Question: Being honest, I don't follow the Panthers very closely. As such, most of what I know about the team comes from snark, innuendo and stereotypes. So we'll start big picture. What's the best thing you can say about the franchise that doesn't involve 1996 or 2012?
Answer from Kevin Kraczkowski: Well, that cuts right to the heart of the matter, doesn't it. As a Panther fan, I think I speak for all of us in that NHL-fueled happiness is doled in random and infrequent small doses. A nice pass, a score on a breakaway, a good save. Aside from those two seasons you mentioned, there hasn't really been anything to write home about here in Pantherland other than the two seasons we could count on Pavel Bure to get onto Sportscenter for two minutes once a week. The future's always bright, though. The Panthers have the tools in place to build on, with Calder Memorial Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau, super-rookie Sasha Barkov, work-in-progress Jacob Markstrom between the pipes, and a rapidly maturing Nick Bjugstad learning the NHL game. F Drew Shore, D's Colby Robak and Vincent Trocheck, and G Michael Houser all wait in the wings. We can probably also look forward to another lottery pick this season, and maybe (hopefully not) next season too.
All that aside, I'd say beating the Ducks tonight would rank right up there. I know you probably think it's unlikely, but isn't that why they play the games?
Q: How frustrating is it for hardcore fans like yourself to deal with a brand new rebuild after seemingly having things set up as recently as two seasons ago?
KK: It feels a little unjust, to tell you the truth. Being a Panther fan is testing, to understate the fact. Think about it. We've enjoyed playoff hockey in four out of 19 seasons (soon to be four of 20) since we were awarded an NHL franchise. For contrast, the Detroit Red Wings haven't missed the playoffs since the 1980's. Their recent fan's "fandom" has never been tested. Isn't it easy to love a winner?
The rebuild hasn't really been abandoned. As stated above, the pieces are still in place, it's just the top of the pile that has been replaced. First, Vincent Viola bought the team - and has stated in effect that money is not a concern when chasing free agents. This is a polar shift from what we witnessed with the last ownership group. Viola has said that he's committed to winning and keeping the team in South Florida. This may go a long way toward prospective free agents willingness to sign on with the Panthers. Second, the coaching staff was just "rotated," and the jury is still out on what they could do. If GM Dale Tallon is given free reign to try and sign who he wants to, I forsee the Panthers going nuts on FA day in July, much like two seasons ago, but with less limits. I could easily see the Panthers making the postseason after the 2014-15 season. Right now though, like I said, happiness in small doses.
Q: While in Portland, Kevin Dineen developed a number of current and former Ducks (most notably Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry) was his firing justified or was he the product of the players he was handed by Dale Tallon?
KK: The root of the problem may or may not have been Dineen's fault. However, the issue was not an issue of coaching, but of respect. The feeling was that he had lost the dressing room, and when your team stops taking you seriously, then a change needs to be made. Florida made a wholesale change, firing not just Dineen but also assistant coaches Gord Murphy and Craig Ramsay. In their place, we have the former San Antonio Rampage AHL coaching staff, Peter Horachek, Brian Skrudland (defensemen), and John Madden (forwards). Although they carry the "interim" handle, they have the inside track to a permanent position with the club. We don't expect the postseason this season, but a little respectability would go a long way.
Q: What have you seen more recently, Ryan Whitney cleanly handle a pass at the blueline and hold the zone, or a unicorn? (Feel free to add any other thoughts you might have on the former top defenseman of the Edmonton Oilers)
KK: I was a fan of the Whitney signing at first, but I had no idea he had become such a pylon. The Panthers were obviously in the same boat as me, and picked him up on the cheap. In his six games in the defensive rotation, he played 97 minutes, registered a minus-7 rating and collected nine blocked shots. He's since been waived, and I don't know where he'll land next, but I doubt it's anywhere in the NHL.
Q: It seems like we've been waiting an eternity for Jacob Markstrom to break through. I can't even imagine how long it seems for you guys. When will become the Panthers' starting goalie, if ever?
KK: He was about to be the Panthers official number one this season, but then somehow Tim Thomas decided to come out of retirement, where the Cats gladly picked him up. Markstrom has all the talent in the world, but when counted on to get a win for the Cats has come up a little short. He allows one easy goal per game, which has been the only consistency for him this season. His defensive corps frequently leave him hung out to dry, where his tendency to play deep in the crease can be exploited. A real challenge for him has been his lack of aggression. If he could figure out how to get a little further out of the net and challenge opposing forwards with poke checks, maybe he could turn the corner. That's where his exposure to Thomas could come into play. Thomas has one season, maybe two before hanging it up for good. Markstrom would probably do his best by backing up Thomas this season and having Thomas back him up next.
Thanks to Kevin (and the invention of copy/paste so I didn't have to spell his last name). Head over to LBC to read my answers to his five questions.