There are plenty of lousy teams in the NHL this season -- St. Louis, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Columbus come to mind readily -- but none has floundered quite as conspicuously as the Florida Panthers.

"The Panthers are the most disappointing team in the league, absolutely," said Steve Ludzik, former NHL player and coach who excels these days as a hockey analyst for The Score TV network. "They haven't come anywhere close to expectations."

The question is -- why?


Well, the off-season departure of goaltender Roberto Luongo to the Vancouver Canucks didn't help. Neither did the player the Panthers acquired from Vancouver for Luongo -- forward Todd Bertuzzi, who struggled lamentably before injuring his back. Squabbling within the dressing room has damaged the team, as well. And this week's retirement of veteran Joe Nieuwendyk (back ailment) has merely compounded matters.

But NHL sources think the Panthers' woes started before the season even began, when general manager Mike Keenan was discarded in sudden and mysterious fashion.

No one in the know has publicly explained Keenan's ouster, but allow me to tell you that the consensus within the league is that he was the loser of a bitter power struggle between him and his head coach, Jacques Martin.

Keenan could not get ownership's approval to fire Martin as the Panthers' coach, sources say. Even though he hired Martin, the word is that Keenan grew to dislike the coach's easy-going style. During his own coaching years, Keenan used a no-nonsense style and was a disciplinarian who wasn't reluctant to hammer his players, regardless of how high-profile they were or how much money they were collecting. Keenan earned the nickname Iron Mike for obvious reasons.

Sources say Keenan wanted Martin to alter his style and start becoming tougher with the Panthers. Martin refused, I'm told. And then Martin complained to ownership about Keenan sticking his nose in where the coach didn't feel it belonged.

The long and the short of it is that Martin won the power struggle, largely because ownership didn't want to be on the hook for his $5-million guaranteed contract, I'm told.

Keenan, who didn't have nearly as much remaining on his contract, suddenly was fired and is out of work and, even though he has said he was considering television gigs, he has been unusually silent this season.

Somehow, though, you'd think he's getting the last laugh now, as the Panthers wallow in abyss.

"The thing is, it is absolutely impossible in the NHL for anyone to be a general manager and a head coach at the same time," Ludzik said. "Martin's being asked to do both jobs in Florida because Keenan is gone, and that can't happen. It's not even fair to Martin.

"And the players aren't stupid. They see Martin trying to wear two hats, and it just doesn't work. The players in Florida are discouraged and a losing mentality has set in."

Martin is trying to trade some veterans, including Gary Roberts, Martin Gelinas and Josef Stumpel, in hopes of obtaining youngsters, but the word is that his lack of experience as a GM is hurting him in trade talks.

Meanwhile, the Panthers are deteriorating.

And the players, while continuing to bicker with each other, are losing all hope.

It's turning out to be a hellish season for the Panthers, for sure, and you can't help but wonder if it wouldn't have been less chaotic had Mike Keenan remained in charge.

•Scoring in the NHL is down from last season, and shutouts are up, and I'm thinking that the league has become slightly less entertaining.

I prefer to see an abundance of scoring, and I don't think I'm in the minority on this issue. If we didn't like scoring, after all, we'd like soccer.

When the rules and regulations changed last year, scoring opportunities became greater, and the so-called new NHL was spectacular.

This year, not so much.

How come?

Back to Ludzik: "I really think what's happened is that teams are emphasizing blocked shots more than ever. Players are positioning themselves to block shots. I mean, it's almost like soccer now. I've literally seen five guys lined up next to each other, waiting for the opposition to shoot. It's like those free kicks in soccer. The only difference is that the hockey players don't hold their crotches."

Ludzik said shooting lanes in the NHL are so crowded this season that pucks too often go off legs or sticks or bodies after they're shot and never have a chance to make it to the net.

"I think it's a problem," Ludzik said. "I still think the NHL is entertaining but I do think this shot-blocking mentality has taken something away from the game. Coaches have figured out ways to combat the new rules, and blocking shots is one of these ways. You have to give them credit."

Ludzik thinks offensive zones should revert back to the red line at centre ice, not the blue line, so that teams can continue to play offence even if the puck is dumped out beyond the blue line.

"That would give you another 20 feet to play with," Ludzik said. "I think it would be more exciting and allow offences to be more creative."

•Ludzik, incidentally, remains optimistic that he will become the GM and head coach of an OHL expansion team in Niagara Falls.

"I still think it will go through," he said. "I'm still excited that'll happen sooner or later."

If it does, Ludzik will be joined in the front office by two other Canadian TV guys. His assistant general manager would be Mark Osborne, a former NHLer who also analyzes hockey at The Score. And his player-personnel director, in charge of drafting, would be Don Cherry, CBC's big hockey mouth.

There are those who believe Ludzik has catapulted to the top of the list of hockey analysts in Canada, surpassing even Cherry.

"The funny thing is," Ludzik said, "people ask me all the time if Don coaches or critiques me privately. The truth is, he doesn't. He watches me, I know that. He has mentioned once or twice that he wishes I would get the chance to talk more, but I've explained to him that we don't do it that way at The Score, because we do everything rapidly, unlike the way things are done with him at CBC.

"But he's a big supporter of mine and I'm lucky to have him as a friend. I know we could do great things together if we get to work together in Niagara Falls."

Oh, and Ludzik doesn't think serving in the dual capacity of GM and coach in the OHL would be a problem for him.

"It's not the NHL," he said.

•Thanks at least partly to Luongo, the Canucks have improved significantly from last season in the goals-allowed department, but their offence is rather anemic and they're way down at the bottom of the list in the goals-scored department.

Opponents have noticed that many, if not most, of their shots are weak and members of the Edmonton Oilers weren't afraid to mention that to reporters after they defeated the Canucks the other night.

Clearly, the Canucks are in need of snipers, and they seem prepared to trade two of their star players -- Markus Naslund and/or Brendan Morrison -- in order to obtain more firepower. There's some talk about a three-way deal involving the Canucks, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Philadelphia Flyers -- with the principles being veterans such as Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin and Naslund. Mind you, this kind of deal would require the waiving of no-trade clauses and the swapping of contracts involving major megabucks, so don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen.

Where there's smoke there's fire, though, so don't be surprised if the Canucks do something significant in the near future.

•And don't be surprised also if three veteran free agents -- Peter Bondra, Jason Allison and Brian Leetch -- return to the NHL in the next few weeks.

I hear Bondra, who probably can still score goals even as he closes in on 40, has attracted the attention of the Canucks and the Detroit Red Wings. And it's possible that Leetch will return to the New York Rangers, where he once dominated opponents on the blueline.

•Coaching changes in midseason don't usually help, but there's light at the end of the tunnel now in Chicago, where Denis Savard has replaced Trent Yawney.

"I want fans to believe in the Blackhawks again," Savard said, "and, more importantly, I want the players to believe in themselves again. I think that's starting to happen."

Clearly, the Hawks are playing better hockey with Savard in charge and it undoubtedly has something to do with their new coach. Savard exudes energy and optimism. Always has.

I found that out first-hand back in the late 1970s, in one of my first out-of-town assignments as a young reporter with The Globe and Mail. Savard was the centre of Les Trois Denis (The Three Denises), one of the best lines in junior-hockey history and the finest in Quebec junior hockey at that time.

Amazingly, all three Denises -- Denis Tremblay and Denis Cyr were the wingers -- not only had the same name as Savard, but the three were also born on the exact same day and grew up within a few blocks of each other in Verdun, Que. They played together since they were tots.

When I met him, Savard couldn't speak any English but, through a translator, I can vividly remember him telling me he was going to make a major difference in hockey. He did, too. He was a magnificent player in the NHL for years -- with dazzling footwork and stickhandling ability. He made it to the Hall of Fame and now may be taking the Blackhawks out of the doldrums.

And he also learned English. Speaks it better, in fact, than most of us.

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