Never talk politics with people. Its a simple adage with time-tested meaning behind it: folks get very passionate about their political opinions. The name Dale Tallon has a similar effect on people. There are those who despise him, those that love him and those that don't care a wink about the management side of things. Regardless of the risks involved, I am going to attempt to break down Tallon's work so far with the Florida Panthers, the so-called "blueprint for the future."
The Dale Tallon era began in Florida on May 18, 2010, when he was hired to replace outgoing GM Randy Sexton. Sexton only lasted one year, and followed a string of General Managers, including Jacques Martin, who held the position for almost three years, Mike Keenan, who lasted two years, Rick Dudley (two years), Chuck Fletcher, (interim GM for one season), and Bill Torrey (one season as GM). Collectively this franchise had no continuity and no plan that had lasted more than three seasons. The Panthers were nothing short of a disaster. So, to properly assess the job Tallon has done in his four years here, we must look at the state of the franchise as it existed at the time he took over. Only in that way can we determine whether progress has been made, and if so, how much.
"INHERITANCE" AND EARLY STEPS:
The team Dale inherited finished the 2009-10 season 14th in the Eastern Conference with 77 points. The lineup's top end talent was composed of Stephen Weiss (60 points), Nathan Horton (57 points), Bryan McCabe and Michael Frolik (both with 43 points). The Cats had not made the playoffs since the 1999-00 season. The farm system cupboard was bare. This was due in large to poor drafting. Between 1995 and 2010, the Panthers would only hit on multiple future NHL level players in the drafts in 1995 and 2002. During that time span the Panthers drafted Nathan Horton in 2003, Jay Bouwmeester and Gregory Campbell in 2002, David Booth in 2004, Michael Frolik in 2006, Stephen Weiss in 2001, and Radek Dvorak and Filip Kuba in 1995. Notice all the years with no hits or only one. The Panthers drafts from 1995 through 2010 were mostly wasted chances. This time period also saw one of the worst pre-game video "teasers" in history, with the Panthers getting folks pumped up by Mike Keenan intoning "Assemble the team," and players being found at a smokey piano bar....but I digress....
The farm system was nearly devoid of players who would become NHL regulars. The farm team at that time was the Rochester Americans, and a look at their roster tells the rest of that particular story. In 2008-09, the Amerks top point-producer was Michal Repik (75 games, 49 points), followed by Jason Garrison (75 games, 35 points) and Keaton Ellerby (75 games, 23 points). The only other names that stand out from that team as future NHL regulars were Shawn Matthias (61 games, 20 points) and Tanner Glass (14 games, 13 points). 2009-10 saw Rochester's top three points leaders become Jamie Johnson, Chris Taylor, and Jeff Taffe, with Repik falling to 4th. From that season's team only Garrison and Matthias went on to play full time with the Panthers. Neither of these future NHL regulars were Panther draft picks. Garrison was not drafted: he was a free agent signing out of the University of Minnesota at Duluth. Matthias was obtained in the Todd Bertuzzi trade. Repik never became an NHL regular and Ellerby became, at best, a fringe NHL player. To be fair, Tanner Glass was drafted by the Cats in 2003 and has become an NHL regular on several team's 4th lines.
This was the state of the franchise when DT took over. An empty farm system, a terrible product on the ice, and a long playoff drought. Step one for a rebuild involved getting rid of poor producing players and their contracts, as well as players who did not want to be Panthers. Step two was to gather draft picks. Step three would be to trade for and acquire through free agency an improved roster of established players and prospects. This would become what we know as the Dale Tallon "blueprint." What follows is a year-by-year recap of moves the Panthers have made from 2010 until the present in pursuit of that blueprint for success.
Prior to his first full season's start Tallon moved the unhappy Nathan Horton to Boston, and forward Gregory Campbell along with him. The Cats' return was Dennis Wideman, a 1st round pick in 2010 and 3rd round pick in 2011. Many of Dale's first moves were to accumulate picks in the 2010 NHL draft to create depth and a farm system full of future NHL stars. The Horton trade gave the Cats an extra first round pick. Tallon moved a 1st round pick to LA for their 1st round pick in that draft and a 2nd round pick (also in 2010). He also moved a 2nd round pick to the Wild in 2010 for their 3rd and 4th round picks in 2010. Keith Ballard and Victor Oreskovich had been moved to Vancouver for Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner and the Canucks' 1st round selection in 2010.
At the 2010 draft, the Panthers selected Erik Gudbranson, Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howden in the first round. In the 2nd round the Panthers added John McFarland, Alex Petrovic and Connor Brickley. In the 3rd round the Panthers took Joe Basaraba. In the 4th the Cats drafted Sam Brittain, Ben Gallacher and Joonas Donskoi. In the 5th round they added Zach Hyman. In the 6th and 7th rounds they drafted Corey Durocher and R.J. Boyd.
Of these picks only Donskoi and Durocher have been jettisoned. By any measure this was a successful haul, as both Bjugstad and the improving Howden, Petrovic, and Gudbranson all look to have long pro careers ahead of them. Bjugstad finished his first professional season leading the Panthers in points with 38. Sam Brittain looked terrific this season for the University of Denver (39 games, 2.22 GAA .929 SV %) after returning from a knee injury last year and was a finalist for the Mike Richter award, given to the NCAA's top goalie. Brittain (if signed) provides goaltending possibilities to a team that suddenly is looking for its next generation goaltender.
Tallon moved the aging Cory Stillman to Carolina for Ryan Carter and the Canes 5th round pick in 2011 and moved Brian McCabe to the Rangers for Tim Kennedy and the Rags 5th round pick in 2011. Michael Frolik was moved with Alexander Salak for Jack Skille, Hugh Jessiman and David Pacan. Frolik would end up being an important role player for the Hawks in last season's Stanley Cup victory, but not so important that the Hawks saw fit to include his salary in their increasingly difficult cap situation. Frolik ultimately ended up this season in Winnipeg, where he did not stand out to any great degree. Radek Dvorak was traded with a 5th round pick in 2011 for Niklas Bergfors and Patrick Rissmiller. Tallon moved Dennis Wideman for Washington's 3rd round pick in 2011 and Jake Hauswirth, and Bryan Allen to the Canes for Sergei Samsonov. Chris Higgins went to the Canucks for Evan Oberg and the Canucks' 3rd round pick in 2013.
Michael Grabner was soon lost to waivers and the Islanders after a terrible training camp, a move that haunts Tallon and the Panthers to this day, though Grabner himself has since admitted his work ethic was lacking at the time. It should be remembered that Vancouver had also given up on Grabner prior to trading him to Florida.
The moves Tallon made in 2010-11 established the foundation for what was to come next. The Panthers rid themselves of an enormous amount of contracts, so much so that they were set to enter the 2011-12 season with $41 million in cap space.
So did the Cats get better in 2010-11? They came out of the previous season with the aforementioned $41 million in cap space, got rid of many players who had not produced for the team, and took a first step towards the building of a world class farm system. As we all know, the Cats made the playoffs for the first time in a decade during 2011-12, so yes, they undoubtedly got better.
The biggest move coming into 2011-12 was the trade of Rusty Olesz and his $18 million, 6-year contract at the draft. His contract went to the Blackhawks, and later to the Devils, who will finish paying it at the conclusion of this season. Olesz will make $4.25 million this season, having played 10 games for the Devils (he played a total of 6 games for the Blackhawks). In exchange the Panthers got blueliner Brian Campbell. Campbell makes $7.14 million per season, a difference of less than $3 million per season when compared with Olesz. The difference, of course, is that Campbell has two more seasons on his contract.
Campbell's contract has been criticized in many, maybe even most circles, as ridiculous. That may be true, but hindsight is 20/20 and it is now easy to ignore the fact that back in 2008, when Tallon signed the deal as Hawks GM, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Patrick Kane were promising, quickly-developing youngsters who had not yet proven themselves with a Cup or division title, or even made the playoffs. Prior to the Campbell signing, Duncan Keith had a previous high of 32 points in the 2007-08 season. The Hawks' points leader in 2008-09? Martin Havlat. Campbell, on the other hand, had 62 points in 2007-08, tied for 3rd best in the NHL for defensemen (behind Nicklas Lidstrom, who made $7.4 million that season and Sergei Gonchar, who made $6 million that season).
Landing Campbell was a big step for the lowly Hawks. At that time they were facing issues similar to what the Panthers have been going through. Attendance was down: In 2005-06, the mighty Blackhawks franchise averaged 13,318 in attendance. In 2006-07, they averaged only 12,727 tickets sold per game. In 2007-08 Chicago averaged 16,814 per game, but also had 10 homes games with under 13,000 tickets sold (with some selling less than 10,000) in their first winning season in six years. As the Hawks made a playoff push down the stretch, ticket sales went up massively to skew the numbers in the Blackhawks favor. The stands were not filled and the team was coming out of a long playoff drought. Chicago was not a free agent destination, it was a long dead market with cheap ownership and, (pre-Tallon) poor drafting (anyone want a Mikhail Yakubov in the first round?) Sound familiar? When Campbell was signed to his present deal Chicago faced the same problem the Panthers do now: they had to overpay to bring in top UFA's. In 2008-09, Campbell's first with the Hawks, the team made the playoffs for the first time since 2002.
As for the Panthers, they HAD to spend the money. While Campbell had become a salary cap problem for the Hawks, the Panthers needed to spend a massive amount of money to get back to the salary cap floor. Of the acquisitions the Panthers made that offseason, Campbell has been the best and most consistent. But the Campbell contract was also what the market supported at the time it was signed. Free agent defensemen have been vastly overpaid on the UFA market rather routinely. Some examples of d-men being overpaid? James Wisniewski in Columbus, 6 years $33 million, Buffalo's Christian Ehrhoff 10 years $40 million, with a $10 million salary in his first year. Our own Jason Garrison, 6 years $27.6 million (see this article from a Canucks fan site asking whether Garrison should be bought out by the team this summer due to a poor season). Or how about the recently signed Andy MacDonald for 6 years and $30 million dollars? Does anyone have a guess at what P.K. Subban might make this summer? Campbell will be 36 years old when his eight-year $57.1 million contract terminates. In 2008-09, his first with the Hawks, Campbell was 5th on the roster in points, ahead of both Keith and Seabrook. In 2009-10, Campbell dropped to 9th on the Hawks with 38 points as Keith took over his role as offensive producer (Campbell also only played 68 games due to injury). In 2010-11 Campbell dropped to 11th in points on the Hawks with 27, as Keith and Seabrook took more prominent roles.
In 2011-12, Campbell would put up 53 points for the Panthers, good for 4th best on the team, best among defensemen, and, just as importantly, turn Garrison into a 16-goal scorer. In the abysmal 2012-13 lockout campaign, Campbell would put up 27 points, again 4th best on the team. This season, Campbell has posted 37 points, good for a tie for 2nd most on the team and led the team in assists. He is 3rd in the NHL in time-on-ice per game (averaging 27:08), behind only Ryan Suter and Erik Karlsson. Whether overpaid or overrated, Campbell is obviously a very important player for the Panthers. While hockey pundits and naysayers focus on his contract, the term and dollars really only matter if he was not producing or was on a cap tight team. Neither of those is the case with this club. The Panthers got all this while ridding themselves of the Olesz contract that would only have terminated at the conclusion of this season.
But the 2011 off season was also when DT traded a 7th round pick for Kopecky, swapped a 2nd round pick in 2011 with the Dallas Stars to gain an additional 2012 3rd round pick, and sent a 2nd and 3rd round pick in 2012 to the Flyers for Kris Versteeg. He would also sign free agents Scottie Upshall, Jose Theodore, Marcel Goc, Tyson Strachan, John Madden, Flash, Sean Bergenheim, and the Jovo-cop. Later that same season, he traded David Booth and his soon to go into effect no-trade-clause, the previous administration's Reinprecht contract and a 3rd round pick in 2013 to Vancouver for Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm. Later that season Tallon obtained Jerred Smithson and Wojtek Wolski, as well as Krys Barch for depth in the Cats playoff run. John Madden was signed as a free agent. Samuelsson, Smithson, Madden and Wolski would all end up playing rather important roles for the team.
In the 2011 draft, the Panthers added Jonathan Huberdeau, Rocco Grimaldi, Rasmus Bengstsson, Vincent Trocheck, Logan Shaw, Jonathan Racine, Kyle Rau, Yaroslav Kosov, Ed Wittchow, and Iiro Pakarinen. Pakarinen and Bengstsson are both no longer with the Panthers, but Huberdeau would later earn rookie of the year honors while Grimaldi and Rau have been exceptional for their respective college teams. Trocheck looks to be a supremely talented center who had an excellent first AHL season, and showed signs he is ready to produce at the NHL level. Racine is developing as a 3rd D-pairing shut down defender who played his first NHL game this season.
By any measure, the Panthers making the playoffs was an incredible improvement. They pushed eventual Eastern Conference winners New Jersey to an overtime game 7. The fanbase was reignited and excited. The farm system added both high end talent, in as late as the 2nd and 3rd rounds, and defensive depth as late as the 3rd and 6th rounds. The free agent signings resulted in a new top points leader in Fleischmann and new leaders in the 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th positions on the points list in Versteeg, Campbell, Kopecky and Samuelsson, and arguably the improvement of Garrison due to the passes he got from Campbell. The only other holdover from the old administration in the top 5 points leaders was Stephen Weiss, who had the 2nd most. Ticket sales that season? Up 6%, to an average of 16,628.
And then.....there was the lockout. The Panthers lost Samuelsson, who wanted to return to the Red Wings, Garrison, who signed a bloated contract with his hometown Canucks, and Wojtek Wolski, Bracken Kearns, and Krys Barch to free agency. The signings that strange off-season proved to be less than stellar, with Filip Kuba for 2-years at $8 million, George Parros for 2-years at $1.85 million, Alexei Kovalev for 1 year, $1 million, and Peter Mueller for 1 year, $1.7 million. Of these players, only Mueller would produce for the Cats. Kovalev would quickly retire. Also signed, on the positive side (for the farm system) were Michael Houser and Josh McFadden. John Madden retired.
Trade-wise, the Cats picked up Casey Wellman for a 5th round pick, who the Cats later traded to the Capitals for Zach Hamill. Keaton Ellerby went to L.A. for a a 2013 5th round pick. T.J. Brennan was obtained for a 2013 5th round pick from Buffalo and Smithson went to the Oilers for a 2013 4th round pick. Brennan later was shipped to Nashville for Bobby Butler, who has been very good as a team leader in points for the Rampage. Corban Knight's rights were traded to Calgary for a 4th round pick in 2013.
In the 2012 draft the Cats nabbed Michael Matheson at the end of the 1st round. After that, there is little that stands out. The Panthers had no 2nd round pick, having sent it to the Flyers in the Versteeg deal, and in the 3rd round the Cats took Steven Hodges. Later picks landed Alexander Delnov, Francis Beauvillier and Jonathan Nielson.
2012-13 was nothing short of a disaster. The lockout left a team that was unprepared to play and comparatively few draft picks. The attendance bubble that had been launched by the playoff run the year before was sustained, with an average attendance of 16,992, but the awful season would result in a 13% fall in attendance this season. Huberdeau's first pro season was an award winner, but resulted in an injury that appears to have handicapped him this year. Mueller produced to a degree, but not one that left other NHL teams interested in his services during free agency. He was merely an adequate pickup. Kuba, on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster that led to the Panthers buying out his contract at the end of the season. His NHL career is now over. The draft is a very big question mark other than Matheson, who has been fantastic at Boston College. Matheson appears to have the massive upside required to someday replace Campbell as a top pairing, offensive-defensemen for the Panthers. For now, he has announced his intent to play his junior season for BC, and that can only further help the patient development of this fantastic skater and puck-moving defenseman. He and Huberdeau appear to be the only positives from that season and Tallon's management during that time.
This season has been another disaster for the Panthers, but it does require a deeper look than the team's awful finish portrays. In the 2013 draft the Panthers took Aleksander Barkov in the first round. Before his injury (sustained while playing for Finland -as their top center- in the Olympics) Barkov looked very much to be an exceptional center of 1st or 2nd line quality while also being the youngest player in the NHL. Ian McCoshen, drafted in the 2nd round has looked excellent at Boston College and played in the World Juniors for Team USA. Evan Cowley is considered a fine goaltending prospect pickup and Christopher Clapperton and MacKenzie Weegar in the 5th and 7trh rounds both had good years in the CHL. Tallon recently spoke about Weegar as the future quarterback of the Panthers power play. Also worth watching is the very young Matt Buckles. The farm system looks to have been somewhat restocked from the loss of the kids drafted in 2010 and 2011 who have successfully transitioned to professional hockey.
Tim Thomas was added as a free agent, as were Ryan Whitney (failure), Tom Gilbert (success) Scott Gomez (o.k. as mentor and role player), Jesse Winchester (success), Brad Boyes (success), Matt Gilroy (I thought he played well, the Panthers evidently did not), Joey Crabb (he has done what was asked), Bobby Butler (success for AHL), and Mike Mottau (o.k. at best). Stephen Weiss was let go to sign a 5-year, $24.5 million deal in Detroit. To date he has been a massive bust, playing only 26 games with 2 goals, 2 assists and going -4 for the Wings. Gilbert bears special mention here, as he ended up posting 28 points in 73 games for the Panthers while being paid $900,000. He also posted a iCorsi/60 (individual Corsi per 60 minutes) of 6.725 in 1249 minutes of ice-time, better than Brian Campbell. Gilbert ended up being a steal for the Cats.
Trades that resulted in draft picks included Marcel Goc for 5th rounder in 2014 and 3rd rounder in 2015, George Parros for a 2014 7th rounder, and Mike Weaver for a 5th rounder in 2015. Peter Mueller and Tyson Strachan were released. Tim Thomas was later traded for Dan Ellis. In a blockbuster, Jacob Markstrom and Shawn Matthias were traded for Roberto Luongo. AHL scoring leader Brandon Pirri was obtained from Chicago for a 3rd and 5th round draft pick. Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen were obtained in a trade with Chicago for Kris Versteeg and minor leaguer Philippe Lefebvre. Krys Barch also returned to the Cats for a minor league player and 7th round pick.
Of the draft picks starting to come to fruition, Trocheck has been exceptional in the OHL and AHL, and Alex Petrovic had a very good AHL season as well. Bjugstad and Barkov have been prime centers and Gudbranson has improved. Huberdeau regressed, likely due to injury recovery.
Despite the poor season, DT made some very positive moves: not signing Weiss to a bloated and long contract, not signing Mueller (who would not land on an NHL team) letting Tyson Strachan go (Strachan played 17 games for the defensively challenged Capitals this season), and trading Parros, while replacing him with Barch, who is a far superior skater and forechecker. T.J. Brennan was moved to Nashville for Bobby Butler. Brennan did not play in the NHL this season. Brennan put up 25 goals and 47 assists for the Toronto Marlies but also went -10 in 76 games. Butler played 69 AHL games and 2 NHL games and posted an NHL assist. In the AHL this season, Butler put up 22 goals, 25 assists and went -3 on the Rampage. Brennan plays a role like that of Campbell, and is left-handed. The Panthers are well stocked in that regard with Campbell, Kulikov, Robak, and Matheson all vying to play the left-handed offensive defenceman. Shawn Matthias was unhappy in Florida and had never proven to be a producer. One month in a shortened lockout season does not a career make. Matthias was producing at a rate of .27 points per game for the Panthers this season. In a short span of 17 games with the Canucks he had 7 points and was -3. Much like Jack Skille, Matthias showed an inability to finish rushes and one-timers. Both Goc and Weaver were about to hit the free agent market, so it was good to get something for them if there was no plan to re-sign them
So how do the Panthers look moving forward?
Whether Tallon and company have been successful via the draft is a topic that may be best analyzed by comparison with with one of hockey's best franchises, and by looking at some new numbers discussing the likelihood of successful drafting.
A first overall pick now belongs to Dale and company, meaning a player at the top of this draft class will likely be coming to the franchise. Guesses abound about how the team will use the pick, but if the Panthers do use it most prognosticators believe it will be either on a defenseman, in Aaron Ekblad, or a forward in Sam Bennett, Sam Reinhart, or the player Dale was in Halifax watching: Nikolaj Ehlers. Any of these players look like they will assist the team moving forward. This is especially true because the pick is a first overall. This bears some very special consideration, especially in light of a recent study by hockey writer Jeff Little (The NHL Draft: Investment or Gamble?).
Little studied the success rate in drafting by NHL teams based on how many games a draft pick has played in the NHL as a percentage of the possible number of games they could have played during that time. He determined that "Almost 65% of players drafted since 2000 have zero time on NHL ice." However, Little found that players drafted 1st or 2nd overall have a far higher rate of success than players chosen by as early as the 5th pick, of whom "only 1 in 4 play 75% of the games," and "a full 42% have not appeared on NHL ice." To the extent that a 1st or 2nd overall pick is normally somebody with very special talent this seems to state the obvious. But the numbers falling off by the 5th overall pick show just how much difference there is in talent between those draft positions. Little points out that Pittsburgh's sustained success followed four years of #1 or #2 overall picks, with which they selected Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Fleury, and Staal. But while he noted the Penguins success in those top two draft positions, writer Andrew Forbes studied Pittsburgh's draft success since 2007 ("Pittsburgh Penguins Unsuccessful at NHL Draft" ) and determined that no Pittsburgh draft pick since 2007 has scored more than 15 goals in his career with the team. Is it any wonder than that the Penguins well respected GM Ray Shero lost his job? So how exactly does this apply to Dale Tallon and the Panthers? Pittsburgh has long been considered one of the best run organizations in the NHL, but scratch at that surface and you find the ugly drafting truth since 2007. Obviously, just because a player is taken in the first round does not guarantee a team a superstar, or even a 1st or 2nd line player, but the likelihood goes way up if a player is selected in the first four picks. Maybe this should give people pause in their criticism of Tallon's draft history.
Whether this is a good or bad draft class, the Panthers GM holds a very valuable pick that stands a far better statistical chance for success than virtually any other in the draft. But using Little's criteria for studying successful drafts (the number of NHL games a player has played vs. the number of games they could have possibly played) it is evident that Dale has already been very successful via the draft. The 2010 draft class had a possible 294 regular season NHL games that could be played. Gudbranson, with the number 3 pick that year has played 169, Bjugstad (picked 19th overall) has played 87 games and has scored 17 NHL goals (more than any Penguins draft pick since 2007 according to the Forbes article referenced above), Howden (picked 25th overall) has played 34 games and scored 4 goals, and 2nd rounder Petrovic has played 13 games. The 2011 draft class had a possible 212 NHL games. Huberdeau, again, the number 3 overall pick, has played 117 games and scored 23 goals, Trocheck (the 64th pick, in the 3rd round) has played 20 games and scored 5 goals, and Racine (the 87th pick from the 3rd round) has played 1 game. In 2012, the Panthers selected 23rd (and took Matheson). None of their picks from that draft have yet played in the NHL. In 2013, the Panthers had a 2nd overall pick they used on Barkov, who had a possible 82 NHL games and played in 54 (due to the Olympic injury). The likelihood of success at the draft is very small outside of 1st or 2nd overall picks, but Dale has done better than highly respected Pittsburgh, with 7 players since 2010 who have played more than 10 games in the NHL. The Andrew Forbes article points out that since 2007 (3 extra drafts than Tallon has had with the Panthers) the Penguins and Shero have had only 5 players they drafted play in more than 10 games for them. Take that one step further: of the seven players Tallon has drafted since 2010 who have played more than 10 NHL games, only 3 were top-3 picks. It would be a fair response to state that the Panthers (being at the bottom of the league) simply rushed these players into the NHL while the Penguins, at the top of the league, have not needed to do the same. Yet this is an overly simplistic response. The Penguins have had to scour the trade markets to find 3rd and 4th line scoring or defense (Marcel Goc ring a bell here?) and we are discussing seven seasons worth of picks that have not turned into NHL players for that franchise. On the other hand, Tallon picks in the late first round, 2nd round, and 3rd round are presently the envy of the league, with more players set to possibly join this list with Brittain, Grimaldi, Rau, and Matheson predicted to be NHL caliber players.
The near term future:
It is said that winners are built down the middle. Starting up front the Panthers center depth looks enviable with Bjugstad and Barkov as young premier centers. Barkov is the number one NHL prospect on Hockeysfuture.com on their Spring, 2014 prospect list. He was also the youngest player to play in the NHL this season. Pick one of these centers and the other will be playing 2nd line. That likely leaves Trocheck as a 3rd line center. Can Trocheck feast on 3rd line opposition? That appears likely as he performed well in massive ice-time down the stretch for the team. Would that leave Drew Shore in the 4th center spot? It could, or he could be moved to wing. If Shore plays center that is wonderful center depth through 4 lines.
Defense is a problem right now. As documented in my previous "defensive logjam" article, the Panthers are very thin at right-handed defense. Tom Gilbert is a pending UFA with a sports hernia issue. Gudbranson is the next right-handed D-man. Whether ready or not, he will take on more responsibility next season after he is re-signed. He looks capable of making the next step. But after Guds there is no right-hand D-man on the depth chart until the AHL, and Petrovic. The Cats have played Kulikov at right D since Weaver's trade. Any way one looks at it, the Panthers need right-handed defensive help. On the left side is the reliable and here for the long term Campbell. After him there is a mix of Kulikov, Olsen, Jovonovski, and Robak. Which of these D-men join Jovo and Campbell is a big question mark. Word is that the Panthers will be hunting defense in the free agent market. Dan Boyle, Brooks Orpik, and Andrei Markov are all upcoming UFA right-handed D-men. Orpik would make a fantastic addition to this team although his possession statistics are not very good with the Penguins.
In goal, Luongo represents the possibility of 3-5 years of top grade goaltending stability. Dan Ellis certainly has looked shaky as a backup. Scott Clemmensen's contract expires at the conclusion of this season.
At wing, the Panthers have a hopefully healed Huberdeau, a depleted Fleischmann, a young Jimmy Hayes, along with Brandon Pirri, Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky, Brad Boyes, Quinton Howden, and Jesse Winchester. Boyes and Bergenheim still appear capable of 1st or 2nd line roles. Add Huberdeau and that is 3 wings in those positions. Winchester, if re-signed, looks like a fine 4th line wing. Upshall represents a wildly inconsistent and often injured wing who cannot be counted on, but has finally put up better numbers this season. Kopecky and Fleischmann appear to be fading fast, which could be expected of 32 and 29 year old players. This leaves Hayes, Pirri (who is a center playing both center and wing) and Howden. Howden played 16 games and had 6 points. Pirri played 21 games for the Cats and had 14 points. Hayes played 53 games in Florida and posted 18 points. Where these 3 players fit in next season is hard to say. If any of the three turn into bona-fide top 6 wings, than Tallon did exceptionally well. Hayes is looking like a solid contributor in front of opposing nets, and Pirri appears to have the goal scoring touch he showed in the AHL.
The farm system is still loaded, with Matheson, McCoshen, Rau, Brittain, and Wittchow (to name but a few), still playing NCAA hockey. Clapperton, Delnov, Weegar and Hodges are all still in the CHL. Brittain, Houser, and Rob Madore are the mid-term goaltending prospects. In the AHL are Racine, McFarland, Wade Megan, Brickley, Petrovic, the recently signed Rocco Grimaldi and Tyler Barnes. Megan was not signed by the Cats coming out of his ATO contract with the team last year but was signed to a minor league deal and split time in San Antonio and Cincinnati this season. His numbers have been very solid. In 43 games with the Rampage this season he put up 17 points (and 104 shots), and now with the Cyclones in the playoffs he has 10 points in 15 games. Tallon will have to decide whether to re-sign Megan or let him go at the conclusion of Cincinnati's playoff run. Sticking to farm team acquisitions, DT recently signed Shayne Taker to an amateur try-out with the team. Taker played four years at Notre Dame as a big (6'4" 208lbs) defenseman. His production numbers went up every season at Notre Dame and the team finished 5th nationally this season in defensive rankings. Tallon and company will get a chance to see if he can produce at the professional level as a nice low risk pick up, much like Tyler Barnes (from University of Wisconsin).
What then, is the Dale Tallon legacy at this point? The Panthers did not overpay for Stephen Weiss, David Booth, or Jason Garrison. They got out of overpriced contracts to Rusty Olesz, Steven Reinprecht, Michael Frolik, and Kamil Kreps, in addition to unloading Kris Versteeg and Nathan Horton, who did not want to be here. Of the ex-Panthers, only Grabner has been a massive miss, and Dale freely admits to that. Mike Santorelli had a decent season for Vancouver (49 games 28 points), but that is the enigma that Santorelli is. The Canucks overpaid for both Booth, who now has a no-trade clause, and Jason Garrison. The Canucks were desperate to unload Keith Ballard, and have been pleased but not ecstatic with Chris Higgins. Nathan Horton was great for Boston, but would never have been for the Panthers and ultimately, in his own weird Horton way, asked to be traded out of Boston to head for the more relaxed Columbus market where he missed the playoffs due to another injury.
The Panthers gave up very little for young Pirri, Hayes, and Olsen. This trade for the latter two is worth a closer look, as Versteeg had been a team leader and important contributor for the Kevin Dineen led team in the 2011-12 playoff run. Broadcasters on a recent Hawks game noted that the Hawks are still trying to get him to shoot more often (something the Panthers dealt with as well--recall all the stick-handling turnovers he gave up this season that went for odd man rushes on the Panther's defense?). Regardless of how he plays for the Hawks, it was perfectly evident to all watching him this season that he was unhappy in Florida and was hurting the team. His post trade comments were the final piece of evidence for the puzzle that he did not want to be a Panther. Fans in both Philadelphia and Toronto (where Versteeg played before the Cats traded for him) routinely note their dislike of him on blogs and hockey-related websites. It is refreshing to see DT make good on his statement: we do not want players here who do not want to be Panthers. This was a good trade for Florida.
Dale has indeed turned this team around, it just has not yet translated to a full product on the ice. From what he took over in 2010, the change is evident: the team made the playoffs with the revamped free agent signings Dale brought in. Ticket sales jumped. Both of those things are enormous improvements. The farm system is one of the top rated (and was the top rated before the kids graduated to the pro ranks) in the NHL. The team itself did not perform well this season, but we are in a transition period as the kids take over. This is now their team, and they are not kids named Olesz, Kreps, Repik, Dadanov, or Ellerby (to name a few). These kids look as good as advertised. They are still lacking in experience, but that will come. The young defensemen will still take a longer time to develop, but the forwards look ready to start their promising career turns.
Tallon is turning over players in trades and free agency to try out pieces without paying out on too many poor contracts. Some poor contracts are going to exist on most teams (hello Maple Leafs - David Clarkson calling). The Panthers are still at the cap floor (presently the lowest salary cap team in the league) but are filling gaps and adding depth. If Hayes, Pirri or Olsen turnout to be long term producers the Cats look like massive winners. There is still more to do, and this off-season will be a critical time for finishing the mid-term project. But for the first time in a very long time, the Cats look like they have depth as an organization. While the Rampage struggle, Panthers picks are excelling in the NCAA and CHL. The team will add major talent in the form of yet another lottery pick. It was destined to take time to correct this franchise with the kind of grim draft and free agent record the Panthers had for an extended length of time. Dale's drafts have been good, better, in fact, than he did in Chicago. There is a lot of talent to put in the mix.
But there is an achilles heel. Goaltending is the one area DT seems to be lacking in. Luongo was (because of this) a fantastic steal. Those who saw Markstrom play viewed a goalie who was massive, yet full of holes. He is years away, if he ever makes it. (see my prior article on Panthers goaltending in 2013-14 for a more in depth look at this issue). Luongo gives us a great and proven goaltender, but after him this management team has not done much. They drafted Brittain, who is still a big question mark, and Cowley, who is a long-term project. Dale signed Rob Madore and Michael Houser to contracts out of the OHL and NCAA but it's still very much up in the air as to whether they can be NHL goaltenders. Houser played 28 games in the AHL this season with a 3.05 GAA and .903 SV%. The Panthers need a high quality goaltender in the pipeline who will be ready to play next season if needed, should Luongo get hurt again. Clemmenson is likely to be gone next year leaving Ellis behind Lou, but than what? This is a spot Tallon needs to address and where he does not appear to be doing as well. But Houser has had stretches of solid play, and Brittain was second in the NCAA in save percentage. If either one of these goaltenders continues with strong professional play, Dale may put to rest these question marks.
I give Tallon not just a pass, I give him rather high marks when I compare the Panthers team he took over to what we see top to bottom now. The final thing that must be considered is how little money he was given to use in the last off-season from ownership that was on the way out. He was not given the option to sign much of anything in free agency, but he still did very well. Despite having no dollars to spend, Dale nabbed Brad Boyes, Jesse Winchester, Tom Gilbert, and Tim Thomas, all of whom became important contributors, and two of whom most of us would like to see back. Now that Pete Horachek has been let go, the management team must also find a new head coach who will be the right fit for this mix of rookies and fading veterans. Tallon and company must find someone who can motivate, while teaching the youth, but who will not scare off attractive free agent talent.
Now comes an almost more dangerous situation as Dale is reported to have access to cap ceiling type money, bringing with it all the attendant risks of ill-advised overspends, and (after the draft lottery win) a first overall pick to use in this summer's draft, and an empty coaching position. It is an enviable and fantastic position to be in, having a first overall pick, but it also escalates the risks of taking the wrong player. Add to this a search for a new head coach as well, and this truly will be a telling off-season for our controversial general manager, and one fraught with risky signings, trades, and draft picks. Here is to hoping he continues with the successful run we have begun with April's lottery victory. Maybe things are already turning around from last off-season?
Your thoughts are encouraged in response, he is, after all, a figure who people have strong opinions about.