There have been nights these past several weeks when you wonder what might have been for the Panthers.
They could have been fighting the Devils for the sixth playoff spot Wednesday night instead of watching their postseason hopes teetering on extinction with a loss to Atlanta. It's strange, really. They're a million to one now to make the playoffs and, yet, you can't criticize what the Panthers have accomplished.
And you have to believe next season will be even better.
It's not always healthy to look back at what might have been, to look in the rearview with rose-colored glasses. And maybe the view here is a little too optimistic for a team that won't make the playoffs for a fifth season barring a miracle of epic proportions. It appeared Wednesday they have simply run out of steam.
But after some truly horrible teams -- after a revolving door leading to the locker room and management offices -- the Panthers have reason to look forward to the future. It may not be this postseason, but it almost certainly will be next season.
All you need to know is this: The Panthers are 28-21-5 since Nov. 23. Not bad for a team that's folded in the past like a cheap card table. Those are the kinds of numbers that offer Panther fans hope for the first time in six years.
Take away a horrible stretch of games between Oct. 27 and Dec. 10 when the Panthers went 3-14-3, including an 0-8-3 stretch in November that coincided with Joe Nieuwendyk and Horton both missing games with injuries, and the Panthers have played the kind of hockey the second half of the season worthy of a playoff team.
It's been a long time coming, too. When former GM Rick Dudley was brought on by owner Alan Cohen in 2001, the Panthers farm system had been depleted and the drafting of talent was abysmal. The Panthers spent the late 1990s and 2000 using their top draft picks to select Mike Brown, Kyle Rossiter, Joe DiPenta, Denis Shvidki and Vladimir Sapozhnikov. All were busts. They also acquired Viktor Kozlov by trading the draft pick that would turn out to be Vincent Lecavalier.
Cohen's philosophy on constructing a winner was simple but time consuming. Build through the draft and have those players for seven or eight years. Under Dudley, the Panthers' draft improved greatly. While he did pass on Rick Nash and Eric Staal, Dudley drafted Horton, Bouwmeester, Weiss, Lukas Krajicek and Anthony Stewart. Current GM Mike Keenan drafted Rostislav Olesz. And while Keenan hasn't always spent money wisely with the signing of defensemen Alexei Semenov and Alexander Karpovtsev, his instincts were correct in signing veterans Nieuwendyk, Gary Roberts and Martin Gelinas.
Having said all this, the Panthers must continue with their reclamation project. They've showed their commitment to winning by signing Olli Jokinen, offering goalie Roberto Luongo $6 million a season, and not trading away draft picks. They also will be looking to sign two of the many defensemen who will become unrestricted free agents this summer.
Anyone have a problem with Ed Jovanovski returning to the Panthers? The current Canuck is building a home in South Florida. How about the Senators' Zdeno Chara, Pavel Kubina of the Lightning or the Sabres' Jay McKee?
The Panthers weren't picked in this space at the beginning of the season to make the playoffs. But after watching them rebound this spring from all of those last-second losses earlier in the year -- after watching them learn how to win with the help of Martin, his staff and the team's veterans -- they will be picked to go to the playoffs come fall.
It's been a long time coming.