Way Down in Dixie: The NHL in the South, Part Two
All right guys and gals, a few days ago, I took a deeper look into hockey in the land of Dixie. That's right. The NHL Southeast is one of the more controversial divisions in the league, with some of the more dynamic and talented players in the league.
It includes names like Alexander Ovechkin, Eric Staal, Vinny Lecavalier, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Stephen Weiss. All of these players can be considered superstars.
But the NHL Southeast also holds some of the teams with lowest attendance numbers and worst records.
There have been questions as to the future of hockey in Dixie. Some analysts say that these teams are located in cities undeserving of hockey franchises and should be moved back to cities with hockey roots and traditions such as Quebec City, Winnipeg, and Hartford.
In Part Two of my three part series, I want to take a look at the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Brought into the NHL in 1993, the Panthers had almost immediate success playing in the Florida sun. Built around stars Scott Mellanby and rookie Rob Neidermayer, the team weathered many early criticisms including:
Criticism: South Florida will never support a hockey franchise. There are no hockey fans. The only ice people down there know about it, is the type they put in their Mojitos.
Reply: The Panthers first win came against fellow Florida team, the Tampa Bay Lightning in front of 27,000 people, a record. That's a lot of mojitos.
Criticism: They don't have any amazing or legitimate superstar players. Solid players, but no dynamos.
Reply: True, but they rallied together with an underdog mentality. Leaders like Mellanby, Neidermayer, and captain Brian Skrudland, helped rally the team to an impressive record and establish a fan base in South Florida.
Criticism: The Neutral Zone or Trap Defense employed by the Cats was "ruining the game."
Reply: Every team adapts its playing style for its roster. This Trap worked for them. And who gets the last laugh? The Cats, the Jersey Devils (who rode it to three Cups), and Coach Roger Neilson for implementing the style.
While the Panthers have had rollercoaster seasons, they have advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, ultimately losing to the Avalanche in the '96 season and made the playoffs multiple times in their history. In the 15 years since their inception, the Cats have proved hockey can exist in the Sunshine State.
Currently, their roster includes quality players like Stephen Weiss, Jay Bouwmeester, Nathan Horton, and Corey Stillman. Management brought in veteran blue-liners Bryan McCabe (Toronto), Keith Ballard, and Bryan Allen (Phoenix) in the off-season to shore up a less than stellar defensive core.
The Cats also have superstar Tomas Vokoun between the pipes, but he has been upstaged this season by relatively unknown Craig Anderson with an incredible 1.94 GAA.
Rookie coach Peter DeBoer and GM Jacques Martin are doing the best they can with the players they have. Plagued by inconsistency, injuries, and internal battles over the past few seasons, the Cats have been living in a post-season draught.
The Panthers have amazing potential with a young roster and a loyal fan base. They just need to make all the pieces fit together. Right now, the Cats sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. The question remains to be seen if they can pull themselves up by their skate-straps and make the push into the playoffs.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Much like their feline counterparts further South, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced a multitude of questions and controversies coming into the league.
At one point, the ownership was bankrupt and linked to Japanese crime syndicate, Yakuza. Wow. But riding a wave of young and veteran players (Brian Bradley, Petr Kilma, Roman Hamrlik, and Dino Ciccarelli), the Lightning had their ups and downs. They continued to build and establish loyal fans.
Yet speaking of the current situation, what can I say that hasn't already been said? In my article "The Tampa Bay Way: How the Lightning's Season Went Awry," I talked about the absolute failure of the Bolts organization and team this season.
Tampa Bay did win the Cup in '04 and brought a sense of legitimacy back to the Southeast. With superstars Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, and Vinny Lecavalier on their roster, the Bolts, until the past few seasons, were perennial playoff contenders.
But with much of that Cup-winning roster out of the system and Richards shipped off to the Dallas, the Bolts looked to rebuild this off-season. The failure of it is well documented.
The Lightning are a team in transition right now. They still have the fans and the talent to make a run at the Cup, but this season, well, probably won't be their season.
But as I have said in my previous article, don't despair Bolts fans. The tandem of Stamkos and potential first overall pick Tavares is right around the corner. Just keep on losing!
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