If I told you in July that, at the quarter mark of the season, we would be looking at a division leading Florida Panthers squad, you would probably laugh me out of the room. But that’s exactly what we have.
And should we really be surprised? In 2005-06, Dale Tallon took over as the General Manager of the Chicago Blackhawks, a team toiling on the verge of obscurity. In 2009-10, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup. He wasn’t on the ice, he wasn’t in the press box, he wasn’t even in the arena. No, the architect of the Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks — their first such victory since 1961 and the days of Mikita and Hull — was watching from his new post in South Florida. Dale Tallon was the new General Manager of the Florida Panthers.
So how did he get there? How did the man that drafted Toews, Kane, and brought in Campbell, Niemi, Versteeg, Sharp, and Hossa, end up out of a job?
Muffed qualifying offers — contracts sent to Unrestricted Free Agents in order to retain their rights — never made it to the Blackhawks UFAs. The Blackhawks, already nearing the upper-limit of the salary cap, were forced to shell out big money to Kris Versteeg, Dustin Byfuglien, and others in order to keep them aboard. While integral parts to the Cup run, the qualifying offer mistake would cost Tallon his job. The unceremonious demotion would leave many scratching their heads, Tallon included.
Dale Tallon’s completely retooled the Panthers in just two seasons
Fast-forward to May of 2010, as a struggling Florida Panthers club, primed to finish in nearly last place in the Eastern Conference, fired then-GM Randy Sexton and brought in Tallon. It wouldn’t be long before Tallon started making moves. He made it quite clear that there were almost no “untouchables” on his roster, and that everyone would be up for grabs.
As the season ended, the moves started to come.
The short list of who Tallon moved out during the off-season is, well, not short at all. Nathan Horton, Gregory Campbell, Keith Ballard, Victor Oreskovich, and a plethora of draft picks moved out. In return, Tallon brought in Dennis Wideman — who would be traded later in the year — and two first round draft picks in 2010 to go along with his third overall selection. Those picks turned into Erik Gudbrandson, Quinton Howden, and Nick Bjugstad. While it can’t be said what those three will turn into in their respective NHL careers, three picks in the first thirty was quite the grab for the Tallon.
The season would be much of the same for the Cats, however. As the deadline neared, Tallon shipped out Michal Frolik and Alexander Salak for Jack Skille and two minor leaguers. He’d also clear cap space by trading away big contracts for picks and more AHL depth. As is often the case for a team that chooses to blow up nearly its entire roster, the Panthers slid to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, and second-last spot in the entire league ahead of only the Edmonton Oilers.
But first, Peter DeBoer had to go. The first time NHL head coach, DeBoer was exiled from the Cats with one year remaining on his contract. In would come Kevin Dineen, signaling the beginning of the Tallon era Panthers.
With a cleared roster and most of his perceived headaches off the books, Tallon began to beef up the roster.
In order to build the team, almost from the ground up, Tallon brought in a lot of his ex-‘Hawks players. A trade for salary cap behemoth Brian Campbell and his $7+ million dollar cap hit, Kris Versteeg, and the negotiating rights for Tomas Kopecky was the base. Then Sunrise Sports and Entertainment gave Tallon a blank cheque book and asked him to build them a winner.
As the free-agent market opened up, Tallon went out and acquired Scottie Upshall, Jose Theodore, Ed Jovanovski, Marcel Goc, Tomas Fleischmann, Sean Bergenheim, and Matt Bradley.
With a completely retooled lineup — there were ten new faces in Florida — there were a lot of question marks surrounding what the team would look like this season. Would the moves pay off? Could this lineup, which has barely played together, find a way to mesh? Will Jose Theodore be able to return to form?
We’re now at the quarter mark of the season and — I hope you’re sitting down for this — the Florida Panthers are leading the Southeast Division, are second in the Eastern Conference, and in the top half of the league in nearly every major statistic. For the most part, it was thought that this vast recreation of South Florida hockey would backfire, that there was too much money thrown around, and that it was handed out too loosely. So far, that’s looking like it’s far from the case.
Kris Versteeg, cast off of the Blackhawks post-Cup, the Leafs after an unsuccessful run in Toronto, and traded from the Flyers after disappointing play, has been reborn. His current clip has him on pace for just over 100 points this season. His previous career high? 53 points in his rookie season. In his career Versteeg has only tallied 147 points prior to this year. Point to what you will — increased ice time, power play minutes, or just a change in off season preparation — Versteeg is on an absolute tear this season.
And he’s not the only one.
Much maligned in Chicago during his first season, Brian Campbell was instrumental in the ‘Hawks Cup run and was, for long stretches, the best defenseman on the team last season. Perhaps finally playing up to the terms of his contract, Campbell is leading defensemen in points with 18 while not taking a single minute in penalties. He’s returned to the form that saw him become an all-star in Buffalo and Chicago.
Add to that the performance of Jason Garrison, who has regressed of late but has been a force from the back end, and Dmitry Kulikov, the Panthers are looking like the real deal.
Maybe it’s the coaching of Dineen, the play of some of the fresh faces, or just an entire team philosophy, the Panthers just do not quit. No matter what you think, the Panthers are in a position to return to the playoffs after the NHL’s longest drought. Keeping this up won’t be easy, but there isn’t a reason to believe they can’t. Just as their slogan states, the Panthers are seeing red.
If these Cats keep this up, there’s no telling where this could lead. Tallon’s built a team from the basement to the top once, and maybe he can do it again.