The Penguins? Panthers have bigger problems

SUNRISE, Fla. -- For those with an appetite for NHL history, there are teams that were once linked by their beginnings in the league and always will be.

For starters, there's the Original Six, and never mind that they weren't, in actuality, the NHL's first six clubs.

They were joined in 1967 by six new brethren, four of whom still exist in the cities in which they began.

In 1970, Vancouver and Buffalo were added, and while there hasn't been much shared history since, the Canucks and Sabres always will share birthdays.

Four World Hockey Association teams -- Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg -- merged with the NHL in 1979. Three of them eventually became Stanley Cup champions (after some significant geographical movement, of course).

In 1992, Tampa Bay and Ottawa were the recipients of arguably the league's most flawed expansion effort, and it remains a modern miracle that both franchises survived.

One year later, as the NHL hurriedly tried to establish a North American "footprint" by recklessly adding too many teams too fast, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and the Florida Panthers were born.

The Ducks and Panthers were supposed to be different, very different. Disney had been brought into the NHL family with the Anaheim squad, while Blockbuster boss Wayne Huizenga was to elevate hockey in the Sunshine State to a spectacular new level. Fourteen years later, neither Disney nor Huizenga is anywhere to be seen on the NHL landscape, and both the Ducks and Panthers still are struggling for acceptance.

The Ducks have been significantly more successful in recent years. They made it all the way to Game 7 of the 2003 Stanley Cup finals before losing to New Jersey and have been a very strong franchise over the past two seasons after dumping the "Mighty" part of their name last year.

Then, there's the Panthers. They have taken, over the course of their existence, a rather circuitous route that essentially has landed them in the very same place.

Or perhaps even worse.

A 3-2 overtime loss to divisional rival Carolina on Tuesday night before a pathetic audience of 10,317, a game that was the 1,000th in team history but wasn't celebrated in any visible way at the Bank Atlantic Center, dropped the Panthers to 14th place in the Eastern Conference.

A sixth consecutive non-playoff season is apparently in progress.

All the hustle and bustle of the offseason, one that included the departure of the team's signature star, goalie Roberto Luongo, and the acquisition of disgraced forward Todd Bertuzzi from Vancouver, ultimately has amounted to nothing.

This is, arguably, the NHL's weakest link, a team that was once very popular playing out of the bandbox Miami Arena when a hail of plastic rats meant the home team had scored but now lives in virtual seclusion somewhere near, but not too near, Fort Lauderdale.

Consider the plight of Finnish-born center Olli Jokinen, who outshone Sidney Crosby in a recent Panthers victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins with a hat trick.

Jokinen is the team's best and most appealing player, but he won't be in Dallas next week representing the Eastern Conference.

"It's pretty tough to get voted in if you're in South Florida," lamented Jokinen to The Miami Herald. "A lot of guys, if they don't have a satellite dish, they don't see our games."

This wasn't supposed to be the way it would turn out for Huizenga's hockey team, which initially made a meteoric ascent up the standings and looked like it would be far more successful than Tampa's Lightning.

"It's pretty tough to get voted in if you're in South Florida. A lot of guys, if they don't have a satellite dish, they don't see our games."
-- Olli Jokinen on his recent All-Star snub

Within three years of being born, the Panthers were in the Stanley Cup finals under GM Bryan Murray and coach Doug MacLean, losing in four straight to Patrick Roy and the Colorado Avalanche while making a big splash in the hockey world.

What people forget, of course, is that the next season began with the team's going unbeaten in 17 games. Then, it was as though time stopped for the Panthers, who gradually fell into near anonymity in the hypercompetitive world of South Florida professional and college sports.

Pavel Bure was here for a time, scoring 58 and 59 goals in separate seasons without attracting legions of new customers. Celebrated shinny wanderer Mike Keenan, the NHL's answer to Larry Brown, was hired not once but twice.

Losing has remained a constant since the team last reached the postseason, in 2000, and has continued this season despite a team that, on paper, now appears to have an attractive mix of talented young players and savvy veterans.

But it clearly has turned out to be less than the sum of its parts. With 17 wins, the Panthers appear to be going nowhere for specific reasons:

• They are the NHL's worst road team with only five victories away from home.

• In 25 road games, the Panthers have scored only 58 goals, while in 23 home starts, they've potted 79.

• Despite being led by Jacques Martin, considered one of the league's more conservative and better defensive coaches, the Panthers rank 24th in team defense.

• Here's the real kicker. The overtime loss to the Hurricanes on Tuesday meant the Panthers fell to 0-10 this season in games decided either in OT (0-4) or shootouts (0-6), the only squad without a victory in extra time this season.

Eight of those defeats have come at the hands of conference rivals, eight additional points that, if acquired, would have made a big difference to the Panthers' season. In shootouts, Martin's crew has scored only three times on 26 attempts, while goalies Ed Belfour and Alex Auld have been fooled 11 times on 26 shots.

The team's low point this season might have come last week in Raleigh, N.C., where the Hurricanes exploded for six third-period goals to come from behind and beat the Panthers in a humiliating end. Afterward, Jokinen fumed that some of his teammates seemed "afraid to win and quit playing" and "were nervous to go out on the ice," comments with which Martin, oddly enough, concurred.

To be sure, there are circumstances behind the Panthers' season.

• Keenan, the team's general manager, abruptly left on Sept. 3 after swinging the Bertuzzi-Luongo deal and a making a variety of other moves, including signing free-agent defenseman Ruslan Salei. As has often been the case with Iron Mike, whether he quit or was fired remains a debating point. Martin added the GM portfolio to his job description despite never having done anything but coach at the NHL level.

• Hard-rock left winger Gary Roberts asked for a trade back to Toronto to accommodate family requirements, but ultimately was forced to stay put. His best friend, center Joe Nieuwendyk, likewise was supposed to be one who would help lead younger players Jay Bouwmeester, Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss. But Nieuwendyk was forced into retirement by chronic back problems on Dec. 6.

• Bertuzzi, the player who was supposed to supply goals and brawn in his new hockey life far from the scene of his infamous attack on Colorado's Steve Moore three years ago, had scored only one goal and played in only seven games before undergoing back surgery Nov. 2. He has resumed skating over the past week, and might attempt to resume practicing later this month with an eye toward playing in February.

Still, the Panthers seemingly would have enough talent to remain competitive. But while their expansion twin in Anaheim has soared to the top of the Western Conference, the Panthers seem stuck in neutral, their Miami heyday a lifetime ago.

There is already speculation the Panthers will be dumping bodies before the Feb. 27 trade deadline, and even the name of Bouwmeester, the club's lone All-Star representative, has surfaced.

The Penguins' uncertain future has attracted most of the attention this season in terms of teams on rocky ground, but the Panthers, under owner Alan Cohen, are probably worse off.

The fan base has dwindled, and there is no Sidney Crosby or Alexander Ovechkin to serve as a sexy marquee attraction to make anyone want to watch the Panthers. The sport seems to have no roots here despite the efforts of the Panthers' alumni association to provide grants to promising local players. Meanwhile, in Tampa, they are celebrating a local boys team that recently went to Canada and won a prestigious minor hockey tournament.

One wonders how long the Panthers can survive as an athletic afterthought in a state that has celebrated a World Series champion, an NBA champion and is currently home to the reigning NCAA men's basketball and Division I football champions. Oh, yes, and the Lightning won a Stanley Cup in 2004.

South Florida, it's fair to say, once loomed as hockey's new frontier. Now, it seems more like hockey's hinterland.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.