Sitting in the lobby of a luxury hotel in downtown Toronto, Dale Tallon concedes his feet have barely touched the ground in recent days.
The general manager of Florida Panthers secured the hottest coaching commodity on the market when he introduced Joel Quenneville on Monday.
And Tallon is convinced that’s just the first step on the road to getting a talented roster where he believes it belongs — the playoffs.
“We’re walking on air,” said the 68-year-old. “We’re excited about what’s going on. It’s been hectic, but necessary.”
A Disappointing Season
Florida missed out on the post-season by 12 points despite a group that includes Aleksander Barkov — still criminally underrated because of where he plays — fellow forwards Jonathan Huberdeau and Vincent Trocheck, and star defenceman Aaron Ekblad.
The Panthers had no trouble putting the puck in the net with a ninth-ranked 3.22 goals per game, but were undone by brutal defensive play and suspect goaltending that led to the opposition scoring an average of 3.33 times per outing, fourth-worst in the league.
“It was a wasted year,” Tallon lamented as he shifted in his chair. “That’s the frustrating part.”
That led to the dismissal of head coach Bob Boughner, who got the Panthers within one agonizing point of the playoffs last spring, but couldn’t duplicate the feat in 2018-19.
Going All-In with ‘Q’
When it became clear Quenneville, a three-time Stanley Cup champion with Chicago, was ready to rejoin the ranks after getting his walking papers from the Blackhawks in early November, Boughner’s fate was sealed.
“I had no complaints with Boughie,” Tallon said. “It’s just that these opportunities don’t come along very often. It’s bad timing for Boughie, that’s obvious.
“Q becoming available, we just had to do it for the benefit of the franchise.”
Panthers owner Vinnie Viola gave the green light, and opened his cheque book, to go after Quenneville — the 60-year-old was owed US$6 million next season by Chicago and it’s believed his new deal is in that range — and Tallon said that’s just the beginning.
Sign of Things to Come?
There are a number of big-name unrestricted free agents set to hit the market on July 1, including the likes of Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and star winger Artemi Panarin.
Tallon isn’t in a position to name names at this point, but made it clear expects to be active.
“God bless Vinnie Viola. We’re not exactly selling out. When we met, he said, ‘Let’s go for it,'” Tallon recalled of the high-level conversations before Quenneville’s hire. “I said, ‘You know what it’s going to cost.’ And he replied, ‘Let’s get it done, let’s get him in here. It’s important to our franchise.’
“And to get to the salary cap and be aggressive in the free-agent market, that’s a pretty big commitment from a team that’s not making any money.”
Tallon said he looks at the New York Islanders and the hiring of Barry Trotz as an example of what a veteran coach can achieve in a new environment. The Islanders surrendered a league-worst 3.57 goals against per game last year, but flipped the table to finish tops in the category this season at 2.33 with basically the same roster, save for John Tavares.
“Trotz is a great coach and he knows what he wants,” Tallon said. “He’s had systems that have been successful for him, and the players know that it works. The message is loud and clear. We’re committed. We have to change this.
“(Quenneville) has complete confidence in what he’s doing. The players will trust what he says because it’s been successful — three Cups, the second-most coaching wins in history.”
Will Luongo Be Back?
The elephant in the room, however, is the status of Roberto Luongo.
The 40-year-old goalie was slowed by injury this season, finishing 18-16-5 with a 3.12 goals-against average and an .899 save percentage — the worst numbers of his career since his 24-game rookie season almost two decades ago.
Still able to steal a game when healthy, Luongo showed flashes late in the schedule. He has three years left on a back-sliding contract with a $5.33-million cap hit that will pay him just over $1.6 million in 2019-20, and $1 million the two seasons after that.
“I want to give him some time to think,” Tallon said of Luongo’s future. “We’re going to meet next week. We’ll continue to meet and see what’s best for him and the franchise.
“Great person, great athlete, great goaltender. We want to do right by him.”
But no matter what happens with Luongo, Tallon is adamant the Panthers will push forward with a plan energized by getting Quenneville on board.
“Now’s the time for us,” Tallon said. “This franchise needs to be in the playoffs consistently.
“This is the first big step.”
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press