Despite Craig Button's pronouncement on TSN that the Panthers will be no better this year than last, Dale Tallon and company spent the first day of the NHL free agency period making the Panthers' roster a lot better than it has been for many years. Florida took a bit of time to make the first announcement, but soon after came fast and furious; once the dust settled, the team had added six players and watched two of their own free agents sign with other teams.
Excitement was high all around, as the Panthers were trending in Miami on Twitter for possibly the first time ever and players new and old commented on how excited they were to play next season. Scottie Upshall talked to TSN about how excited he is to play next season, saying "I can't explain what today means to me; the joy of this." Longtime Cat David Booth agreed, telling Miami Herald reporter George Richards, "I'm really excited to be a Panther. This is by far the most we've done since I've been here. This is awesome to see. This gets you excited for the season. We’re going to get at it and try to end this drought."
Even players from other teams agreed. Anaheim's Bobby Ryan posted the following on twitter: "Anybody feel like FLA is winning the race today? Tons of action! Some good pickups too."
The free agent additions were forwards Upshall, Marcel Goc, Tomas Fleischmann and Sean Bergenheim, former Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski and goaltender Jose Theodore. The Panthers also traded their second round pick in 2012 or 2013 and San Jose's third round pick in 2012 for forward Kris Versteeg.
Florida free agents Marty Reasoner and Darcy Hordichuk signed with the Islanders and Oilers, respectively. Goalie Tomas Vokoun has not found another home, but Richards reported that the team talked to his agent Friday morning and made what they called a "reasonable offer." He didn't take it, so they talked to Theodore who said that the Panthers were "at the top of [his] list" of teams he would like to play with. And while nothing more was said about the remaining Panthers unrestricted free agents, it can be assumed none will return as Reasoner and Vokoun are the only ones who were offered contracts before the deadline.
While none of the new players are superstars and are all 20 goal scorers at most, all are solid NHL players, something that can not be said of Panthers rosters of the last several years. Tallon has quickly turned the team over in his own image, bringing in players known for their work ethic, character and gritty play. Although there is no 50 goal scorer on the team, Stephen Weiss and David Booth are 30 goal scorers at their best and others on the roster, including Evgeni Dadonov have that capability.
The addition of coach Kevin Dineen will improve the atmosphere around the Panthers and we should finally see the team at their best. Gone are the days of Jacques Martin messing with his goalies' heads and Pete DeBoer rolling three lines or less and benching young players for making one mistake in a game. Tallon is building a team around character and the signings today show that. Though much maligned in some quarters, Jose Theodore was a Masterton finalist after coming back and playing following the death of his young child. He played very well behind Nicklas Backstrom in Minnesota last year and should be an adequate, if not thrilling, replacement for Tomas Vokoun.
Brian Campbell, acquired last week from Chicago, along with today's addition of former Panthers star defenseman Ed Jovanovski more than adequately replace veterans Bryan McCabe, Bryan Allen and Dennis Wideman, all traded last season. While the Panthers were hard pressed to score enough goals to win late in the season, the defense was not appreciably worse when the three above were replaced with Keaton Ellerby, Alexander Sulzer and Joe Callahan. Ellerby looks to stick around the team this year, while Erik Gudbranson and Alexander Petrovic get some more time in juniors.
It's hard to keep track of the forwards since so many went through here last year, but essentially Upshall, Goc, Fleischmann, Kopecky, Bergenheim and Versteeg will replace Cory Stillman, Marty Reasoner, Chris Higgins, Radek Dvorak, Michael Frolik and Rostislav Olesz. The newcomers combined for 93 goals last year, which doesn't sound impressive until you realize the five forwards they replaced only scored 63 between them. The addition of this much NHL talent will also force guys like Shawn Matthias and Michal Repik to step up if they want to make and stay on the team.
While those in other camps will continue to slag the Panthers and Tallon, the team has shown a commitment to building a winner and developing players the right way. It is not important that the Panthers win now, though it seems certain they will win a few more this year than they did the last two. What is important is that the Panthers have brought in the kinds of players who work hard and play to win and the coaching staff to bring the best out of those players. It's also important that they bring in enough quality players to not only get the team headed in the right direction but to allow the massive amount of Panthers prospects drafted in the last two years time to develop in juniors, college and the AHL. For too long, the Panthers have rushed young players into the NHL only to see them not develop to their full potential. That stops now. As Assistant GM Mike Santos put it a couple of months ago, the days of 18 or 19 year old guys playing for the Panthers is over.
The bitter complaints of some fans in Winnipeg and the loss of Tomas Vokoun notwithstanding, now is an exciting time to be a Panthers fan. We're never going to get the respect of the hockey mainstream, but we'll once again be able to hold out heads up high at the quality of the team that represents South Florida. It's been a long time, let's enjoy it.