On April 26th the Florida Panthers were on the brink of achieving something they had not done since the 1995-1996 season; winning a playoff series. After dropping game six in New Jersey they were back in Sunrise, Florida, looking to extend a season that had already rewritten the franchise’s history book.
By reaching the playoffs, the Panthers had eliminated a ten year absence from postseason play, captured their first division title in franchise history and went from worst to first within in the matter of a single season. To say that all of this came as a shock to the hockey world would be a gross understatement. After all, the Panthers were a team building towards the future, not expected to sniff the playoffs for a few more years. So what exactly propelled this perennial lottery team into the top sixteen of the NHL? Well it’s not exactly a ‘what’, but more of a ‘who’. And that who is General Manager Dale Tallon.
From First to Worst, the Blackhawks Years
Dale Tallon had been a factor in the NHL long before his days as a GM. As a defensemen he was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks with the 2nd overall pick in the 1970 draft and went on to play in two all-star games (1971 & 1972) while tallying 98 goals and 238 assists in ten seasons with three different teams (Canucks, Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins).
After serving as a TV and radio broadcast analyst for the Blackhawks for 16 seasons he joined the organization as the director of player personnel from 1998-2002 before becoming the assistant GM to Bob Pulford. In 2005 Tallon finally received the opportunity to restore the once fabled Blackhawks franchise to its former glory.
That restoration wouldn’t come easily as Tallon inherited a team that had finished dead last in the Western Conference in 2003-2004. To make matters worse the NHL was coming off of a season lost to a lockout. By all means Tallon was walking into a situation that was destined to fail.
Campbell and Nikolai Khabibulin, and acquiring Patrick Sharp, Martin Havlat and Kris Versteeg, Tallon had built a team that would make it to Western Conference Finals in the 2008-2009 season before losing to the Detroit Red Wings.
The Blackhawks would enter the 2009-2010 season as one of the Cup favorites but Tallon wouldn’t be there to enjoy the ride. After a clerical error caused several Blackhawks to become unrestricted free agents Tallon took the brunt of the blame and was demoted to a Senior Advisor position while the team he had assembled won the Stanley Cup.
A Brand New Project
After the 2009-2010 season the Panthers were looking to rejuvenate a flailing franchise. After finishing in last place in the Southeastern division with 77 points the franchise was in desperate need of any glimmer of hope. They soon found that hope in Dale Tallon.
It didn’t take long for Tallon to disassemble the Panthers roster. Nathan Horton and Gregory Campbell were sent to the Bruins while Keith Ballard and Victor Oreskovich were shipped off to Vancouver while the Panthers began to horde draft picks for the upcoming draft.
When June 25th, 2010, rolled around the Panthers had managed to obtain 13 draft picks with three of those falling in the first round. With those three picks they selected Erik Gudbranson (3rd overall), Nick Bjugstad (19th overall) and Quinton Howden (25th overall), quickly cementing themselves as a team with a very bright future.
Unfortunately the idea of the Panthers being a team of the future rung true in the 2010-2011 season when they finished last in the Southeastern Division for the 2nd consecutive season. Despite the disappointment Tallon moved forward, continuing to remold the Panthers into a team that could compete.
He sent Rostislav Olesz to his former organization, the Chicago Blackhawks, and in return reunited with Brian Campbell who he had signed when he was the Blackhawks GM. It wouldn’t be the last reunion between the ex-Blackhawks GM and a former player during the 2011 offseason. Kris Versteeg joined the team after being acquired from the Philadelphia Flyers for two draft picks and Tomas Kopecky’s negotiating rights were traded to the Panthers who then signed him.
Once again the draft worked in favor of the Panthers as they were able to grab Jonathan Huberdeau with the 3rd overall pick and Rocco Grimaldi with the 33rd overall pick. With the addition of the 2011 class the Panthers had managed to collect the best prospect talent pool throughout the NHL according to several prospect rankings.
With plenty of money to spend Tallon turned his eye to free agency to fill the remaining holes. He signed veteran goalie Jose Theodore as well as Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann and Sean Bergenheim.
Even with the added depth the Florida Panthers were not viewed as a serious threat to the top Eastern Conference teams in the 2011-2012 season. The team was patched together through trades and bloated free agent contracts as well as young and inexperienced players. No one seemed to mention any of these things to Florida Panthers as they won the Southeastern Division for the first time in franchise history.
On the Verge
The Panthers ended up losing that game on April 26th to the New Jersey Devils in double OT. They had defied the projections and predictions and emerged as a team on the verge of joining the elite teams of the Eastern Conference. With top prospects Jonathan Huberdeau and Quinton Howden poised to join the roster for the 2012-2013 season it looks like Tallon has worked his rebuilding magic a second time.