SUNRISE, Fla. —The Florida Panthers are averaging 12,636 fans this season. That's 74.2 percent of capacity, a number that ranks higher than those of only two other teams in the NHL.
One of those teams, the New York Islanders, can't seem to find a quadrant of the New York metropolitan area that is very interested in them, and they are planning yet another move, this time to Queens. The other, perennial league-worst Carolina, has not played a postseason game in eighth full seasons.
Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, a native son weaned in the youth hockey league program the Panthers began, in part, to weave their way into the community, admits "it bothers me a little bit'' when he reads about the apathy.
"I hold them close to my heart,'' he said after the morning skate Thursday at BB&T Center. "They're a big part of my hockey career.''
"But I grew up with it. I've seen the empty seats.''
Gostisbehere, who had a huge group of family and friends attend the game here against the Panthers, grew up in nearby Margate and played in the Junior Panthers program until he left to play for a Connecticut prep school at age 16.
"They were all I knew growing up,'' he said. "It was a great organization. We had great ties with the Panthers. For us to practice at their practice rink. … We'd come here, watch games. It was awesome.
"The Panthers did a great job of instilling hockey in Florida. It's not a hockey state per se. but as the game grew they offered kids my age a chance to play it. All my best friends are still playing hockey. And I'm here. It's cool. It's very unique. People ask me where I'm from, whether I'm from Canada. And I say I'm from Florida and you get a look.''
He was the first player from South Florida to play an NHL game. A few have trickled in since, but it has done little to spike prolonged interest in the Panthers, who just three seasons ago finished first in the Atlantic Division with 103 points. That year, the Panthers finished ahead of just six teams in average attendance.
Tampa Bay, by contrast, has finished in the top 10 over the last four seasons, even when the team failed to reach the playoffs last season.
"I mean, Florida has been a bandwagon state for a while,'' Gostisbehere said. "Especially down south. I'm pretty sure if you go to Miami Heat games right now they're not going to be packed. But a couple of years ago they were.''
Flyers getting home cooking soon
After Friday's game against Tampa Bay, the Flyers will play their next four, and six of the next eight, at the Wells Fargo Center. They will not board a plane again until a Jan.23 trip to Detroit.
This would seem a great opportunity to fix what ails them: a porous penalty kill; lack of scoring depth; and a greater attention, coach Dave Hakstol said, to the details that separate teams over the second half of the season.
Execpt for this: The Flyers are off for a mandated four-day stretch from Jan. 8 through 11, and have another mandated three-day break toward the end of the month for the all-star break.
"Obviously there are some natural segments that we break down in different ways. But any long-range planning has to have flexibility to it, … There's very few stretches where you can do that practice-wise,'' Hakstol said Thursday. "Even in a month like this when we don't play many games. Some of those days are mandatory days off. So you still have to take the schedule for what it is.
"But yeah, there are days where you can target a stretch of a few extra quality practices rather than the stretch we just came out of where we played seven in 12 [days] and there is very little practice time.''
If they stick to a schedule made prior to the season, the Flyers will have four full practices amid the four games that follow the Tampa Bay game. Then comes the mandatory break, followed by four full practices amid a three-game stretch.
In the NHL, that constitutes a luxury.
You don't have time to ease into it,'' Hakstol said. "You've got to have detail to your game and you've got to have readiness. And that's just how it is. There are all kinds of imperfections in the NHL schedule and you can find reasons why you can't. Take a look around the league. A lot of teams have played already.''