A Salak of Patience?
In a huge surprise to all following the Florida Panthers, general manager Dale Tallon made a big splash just weeks before February 28th's NHL Trade Deadline. Current enigma Michael Frolik and Czech goaltending prospect Alexander Salak were sent to Dale's old team, the Chicago Blackhawks, for three forwards: Jack Skille, Hugh Jessiman, and David Pacan.
Frolik, widely considered the best player in the deal, has struggled immensely this season and hasn't lived up to the "Baby Jagr" hype of yesteryear, and while Skille looks to be immediate help for a team that has longed for a high impact net presence, one has to wonder if Florida management has continued it's long record of mismanagement in giving up on players too soon-- Dan Boyle, Kristian Huselius, Niklas Hagman, Anthony Stewart, and Michael Grabner are some examples. It's been a problem this organization has long battled with; walking the tight-rope that is potential and production. The question must be asked though, did Tallon pull the plug too early on this deal?
For most rebuilding teams the immediate need to win isn't a priority, it's an afterthought, but in this non-traditional hockey market, management has always had one foot firmly planted in the present. The burden of the economics of the game is firmly placed on their shoulders, and a big reason the position has been likened to a game of musical chairs. It's a difficult spot to be placed in, and it's the reason that over the past 10 seasons there have been 2-3 different rebuilding processes (depending on your definition of a rebuild) the club has endured over the past 10 seasons-- because just as one stage nears completion, someone pulls the rug and abandons the "plan", letting go of that vision of tomorrow and takes a stab at the El Dorado of today.
Looking at the most recent trade, it's hard to fault Tallon in dealing away the 22 year-old Frolik for a player he has some history with in Skille-- after all, Skille is another project, a first round pick that wowed scouts during his draft year but just hasn't been able to put things together consistently at the NHL level; from this perspective it looks like a wash, a fair deal for both squads and there is some optimism a new setting can help both players. The sticking point is that while this wasn't necessarily a departure of youth (the Panthers' depth charts get a bit younger), it was a departure of players with big ceilings and star potential.
Jack Skille is to this point a good serviceable young player, but no scout will tell you that his potential outweighs that of Frolik. They each play a fairly different game from one another, and no doubt Skille is exactly what "Doctor DeBoer" ordered for a push this season, but one can't but think that the Panthers gave up way to much of their future for some immediate help-- let's not fool ourselves: Skille is a young player, and if re-signed he can have a lasting effect on the Panthers squad for years to come, but what will that effect be? Potential is a dangerous word in South Florida, but what is the potential risk of losing a scoring threat? Does it outweigh the measure of adding a "grinding winger with upside"? When was the last time somebody wished for a grinder on this Florida team that as was established before when talking about the loss of Michael Grabner, a franchise that yearns for a scorer.
The biggest loss for the Panthers organization might not even be that of the third-year forward, it could be the loss of Alexander Salak that truly hurts years from now. Yes the organization looks to be rather well stocked at the goaltending position, but with Markstrom struggling early (and potentially out for the year with a knee injury) this season the Panthers future depth in net has been slightly exposed if not for the stellar play of Salak in the Swedish Elite League. He helped Rochester to the AHL playoffs last season, and now as a 24-year old rookie in the SEL is posting numbers (.925 SV% and 2.04GAA with 6 Shutouts) even godlier than what Markstrom had ever displayed.
This is a goaltender who not only excelled in his duties in every league he has ever played in, but has displayed the passion and character one might expect from a Dale Tallon-type player each time he has dropped the blocker and glove (yes-- he's a temper flaring goalie who'll fight for his team). It's possible to argue that Tallon's mind was already made up on the pending RFA netminder earlier in the year when Salak was moved from the Americans to the FBK so that the highly touted Markstrom could develop his North American game; Salak's future in Florida was decided. But was that a premature move? The free agent acquisition is something of a late bloomer but for the past few years in the Panthers organization his stock has skyrocketed and this was one Panthers prospect that many believed had star potential. Now it could be argued that with Marc Cheverie, Tyler Plante, Sergei Gaiduchenko, Sam Brittain, Markstrom and Salak someone had to be moved, but was giving up the most successful out of the bunch a wise choice? The loss of Salak won't be felt right away, but if the blocks begin to fall and Vokoun departs, there are some serious issues and this is one player with a lot potential that might come back to haunt the Cats, especially in a situation like Chicago where the goaltending position is very much unclear going forward.
The lack of patience can be further looked at in questioning why the move was made at this juncture. Observers could likely wonder if Tallon could have gotten a little bit more in return from teams at the deadline-- especially when considering the tight races in both conferences. It could be argued that the move was made because the Cats needed the immediate physical presence that Skille provides, but then that becomes yet another move Panthers management has made that puts the hopes of one season ahead of the hopes of many.
Losing high-end potential for less risky assets is a fine strategy if done sparingly but the Tallon regime has made three very costly moves in succession that largely sacrificed the future for a chance at something that the past few GM's could not have achieved; the playoffs. For a man who believes the goal of this team isn't making the playoffs, but winning a cup the non-committal move with Erik Gudbranson and his contract, the waiving of Michael Grabner, and now the bluelight special of Frolik and Salak don't make a lot of sense.
In all of these moves, Tallon had chosen to go with the route that would help this team win now over the future and development of its potential star talent. It really seems like there is a lack of patience at the head of the Panthers franchise, and this lack of patience is one of the major reasons why this team is a perennial non-contender-- You have to have a plan, but at the same time, you have to be willing to see that plan to the end. It's understandable that there comes a time when potential has to be actualized, and we saw that with Nathan Horton who had played 423 games in a Panthers uniform but never lived up to his billing; his time had come and the deal to Boston was applauded by many, but were the amassed 235 NHL games played by Frolik (213), Salak (2) and Grabner (20) enough to truly gauge the future standing of these players with the organization?
David J. Neal of the Miami Herald said it best when Tallon was hired, "This franchise specializes in staying with a plan only long enough to fail." This franchise just hasn't displayed the patience to wait and reap its rewards. It seems despite as much faith as the masses have in Tallon's ability, he's showing he's not that different from his predecessors; like clockwork the Florida Panthers have unloaded the players the past leaders of the franchise once dubbed as our saviours for immediate help now and a glimmer of hope in the future--one can only hope that the moves Tallon has made this season were made with patience in mind and are for the betterment longstanding well being of the team and not just for another playoff push.