florida panthers

The Florida Panthers, not long after getting themselves a shiny new owner, are still bad, because even having someone who actually cares about your team is not an immediate cure-all for being one of the worst teams in the league. You can ask the Winnipeg Jets about that.

There is, however, some enthusiasm in Sunrise these days because new owner Vinnie Viola — who won his name in a card game with a cartoon mobster — has taken time out of his day of busily shaking down local politicians for more taxpayer money to keep the team there to assure Panthers executives that when it comes to the summer’s silly season, they have free reign to spend as much as they like.

Here’s Dale Tallon on the subject from over the weekend:

“This team’s been bleeding money for a long time, but I’ve been told we’re going to be a cap team and want to try to break even. They want to invest money into the team. They want to win. That’s what’s going on here. They’ve given me the green light to be a cap team. So that’s fantastic. Not a floor team, a cap team. We’re excited.”

The idea of the Panthers as a cap team is an interesting one, insofar as it’s obviously never happened before and the team is currently ranked 30th out of 30 in terms of the amount of their cap space being used. As of yesterday, the team could have, in theory, taken on more than $68.4 million in salary if acquiring people via trade without hitting the cap ceiling. That is an astonishing number in and of itself. But one also has to keep in mind that this comes despite the fact that they’re retaining $2.2 million in salary from the trade that shipped Kris Versteeg back to Chicago, and are paying some serious bums way too much money this season.

Scottie Upshall, for example, makes $3.5 million against the cap, and will do so next year as well, despite the fact that you’d be well within your rights to have forgotten he’s even in the league at all any more. He has 19 points in 39 games, which is actually a significant step forward from the combined 10 he picked up in the previous two seasons after signing with Florida. Ed Jovanovski, meanwhile, is on a $4.125 million legacy contract this year and next as well.

Of course, all this ignores the fact that Florida can spend all the money it wants and still not buy success. And that’s not because you can’t buy success in the NHL; history has shown that on some level you absolutely can. It’s because the Panthers, specifically, cannot buy success. Let’s just try to remember July 2011, when the Panthers signed or acquired 11 NHL players within the first few days of the free agent period having opened. Upshall, Jovanovski, Brian Campbell, Jose Theodore, Marcel Goc, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, and more all came aboard.

All told, those 11 players cost the Panthers more than $34 million against the cap per season, and all had term of more years than they probably deserved. Another way of saying that is: The Panthers overspent with regard to both term and cost for a large number of very mediocre players. That having been said, it worked out for them to some extent, riding a wave of shootout victories to a playoff berth and predictable first-round exit.

So that, then, becomes the issue. It’s not that the Panthers have a lack of willingness to spend, and it’s now also no longer that they have a lack of ability. It’s that they have a lack of ability to spend in a way that allows them to actually begin winning.

Put simply, the Panthers will not be able to attract top end talent, even if they want to overspend. Remember, the Flames — another undesirable franchise that still has a number of things working in its favor that Florida does not — tried to give Brad Richards nine years and $64 million when he was the big free agent on the market, and he said no, taking $4 million less to play in New York. Throwing money at people, as indiscriminately as Tallon already has once since taking over in Florida, seems to attract some rather middle of the road talent, and no serious star free agent is going to want to waste his time playing in Florida, especially with max term now built into the CBA. Cap circumvention is in many ways gone, and with it the only edge a team like Florida might have had in beating back the rest of the dogs who will be bidding for talent when the cap skyrockets over the next few years.

It is, frankly, unrealistic to expect anything else, but this is a team that thinks it can “break even” in that market. Which it cannot. Most NHL teams do not break even, and the Florida Panthers are likely to be chief among them for as long as they remain in Sunrise. (That might, interestingly, not be a problem much longer, but that’s neither here nor there for the time being.)

The only thing the Panthers can hope for is being able to trade for top-end players, as they did with Campbell. But there are likely to be few cap headaches that necessitate a move like that one, not with the ceiling surging as is expected. And if they can, it’ll be for — you guessed it — exceptionally mediocre players who end up not helping very much, or at least as much as was hoped for. Repeat as needed.

So the Panthers can overspend to get to the tippy-top limit allowed by the NHL all they like, but the kinds of players they’ll get out of it won’t be difference-makers. They certainly won’t turn around a floundering franchise, even if it has pretensions of being more.