Let's look at a worst case scenario for the Florida Panthers 2011-12 season, shall we? I know these aren't the pleasant predictions we'd like to hear on the eve of a season where the Panthers could finally become the competitive force we're expecting, but hear me out on this one. In my doomsday prediction, I see Jose Theodore dropping games like a hot potato, Tomas Fleischmann never recovering from his condition, Kris Versteeg continuing his sub-par Maple Leafs' season, Ed Jovanovski playing 30 games due to injury and Evgeni Dadonov taking a major step back in his development. Essentially, none of Tallon's offseason acquisitions form chemisty, no reliable starting goaltender and another season in the league basement. If one of these unfortunate predictions becomes a reality, does that mean Tallon has failed? What if everything I predicted becomes a reality, has Tallon failed? If you would answer yes to either of these questions, you're only looking at one half of Dale Tallon's duties as a general manager.
Now don't get me wrong, even I will be quite concerned if the doomsday scenario plays out, but that doesn't mean all hope is lost for the Panthers. If you will notice, my worst case scenario isn't unlike others we've been hearing lately, simply due to the fact that the argument hinges on only one half of Dale Tallon's summer, the Free Agency period. You can find a critic of Dale Tallon's spending frenzy on every street corner, but you will be hard pressed to find someone who can object to the marvelous job Tallon has done at the draft, despite how overshadowed it's become since July 1st.
Now I understand that nobody in their right mind looks over prospects and calls them a bust one season after they're drafted, no one says Jonathan Huberdeau is a bust, and no one should think Erik Gudbranson is a bust. It's way to early to say that for Tallon's picks, but organizational depth rankings do matter. ESPN ranked the Panthers as the franchise with the best prospect pool in August, and Hockey's Future ranked the Panthers second overall in late May (prior to the Minnesota Draft). After years and years of having next to nothing in the way of legitimate prospects, the Panthers didn't magically jump to number one. The change in fortunes isn't due to luck, it's due to the hiring of Dale Tallon along with assistant GM Mike Santos and the scouting staff they've surrounded themselves with.
In the last few days, two sources have released their Top-20 Panthers prospects list, Hockey's Future and our very own prospect-guru Alex (CrooklynBanks). If you didn't notice, the majority of the names on these lists are Tallon-era picks. The breakdown of the T-20 picks by GM follows:
Not only does Dale Tallon overwhelmingly account for the most high-end prospects on most lists, the quality of the prospects is also much higher with Tallon's picks. Of the 5 prospects I see with the potential to join the Panthers in the next two years (Jonathan Huberdeau, Erik Gudbranson, Jacob Markstrom, Quinton Howden and Drew Shore), Tallon drafted three of them, while Martin and Sexton accounted for one each. Of the prospects likely to become Panthers in the next 4-5 years (Nick Bjugstad, Rocco Grimaldi, Garrett Wilson, Alex Petrovic), Tallon drafted all but one. That is why the Panthers have the #1 organizational depth, not because the Panthers mediocre luck magically changed.
So yes, if Tallon's boatload of free agents capsizes it will be a disaster, but there are two ways to build a contender. Longtime contenders like the Red Wings or Canucks do so through drafting, short term contenders do so through free agency. Tallon is doing both so that when the crop of 4 year deals signed this July come to an end the players drafted recently can take over, hopefully making a smooth transition. Tallon has done a fine job drafting even if his free agent signings have been risky. The major turnaround in the prospect pool has been quite an accomplishment itself, so even if the free agents can't form chemistry, at least a foundation will still be in place for the future of the club.