The slow start of the Anaheim Ducks is a league-wide topic, so when Litter Box Cats wanted to find out what was us up the folks at SBN's Florida Panthers affiliate contacted us. With the Cats off to a solid start and in the thick of things in the Atlantic Division, albeit somewhat anonymously, we had some questions for JC Smith as well to put the spotlight on tonight's opponent:
1) This roster has 15 players either 25 years old or younger, and players like Ekblad, Huberdeau, Barkov, Bjugstad and Trocheck have been building cachet around the league and are becoming more recognizable. Who is the standout of that group, and which other under-25 Panthers should people know about?
There are two Calder winners in that bunch, with Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad, and the team's leading scorer last season in Nick Bjugstad. However, the one who had looked the most impressive this season was Aleksander Barkov, which of course makes his injury that much harder to absorb. Barkov came into this season looking faster and stronger and with a better sense of when to shoot rather than defer to teammates and pass the puck. In that respect, it was Jaromir Jagr who had a substantial impact on him, telling him to shoot more, defer less, and keep moving. Barkov and Jagr found fantastic chemistry at the end of last season, and it only got better early this season. When he returns Barkov will be one to watch.
As for others under 25 years of age that you should know about, Dmitry Kulikov has really shined this season, looking faster, with a noticeably higher NHL I.Q. and very well timed pinches in the offensive zone. He is also playing with a broken nose. You may also see our "Charlie Hustle" and Southern California native Rocco Grimaldi in the lineup. Rocco is nothing if not entertaining to watch as he just barrels around the ice with speed, vision and intensity. It would be fantastic if he were to get his second career goal while back in Orange County.
2) There's a interesting balance with so much youth and a so many late 30's players on the team. What is the interplay between the likes of Jagr, Luongo, Mitchell, and Campbell with the young players, and how has their leadership impacted development of the youngsters?
The older players have gone "all-in" and embraced their leadership roles. When in the lineup, you would see Jagr talking on the bench to all his teammates, pointing at things, and sharing laughs as well. Just the other night we saw Dave Bolland pull Grimaldi aside as they made a change that almost led to a too many men penalty and give him instruction. Brian Campbell and Ekblad have spoken of their high mutual respect for one another, and Willie Mitchell has been the best captain this team has had in many, many years.
Listening to our radio color analyst (and former player) Bill Lindsey the other day, he stated that this team is one of the those entities that plays for "we" rather than "I" and that the players genuinely have great relationships and support for one another. I would be remiss if I did not add former Duck Shawn Thornton in here as well. While there is no doubt he has lost another step on the ice, he has been an excellent leader and supporter of his teammates and they look to him often it seems, if for nothing else than to calm them.
3) The Panthers made a nice run at the playoffs last season before falling short. Considering the turnover in several Atlantic Division rivals, how realistic of a chance does Florida have of making the playoffs? Do the fans expect it?
There is no question that the Panthers should be in the mix. The Metro division has not been as strong as expected, and the Atlantic is looking more like a dogfight with each passing game, as Montreal returns to Earth and Tampa fights to stay above average. A playoff appearance under these circumstances is realistic, but its not going to be easy either. As for the fans, I would say that deep inside the fans expect it, but there have been so many seasons of misery and/or failed expectations, that we wear caution on our sleeves.
4) How much does the fan base keep up on the political goings-on (financial issues, looking for help from the city/state) surrounding the team? Is there concern about the franchise's long-term viability in Sunrise?
Good question. Fans of the team watch all the political goings-on closely but I have not detected any real concern about long-term viability. That may sound strange, but it's really the out-of-market folks who question viability. Let me be blunt, the team has sucked for a very long time. The team was also in the hands of terrible ownership and management for a very long time. Nobody almost anywhere supports that long-term a loser, so it's actually a miracle the Panthers managed the attendance they did for so many years, and a testament to the viability of the market.
Win, and the stadium will be full. It has been in the past, and it's a big building. We sold out the season opener with over 19,000 and only 2000 of those tickets were comps. Already the team has sold 54% more tickets through October than last season, and 3,000 more season tickets than last season and we have not made the playoffs yet. Things are certainly looking up.
Bonus) What's the best story involving Roberto Luongo that the national media may not have heard yet? He's without a doubt one of the most entertaining players in the league.
So many to choose from. Whether his bike suit and helmet, to Jagr mullet watch tweets, or his likeness to a certain international soccer goalie, but I'll go with this one: Last season against the Maple Leafs at home, Lu injured his shoulder and was driven to a local emergency room for scans. Later in that same game, our backup Al Montoya also was injured and could not continue to play. Lu had the game on at the ER and saw what happened. As the team started dressing Derek MacKenzie in goalie equipment (he lost a shootout with Scottie Upshall for it), Lu made record time BACK from the ER to the stadium, suited up and finished the game. When I say record time? Lu may actually have been driving an F-16.