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Skilled players, strong leaders have Florida Panthers' fans abuzz

A stable leader like Gerard Gallant has been a big plus for the development of talented stars like Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov. Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI/Getty Images

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- For years, the Florida Panthers have been disrespected, disregarded and pretty much dismissed as a hockey wasteland, a franchise adrift that would have been better suited just about anywhere else.

That's what happens when you miss the playoffs for 13 of the past 14 seasons and have not bothered to win a playoff round since 1996. Fans have a habit of staying away from that in droves. And in that sense, it's been all but impossible to determine what the South Florida marketplace is really capable of.

But a funny thing is happening in suburban Sunrise. It's called hockey, the kind of hockey that doesn't just speak to making the playoffs, but of a team to be reckoned with, a team that appears built just as nicely for the short term as the long term.

Here are five reasons this season's Panthers might be the franchise's best team ever, and why this all just might work in the land that hockey forgot.

1. Success starts at the top

Since taking over the team in the fall of 2013, owners Vincent Viola and Douglas Cifu have consistently talked about their commitment to keeping the team in South Florida, and to winning. But perhaps the most important change to the Panthers was the hiring of former Philadelphia Flyers executive Peter Luukko, who spent 25 years as president and COO in Philadelphia and was instrumental in helping smooth out a new lease agreement with Broward County that effectively closes out talk of the Panthers relocating.

Further, Luukko's philosophy is simple: be a part of the community and tell the fans the truth, neither of which was particularly true in the team's past.

"Tell them your plan and then begin to execute it," Luukko said during an interview between periods of a recent home game. "What I saw when we made the deal for Jaromir Jagr at the trading deadline, I think it was probably the first time in years that the team was actually a buyer, not a seller. And then to re-sign him afterwards so it wasn't, 'Oh, they're renting him to give it a try and then they're going to dump the whole thing.' Then to see that we were actually living up to our plan, which is built around the young core and surround them with veterans that can help not only contribute, but help them become elite pros."

Throw in the fact the team recently extended the contracts of GM Dale Tallon and head coach Gerard Gallant and you have a recipe for consistency that has been lacking for years in Florida.

In Philadelphia, everyone knew owner Ed Snider was all about winning, year in and year out.

"Well, now everybody knows that Vinnie Viola's committed to winning," Luukko said. "We told them that and we had to show them, and everybody's seen the commitment. And fans are smart. You can't fool them. And if you're honest with them, you'll do fine. You bulls--- them, you're in trouble."

2. The buzz is building in South Florida

There is an elasticity that comes into play with evolving teams and their fan bases. The 2005-06 season ended with a Stanley Cup for the Carolina Hurricanes, but it took fans well into the second half of that season to consistently reward the team's play on the ice with tickets sold. Then, the Cup win helped sell tickets for years afterward. The Panthers are getting there. Last seasons's late push to the playoffs fell just short, but it was followed by a long playoff run for their in-state neighbors from Tampa, which kept hockey in the public eye in Florida and helped the Panthers jump from a season-ticket base of 5,000 to more than 8,800 this season.

Buoyed by a franchise-record 12-game winning streak and a solid hold on first place in the Atlantic Division this season, daily ticket sales for games are regularly between $75,000 to $100,000, Luukko said. The team saw spikes like that previously, but frequently returned to $25,000 levels.

"So we started with a nice base where we could say we'll have no crowd under 10,000," he said. "Well, now we'll have no crowd under 12,000."

By the end of the regular season, who knows what that number will be. Another positive barometer is that per capita merchandise sales are up 22 percent over last year, and because attendance has gone up, gross sales are also higher.

"Which means people aren't coming for a one-time experience and then doing whatever they do the next night," Luukko said. "They want our merchandise. They want to wear it."

3. The Jagr effect

Who knew picking up a 43-year-old winger would have such a profound impact on a team? Jagr has become a pivotal building block in terms of the on-ice play and the team's profile. Jagr, Willie Mitchell, Roberto Luongo and Derek MacKenzie have all provided nice veteran ballast to a team populated by high draft picks who are now emerging as top players. And Tallon is looking to add more as the Feb. 29 trade deadline approaches, and being solidly in the "buyer" category will only add to the buzz around the team.

What puts Tallon in an enviable position is that he can afford to be choosy. A scoring winger to play with Nick Bjugstad? That would be nice. Defensive depth? Who doesn't want that come playoff time? Tallon can afford to be cautious, though, because his team's depth has been surprising with Logan Shaw, Corban Knight and Steven Kampfer all playing meaningful minutes when Aleksander Barkov, Bjugstad, Mitchell and Dmitry Kulikov were lost at various times to injury.

"We're looking, but the thing is we're looking to see if it makes for us not just now but long term," Tallon said. "We don't want to go do something that's going to block or give up a real solid young asset and prevent our young guys that we have in the system from being on our team."

4. A winning attitude is building

We talk about the "culture of winning," that elusive part of a team's DNA that allows the Los Angeles Kings, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings to be in the hunt every season, regardless of how the roster evolves. Sadly, for teams such as the Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Edmonton Oilers, it's easy to know you don't have it but hard to say where it comes from. Is it in the Panthers' dressing room now?

Veteran backup netminder Al Montoya thinks it might be. He recalled a recent practice in which 36-year-old starter Luongo stayed on the ice for extra shooting practice.

"One of the rookies took one shot and then skated away and [Luongo] kind of barked at him, you know, 'Finish the drill,'" Montoya recalled. "And I was like, 'That's unbelievable.' This is a guy that maybe doesn't have to finish the drill but wants to finish the drill, but he's also forcing other guys to do it to make everybody better."

The value of that kind of moment might not be apparent until mid-April or into May, but maybe it will turn out to be another moment that changed how this team behaves.

"Because there's days as rookies you don't know what this game's like," Montoya said. "You don't know how fortunate you are to have this. When you see a guy like [Luongo] battling or a guy like Jagr battling, it's like, 'Wow, why am I taking today off?'"

5. The numbers don't lie

So, how good is this team? What are these players capable of? The Panthers are coming off a crucial weekend that saw them whip the defending-champion Blackhawks and Cup-finalist Lightning on back-to-back nights, outscoring them 9-1. A longtime NHL scout said he had told his GM in October that the Panthers were going to be in the playoffs and would be a handful once they got there. The GM was skeptical: Too soon, he said.

Now, like the scout, the GM is bullish on the Panthers and their potential to be a playoff team to be reckoned with. As of Wednesday morning, the Panthers were second overall in the league in goals allowed per game, eighth on the penalty kill and are 24-3-3 when they score first. Those 24 wins are third in the league in that category. They are also tied for seventh in the league in 5-on-5 scoring.

How good are they? The Panthers look like a team built for success.