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Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer makes a save on Carolina Hurricanes left winger Sergei Samsonov (14) during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Thursday February 3, 2011. The Hurricanes have acquired defenceman Bryan Allen from the Florida Panthers in exchange for winger Samsonov. (Frank Gunn)
Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender James Reimer makes a save on Carolina Hurricanes left winger Sergei Samsonov (14) during second period NHL hockey action in Toronto on Thursday February 3, 2011. The Hurricanes have acquired defenceman Bryan Allen from the Florida Panthers in exchange for winger Samsonov. (Frank Gunn)

Panthers burned to the ground, again Add to ...

Shortly after he was traded by the Florida Panthers, defenceman Bryan Allen offered a lament in an interview with Rogers Sportsnet: "Hopefully this is their last rebuild."

Since it came from the only player remaining from one of the worst trades in team history, for goaltender Roberto Luongo, it spoke loudly about what faces Panthers general manager Dale Tallon and managing partner Cliff Viner. It's their last chance rather than a last rebuild, although Tallon and team president Michael Yormark were talking big on Monday afternoon.

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"We look forward to having another successful draft and then being very aggressive in the free-agent market this summer," Tallon said. "So it's going to be hot and heavy here in July."

Well, maybe.

The big question now is even if the team owners allow Tallon to spend more than the salary-cap floor, how will his summer plans turn out? But an even bigger question faces this franchise next fall - will 10 consecutive seasons out of the playoffs so burn out an already weak fan base that it will yawn at yet another in a seemingly endless series of rebuilds, the response the shallow-pocketed owners can least afford?

At the NHL's trade deadline Monday, Tallon finished what began a month ago, blowing it up real good, the kind of roster detonation hockey fans in many cities call for but rarely see. This was easily the biggest fire sale of this year's deadline period and perhaps the biggest since the salary cap was introduced after the 2004-05 lockout.

Tallon shipped out a boatload of veterans with relatively big paycheques - forwards Cory Stillman, Radek Dvorak, Christopher Higgins and Michael Frolik, defencemen Bryan McCabe, Dennis Wideman and Allen. Coming back were a lot of draft picks, a few prospects, some warm bodies and just two players with appreciable NHL experience, Sergei Samsonov and Niclas Bergfors.

But Samsonov will be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, so only Bergfors, 23, who has seen two teams give up on him, has a chance to be with the Panthers next season.

This was a pure salary dump. The Panthers' payroll was cut so deeply they only have about $18-million (all currency U.S.) committed for next season's salaries. If the cap rises to more than $62-million next season as expected, theoretically Tallon will have around $44-million to spend.

If the owners let him spend anywhere close to that. Not even Tallon was hazarding a guess on that Monday, although he tried to put a happy face on it.

"Regardless of what [next year's payroll]is, we freed up a lot of money," Tallon said. "We have a good chunk of money to spend. We'll use it wisely."

That money will have to come from the owners, since the team can't turn a profit this season. The Panthers consistently rank among the NHL's lowest teams in revenue. There is no way their ticket sales are going to rise now, since Monday's fire sale practically guaranteed the Panthers will miss the playoffs for the 10th year in a row.

When it comes to a potential response to the latest rebuild there are no encouraging trends in the team's attendance or local television ratings. As the Miami Herald tartly noted recently, the Panthers' games draw fewer viewers on local television than infomercials for exercise machines and blenders. The average audience in South Florida for a Panthers game is a mere 3,000 households.

The highest the Panthers ever finished in attendance among the NHL's 30 teams since the lockout was 19th in 2005-06. They are currently sitting 23rd with an average crowd of 15,319.

Only the owners really know how big of a gamble it is to start over one more time. But one can't help but think they are getting down to the short strokes if there is no turnaround in another year or two.



Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 

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