inexperience at the NHL level might handicap a coach like DeBoer, but he hardly has less experience than three of the four other coaches in the division – first-timer John Anderson in Atlanta, second-year man Bruce Boudreau in Washington and Tampa Bay's Barry Melrose, who hasn't coached since 1995.
On the hot seat: Martin can concentrate solely on his role as general manager after having been removed from behind the bench, a dual responsibility that just doesn't work in the NHL anymore. He was handicapped at the trade deadline last year when there was a lot of interest in Jokinen. Martin was on record as saying he was a coach on game day and available to talk trades on off-days. That's a tough way to go about the office of GM, but now it's fixed, and if that isn't what Martin does to the team here in the next couple of seasons he'll have run out of hats to wear.
Poised to blossom: Horton is 23 years old and has four years of NHL experience under his belt, including appearances in all 82 games the last two seasons. With Jokinen gone, Horton will be the young forward to emerge, or at least he'll be given every opportunity to do just that. He's scored a career-high 62 points in each of the last two seasons along with a combined 58 goals. Projected as the team's top-line right wing, and flanked on the opposite wing by the veteran scorer Stillman, if Horton can build some chemistry with the top center – whether it's Weiss or someone else – he has a chance to add 20 points to last year's total.
Analysis and prediction: Maybe it's too much to ask – for goaltending to remain consistent; for the defense to gel and tighten up; for goal-scoring to pick up; and DeBoer to make a seamless transition to the pros – but it's probably going to take all of those things to allow the Panthers to squeak into a playoff spot.
Smart money says Florida will get there, but probably not for another year or two.