It's been a busy thirty-plus days for the Florida Panthers and general manager Dale Tallon. Tallon has done a lot, if not all, of the heavy lifting necessary to have the Cats' roster ready for training camp, as the team looks to climb out of the NHL cellar and hopefully challenge for a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs this season.
The Panthers began their remake with a bang, forgoing all possible trade offers to select Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad with the first overall pick at the Entry Draft in Philadelphia on June 27. The next day, the Cats added forwards Jayce Hawryluk, Juho Lammikko, Joe Wegwerth, and Miguel Fidler, as well as towering Swedish goaltender Hugo Fagerblom in the final round. Only Ekblad is expected to make an immediate impact with the team, while the others will need to marinate longer, some much longer, before they are ready to challenge for a spot on the big club.
Before the calendar flipped from June to July, Tallon made what had to be a tough decision, buying out the final year of captain Ed Jovanovski's contract. The move freed up an additional $4.125 million of cap space, as the club geared up for the league's annual free agent frenzy.
On July 1, the Panthers hit the free-agent market hard, adding a whopping $60.4 million in future payroll. The biggest signing from a dollars standpoint was center Dave Bolland's polarizing 5-year, $27.5 million deal. The best hockey move, in my opinion, was the addition of Jussi Jokinen, who was signed to a more appropriate 4-year, $16 million contract. Jokinen should figure prominently in the team's top-six next season and be one of the Cats' leading scorers. The Panthers also added veteran forwards Derek MacKenzie and two-time Cup winner Shawn Thornton to bolster the fourth line. 37-year-old Willie Mitchell was inked for two years to provide a much-needed veteran presence on the blue line. Mitchell may be getting up there in age, but there is still tread on those tires, as he was good enough to contribute on both of the Los Angeles Kings' Stanley Cup winning teams over the past three seasons. Goaltender Al Montoya was also signed, giving the Cats another option in net behind Roberto Luongo. Montoya will battle Dan Ellis, who came over at the trade deadline in the Tim Thomas trade and struggled mightily, for the right to back up Brother Louie.
Th next task facing Tallon was to lock up the club's long list of talented young restricted free-agents. The veteran GM went through the seven-man list like a buzz saw, re-upping Erik Gudbranson, Dylan Olsen, and Brandon Pirri as well as probable minor-leaguers Ryan Martindale and Garrett Wilson, in short order. Days later, despite some expecting this one to be a bit of a tough nut to crack, Dmitry Kulikov was back in the fold. Jimmy Hayes was the only RFA to elect arbitration, but Tallon got him re-signed right before the two sides went to court. Mission accomplished.
The last piece of the offseason puzzle for the Panthers will likely be inking Ekblad to his entry-level contract, if he indeed looks ready for NHL duty during training camp. The Cats do have just over $5.5 million of cap space if they want to make any more signings or trades. There have been rumors that Tallon would be willing to shed a prospect or two for more scoring help, so keep an eye on that as the summer drags on. For now, the roster looks not only set, but considerably deeper and more difficult to play against, with a solid mixture of veterans and up-and-coming youth. And let's not forget, in addition to the NHL roster reshaping and a few additional signings geared towards the AHL Rampage, the Panthers also added new head Gerard Gallant and assistants Mark Morris and Mike Kelly. Whew!, that's a lot of work over the last month or so. Dale, you've done a man's job sir.