Does Division Title Alter Panthers’ Three-Year Plan?

“We have the blueprint. We know how to do it. We just have to implement it now.” — Dale Tallon, March 17th, 2010

Taking over the position of NHL general manager isn’t all fun and games. We can all sit in our comfortable recliner as an armchair GM, put our feet up, turn on the Xbox and fire up NHL 12, but actually making personnel moves for the good of an organization team is not such a simple skill. General managers come and go — albeit with less regularity than head coaches — as teams try to find the perfect blend in their decision maker.

For the majority of his career as a NHL GM, Dale Tallon has always been an easy choice. He took over the Chicago Blackhawks back in 2005 and, after three seasons at their helm, transformed the team from a pretender into a bonafide contender. The Blackhawks demanded success — they wanted to win, and Tallon took them there, regardless of his methods. And due to a clerical error which cost the Blackhawks literally millions of dollars, Tallon was demoted from from his perch as general manager and reassigned a role as Senior Advisor — a job that would not only allow him to sever his ties with the Blackhawks but also free him up to rebuild another organization.

What Tallon did with the Blackhawks was simply remarkable. Three seasons of high draft picks doesn’t make rebuilding a team a slam dunk.  Take a look at the Edmonton Oilers, Columbus Blue Jackets, or even the New York Islanders. Even though those teams haven’t been in the middle of a rebuild since 2005, it sure feels that way for fans who clamor for more excitement than the annual Bill Daly placard unveiling.

Upon hearing of Tallon’s demotion, Martin Havlat was quite candid in his support of his former boss. “The players loved Dale and they are with him,” Havlat infamously explained to TSN back in 2009. “Every single player on that team is with Dale.” Havlat went quite far in defending Tallon despite the Blackhawks gearing up for a Stanley Cup run (which they eventually went onto win at the end of the season).

Tallon was so successful in three short years due to shrewd signings, excellent drafting and an even better development program. And after only two seasons in Florida, his club already won the Southeast while accruing one of the league’s best cupboard of prospects. The three-year trajectory, which seemed almost impossible to replicate in Miami of all places, has been, oddly, surmounted. But are the Panthers a true Stanley Cup contender after 41 wins between the regular season and the playoffs?

Despite all of their accomplishments, they are probably still a ways away.

Tallon had no problem moving Frolik (Photo Credit: The Hockey Writers)

Tallon came to the Panthers in 2010, terminating his own lucrative deal as a ‘Senior Advisor’. The old silver fox was determined to make an impact by selling off his valuable assets and rebuilding around young players and draft picks. On June 22nd, 2010, he sent enigmatic forward Nathan Horton and Gregory to the Boston Bruins for Dennis Wideman as well as their first and third round pick in that year’s draft. But his aggressive style would not stop there, as he sold high on defenseman Keith Ballard, sending him to Vancouver in exchange for Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner, and most importantly, another first round pick (Quinton Howden).

Tallon walked out of the Staples Center in Los Angeles with six selections in the first round including blue-chip defenseman Erik Gudbranson, college standout Nick Bjugstad, Howden and promising youngsters in John Mcfarland, Alex Petrovic, and Connor Brickley. He cleared salary for the 2010-2011 season and also for the following years. Simply put, he was not afraid to sacrifice talent for financial flexibility, or a team that actually worked. While other regimes focused on developing players even if their potential was untapped, he found no reason to keep using players who clearly did not fit into the blueprint.

Later in the year, he had no problem in moving former 10th overall pick Michael Frolik — a player who posted consecutive 21-goal campaigns — for grinder Jack Skille. Skille, in his role as a fourth liner, better fulfilled his duties to the team as a hard worker with size. The same goes for David Booth, who despite his vast potential and former success, was shipped off to Vancouver for veteran, unrestricted free agents Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm. Not only did Tallon free up resources for this year’s offseason by trading for the vets, Booth’s removal woke up a sleeping giant as the Panthers went 34-23-18 over their remaining 75 games.

In trading Horton, Ballard, Frolik, Booth, and eventually Wideman, Bryan Allen and Bryan McCabe among others, Tallon was able to find the players he liked while maintaining the flexibility to sign whoever he wanted. For the 2010 season, he kept the overhead low and saved ownership some money as the Cats’ current players were evaluated. They obtained a lottery pick for their troubles, selecting a center with a bright future in Jonathan Huberdeau. But in 2011, with almost no salary on the books for the following season, Tallon was tasked with signing every mid-ranged free agent on the market– affectionately dubbed as therace to the salary floor.

Before the 2011 NHL Draft, Tallon tapped his successor in Chicago, Stan Bowman, taking Tomas Kopecky off his hands in a clear-cut salary dump. On draft day, he would later  swap bad contracts in Brian Campbell and Rostislav Olesz, acquiring one of his more reliable players in the 2011 season– Campbell would lead all skaters in ice time while taking only three minor penalties all season. By contrast, Olesz would play only six games before playing 50 more games in the AHL.

Campbell’s addition proved to be an important move both on and off the ice. The veteran came in and became the back bone of the Panthers’ blue line, building pride for the organization from the

Brian Campbell Panthers

Brian Campbell (James Guillory-US PRESSWIRE)

locker room outwards. “It’s a great organization that Dale’s building that’s going to be great,” Campbell told The Sun-Sentinel. “It’s an exciting time to be a Florida Panther and I feel pretty proud to say that I’m on this team.” Campbell wants to be in Florida and his enthusiasm is contagious to an organization that previously lacked both pride and identity.

Last summer, Tallon convinced a myriad of players to try out Florida in an attempt to attract even more players. Through signings and trades he acquired Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Kris Versteeg, Matt Bradley, Marcel Goc, Sean Bergenheim, Ed Jovanovski, Nolan Yonkman, Jose Theodore, Kopecky, and Campbell. Their impact was immediately felt as those players accounted for 51 percent of this year’s scoring. If you add in midseason acquisitions like Samuelsson, Sturm and Wojtek Wolski, then the number rises to 62 percent. And considering the club finished 27th in overall scoring, they would not have succeeded without the stellar play of Theodore.

Weiss (Michael Miller WikiCommons)

Weiss is the longest tenured Panther (Photo Credit: Michael Miller / Wiki Commons)

The biggest impact of the UFA signings had to be icing a stable top line in the troika of Fleischmann, Versteeg and long-time Panther centerman Stephen Weiss. The three players often paired together at even strength and on the power play with the two wingers reaching career highs in points. The Panthers can enter next season without worrying about three slots in the top six, making their rebuild-on-the-fly a bit easier. In fact, with 11 forwards already signed for next season in addition to RFAs Versteeg and Wolski, the Panthers don’t have much work to do up front which should make for a competitive training camp.

And on the leadership front there isn’t much more room for improvement either. Theodore provides standout prospect Jacob Markstrom with a worthy mentor while Campbell and Jovanovski are a great building block for a younger blue line. Campbell helped bring along fellow offensive defenders like Dmitry Kulikov and Jason Garrison while Jovanovski was tasked with elevating rookie Erik Gudbranson and sophomore Keaton Ellerby.

“He’s been great to me,” the young Gudbranson explained to The Sun-Sentinel during the playoff run. “He brings so much experience to the team. Just having him beside me and being able to ask questions any time is absolutely huge…He’s been there every step of the way.” Jovanovski, as an original draft pick of the Panthers, brings pride to the team while helping them out in all facets. Should head coach Kevin Dineen decide he wants a captain next season, you can bet Jovanovski, Campbell and Weiss are on the short list.

Perhaps the Panthers don’t want a stop-gap leader. As this season proved, they were able to win without the aid of an official leader with players stepping up when called upon. Maybe Tallon is looking for that next captain on the free agent market, or maybe he feels a player he drafted could eventually take the C.

Nevertheless, it does raise questions as to which current unrestricted free agents to keep and which players are simply not worth the resources.

The official UFA count is six with Samuelsson, Sturm, Garrison, Scott Clemmensen, Krys Barch and John Madden all up for evaluation. You can make the argument that Madden, Barch, and Sturm are at replacement level and were essentially kept on the team for depth last season. However, the Panthers were forced to tap their AHL affiliate in San Antonio at an alarming frequency which means Madden and/or Barch might be cost-effective solutions for NHL depth.

If the Panthers really want to bring their prospects along, they will need to clear a path for Huberdeau, and for Markstrom which means Clemmensen might as well explore his options. The same could be true for vintage sniper Samuelsson, who provided clutch scoring down the stretch. The Panthers really are not in a place where they should pay to keep their UFAs, making Samuelsson a casualty to not only the numbers game, but also to progress. Not only would Huberdeau be fighting for his spot, other youngsters like Drew Shore, Michael Repik, or essentially whoever proves themselves in training camp could vie for a scoring role.

Samuelsson, and other veterans, are simply ancillary parts to this team’s core. Young players could replace them but, for the most part, similar players are locked in for years. Barring a trade, Upshall, Bergenheim, Jovanovski and Kopecky are signed through 2015 while Goc and Mike Weaver are expected to stay on through 2014. Now is the time to supplement those players with more skill and youth. An infusion of high-end talent, similar to when Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews debuted in Chicago, will help this team elevate their game to new levels. It should also, however, create growing pains and turbulence.

Part of the reason the Panthers won the division was their 18 overtime losses, which gave them two more points than rival Washington Capitals. The Caps managed to win four more games in regulation but couldn’t keep the games as close in order to pad their point totals. In addition, 42 of the team’s 82 regular season contests were decided by one goal, making their playoff berth and first ever division title a somewhat lucky feat. Not to take anything away from what Dineen, Tallon, assistant GM Mike Santos and the rest of the organization accomplished, but the Panthers would be hard pressed to repeat such variance next season.

Then again, the Panthers deserved a bit of luck after narrowly missing out on the playoffs season after season. Back in 2008-2009, then-GM Randy Sexton argued that the Panthers would have made the playoffs had shootout wins and regulation wins been weighed separately. And, coincidentally, that same rule almost kept his team out of the playoffs this season as they finished five points above the ninth-seed Buffalo Sabres, who tied the Cats in Regulation-Overtime Wins or ROW. A little bit of luck, and some variance, carried this rag-tag bunch into the playoffs but at no point should they abandon the original blueprint. Building this team should rely on drafting and targeting character players who will seamlessly fit in. Campbell, Weiss, Jovanovski and a few others clearly fit in but the Panthers will need more to truly contend.

Are the Panthers ahead of schedule? Of course they are. But their current success should be a further testament to the talents of Tallon and the good hands this organization currently rests in. Moreover, there is no reason to abandon the blueprint used in Chicago– building a new core through the draft while surrounding those players with reliable veterans.  Had Tallon abandoned the blue print after his first taste of success, the Blackhawks would not have signed Marian Hossa. Even scarier, they may have kept James Wisniewski as their top offensive defender instead of handing the reigns to Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith. Tallon continues to evaluate, and reevaluate, his club in order to find the right fit and manage his assets more efficiently.

This team, as currently built, remains flawed. But in a few years, they should be infused with more skilled players who, in turn, would bring added character, and, most importantly determination. Should all of these pieces fit together, there is no reason to think the Panthers can’t become Stanley Cup contenders in a few years. Having said that, for now, the blueprint should remain firmly in place with Tallon looking to upgrade every facet of the club.

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