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Q&A With Panthers Owner Alan Cohen

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
With the NHL Entry Draft this weekend and free agency beginning July 1, Panther owner Alan Cohen recently took time to answer questions from FloridaPanthers.com writer Dave Joseph about the team’s direction as well as its past.

 
QUESTION: It was a year ago this week the club traded Roberto Luongo. Can you assess this trade now and describe exactly what happened?
 
ALAN COHEN: “The bottom line is we tried to sign Roberto for 18 months. The plan I’ve had since day one (as owner) was to sign our kids. I said I wanted guys to stay seven to 10-plus years and build through the draft. I never dreamed we’d trade Roberto. That’s why we tried to sign him for 18 months. He never said there was a problem with the dollars. We just couldn’t get it done. With most everyone else we get the deal done pretty quickly. All he had to do was get out a pen. The contract was there for 18 months.

“When it didn’t happen, the staff said (the trade) would make the team better. I really had no choice but to say, ‘Yes.’ As much as I love Roberto - and I have the utmost respect for him - but when the whole staff said trading him would be in the best interest of the Panthers, I said ‘Yes.’ 

“In any trade, when the main part (Todd Bertuzzi) doesn’t play, it will wind up as a bad trade. Along with that, (Alex) Auld, who was the Canucks’ MVP, didn’t fulfill that potential last year with us. If those two guys step up the way Roberto did for Vancouver, it could have been considered a much better deal. But at the time I had to make a decision and the staff believed this would be the best thing to do. If things were turned around and Roberto was the one that got injured and our players performed like we thought, the trade would have obviously looked different.”     

Q: Is the trade one of the reasons (former GM) Mike Keenan was dismissed?

AC: “I don’t really think so. Sometimes it’s just best to move on. Mike is a great hockey mind, but it was just time to have everyone on the same page. Mike was frustrated as well. The inability to get Roberto signed was the responsibility of many. Had Roberto signed his name on the dotted line, he would still be here. He had 18 months to do that. You can pick up a pen anywhere.”

Q: With the salary cap projected to be approximately $50 million, where do you project the payroll of the team come the fall?
 
AC: I’m thinking our payroll will be in the mid-$40 million area.”

Q: Is the main focus to get a goalie this off-season?

AC: “That’s up to Jacques. Jacques makes all those decisions. I’m comfortable with that. Having said that, I think Eddie (Belfour) played great last season.”
          
Q: How important is it for this team to get into the playoffs and get over that hump?

AC: “I don’t think fans understood how bad the situation was here in the three years pre CBA. When we took over, we had a 60 point team. We didn’t have anyone in the minors to speak of. We traded away first round picks. It was going to take a while to rebuild. I think what I learned from the experience is some people think you can wave a magic wand and fix things. I think post CBA, it’s much easier to get better quicker. We took over a 60 point team losing $20 million. The Rangers were spending $50 million more and still not making the playoffs. That’s absurd. You needed to build through the draft. Then spend the money on keeping the team together. Our plan was to build-up a good nucleus of young players and be in good position post CBA. I thought if we did that we’d be in good shape.
 
“And I think we are there now. We lost $10 million last year, but we’re committed to building a winner. Sure, I’d rather the higher revenues of the bigger market teams. Then money wouldn’t come out of my pocket. But until we create that revenue, we’ll continue to spend and support the team.

Q: Some have called you a frugal owner?

AC: “We’ve lost close to $90 million the last six years. I don’t think (frugal) would be the right word. Crazy might be better.”
 
Q: So how can you sustain the team through such losses?

AC: “Losing money is not fun. But as long as we’re able to afford a team as competitive as anyone else in the league, I’m happy. I’m committed to building a team we can all be proud of and we’ll continue signing our young players. Hopefully, fans will see that times have changed and that they can be proud of being a Panther fan. We should be a playoff type team from here on out; year in and year out (with) players being drafted here and some playing their whole careers here. I’m confident going forward that whatever was in the past is in the past.”
 
Q: What do fans tell you is there biggest frustration?
 
AC: “That we haven’t gotten to the playoffs. But it was impossible the first three years. The fact is, with the old CBA, we could only afford a mid-$20 million payroll. You wanted to spend more money but the players were too expensive. Now we can spend $20 million more on players because doing that will make you competitive. Especially if you have a good nucleus of young players that we didn’t have before and now always will. You can’t take a 60 point team, with not much talent, and spend $10 million on one player and expect to be anything better than a 60 point team losing $30 million instead of $20 million and getting a worse draft pick. That would be insane and counter productive to the longer-term vision.”

Q: What kind of players will the Panthers target in free agency. What kind of salary?
 
AC: “That’s Jacques’ call. Jacques has a long-term view. It’s important to keep a long-term view because we have players coming up who will need bigger contracts. We don’t want to be a one year wonder. But at the same time we want to be able to be the best team we can be every year.”
 
Q: There was a lot of instability with the front office in the past. How did that occur?

AC: “I don’t know, really. I think I always had a situation where the GM and coach were not on the same page. The situation happened. Stuff just happens sometimes. I guess I should have made better decisions. But if you don’t, for whatever reason, you need to correct it and move forward. We changed because we needed to put ourselves in a better situation. I did that and I’m happy where we are right now. I always thought there were talented people here, but maybe not on the same page. That will trickle through the whole organization. It was something I needed to address, and I did. There’s stability now. I love that more than anyone.”

Q: Was Keenan the reason for the instability?
 
AC: “Mike’s a competitor, and he will do a great job in Calgary. I really believe in him. Was he the right fit here? Maybe he wasn’t the right fit or the situation wasn’t right at the time. I think Mike would agree. It turned out best for him. I believe his heart is in coaching.”
 
Q: What’s the team’s biggest need?
 
AC: “In a cap world, there are always going to be needs you have to do without. (pause) I think we need to have a better November.”

Q: Would you agree with Jacques that if Bertuzzi wasn’t injured and Joe Nieuwendyk didn’t retire you would have made the playoffs?
 
AC: “Yes, I agree. But even though we lost those players, if we weren’t one of the worst at taking or receiving penalties or (losing) shootouts we would have been right there anyway. I think we were one of the best teams in the league 5 on 5. A lot of things went wrong for us last year. I’m hoping the team picks up where they left off last season. With a little bit of luck and if everyone stays somewhat healthy, we should be much better. But, you know, those are excuses. We need to make the playoffs. I think every year from here on out we’ll have a chance to do that.”
 
If you have a question for Panthers owner Alan Cohen, send it to josephd@sselive.com.
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