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Panthers need to 'stop talking, start acting,' GM says

Must turn hiring of Quenneville, signing of Bobrovsky into playoff success

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers received a message from general manager Dale Tallon when they reported to training camp Thursday. 

"Let's stop talking and start acting," he said. " 'Oh, yeah. Great summer. Great summer.' Well, now we have to prove it."

The Panthers hired coach Joel Quenneville on April 8 and signed unrestricted free agent goalie Sergei Bobrovsky on July 1. Quenneville has more regular-season wins (890) than anyone but Scotty Bowman (1,244), and he won the Stanley Cup three times with the Chicago Blackhawks (2010, 2013, 2015). Bobrovsky has won the Vezina Trophy twice (2013, 2017) with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Florida also signed three other UFAs on July 1: defenseman Anton Stralman and forwards Noel Acciari and Brett Connolly. 

Owner Vincent Viola has made a major investment, spending close to the $81.5 million NHL salary cap, to put pieces around the young, talented core. The Panthers have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs five times in 25 seasons, including once in the past seven, and ranked 30th in average home attendance last season at 13,261.

"He doubled down," Panthers president Matt Caldwell said. "I think he's been spending a lot as it is, and then he got to a point where he's like, 'We're kind of on the fringe. We've got to take the next big step.' "

 

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But not everyone is sold yet.

Caldwell said the Quenneville hiring and the Bobrovsky signing each spiked season-ticket sales 8-10 percent, and he would be shocked if the Panthers averaged fewer than 14,000 fans this season. He said they are at about 7,500 season tickets, up from about 3,000 when Viola bought the team in 2013. 

"We're not, like, sold out by any chance," Caldwell said of the BB&T Center, which has a capacity of 20,727. "We still have a lot of work to do. I think we've captured all the really loyal great fans that have seen the things we've done, but there's still a bunch of casual fans out there that are saying, 'All right, let's see if you guys actually win now.' These are all great headlines, but until you get out and perform ... There's a whole group of people that want to see that execution."

It won't be easy, either.

The last time the Panthers made the playoffs, in 2015-16, they won the Atlantic Division but lost to the New York Islanders in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round. They finished 14 points out of the second wild card the following season. In 2017-18, they went 25-8-2 in their last 35 games and finished one point out. Then last season, they finished 12 points out.

Oh, and Florida plays in a division, the Atlantic, that had three of the top seven teams in the NHL last season: the Tampa Bay Lightning (first), Boston Bruins (third) and Toronto Maple Leafs (seven). 

"We had that great second half two years ago, and everybody came to camp, 'Oh, wow, we missed by a point. We've got a great team. We're just going to show up, and it's going to happen,' " Tallon said. "Well, it didn't. This League is so hard that 31 teams are coming out with the message today that they think they can win the Cup, and it's hard to get into the playoffs now."

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The core of forwards Jonathan Huberdeau (seven seasons in Florida), Aleksander Barkov (six) and Vincent Trocheck (six) and defensemen Aaron Ekblad (five) and Mike Matheson (four) has been together for a while now. Huberdeau said the Panthers are sick of not making the playoffs. Barkov said they have no more excuses. Ekblad said they feel the stars have aligned and the team is as good as it has ever been. 

"There's a lot of urgency in our room right now," Trocheck said. "There's been a lot of hype before every season for the last few years, and I think now it's about time that we kind of take ownership upon ourselves and really make something of what we have. We obviously have a lot of great hockey players, and we have the talent to be a really good hockey team. We've seen how good we can be at times. It's just a matter of us kind of putting it all together and meaning business starting from Day One."

Tallon and Quenneville spoke to the players after they went through medical testing and media interviews on Thursday. Practice starts at Florida Panthers IceDen on Friday.

"Dale said it today," Quenneville said. "He said, 'It's time for everybody. We can talk all we want. But now it's up to us to play and for us to make sure we're prepared and we're ready to go about it in the right way.' "

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