On Rebuilding, Part 8: The Florida Panthers

Jonathan Willis
August 30 2012 11:47AM

Frequent commenter and guest contributor RexLibris' series on rebuilds continues with the Florida Panthers.

The Florida Panthers have recently been held up as proof that a team doesn't need to be terrible for long periods in order to become good. Many fans have commented that they would prefer to see their team take the approach of Dale Tallon and the Florida Panthers over that of the Edmonton Oilers, and that a team can be rebuilt on the fly, with as much chance of success as a “nuclear-style” rebuild.

Our task in this case is to find the truth in this matter. The Panthers have obviously rebuilt under Dale Tallon, that much is clear. The question becomes was this rebuild done in such a fashion that it can reasonably be applied to other situations and franchises where a team can be remade over a summer and go from a perennial bottom-place team to a playoff contender? In order to ask, and eventually answer, that question one needs to look at the talents that were acquired between the period of poor performance and resurgence, the existing conditions that facilitated this remodeling (in case the term rebuild is becoming repetitive), and what assets were acquired as a result of the Panthers being so bad, and drafting so high, under earlier management as well as their true impact on the recent improvement of the team.

FairyDale Beginning?

Let’s begin by looking at the change of ownership that occurred just before the Dale Tallon hiring. The Panthers were purchased by Cliff Viner and Stu Siegel from Alan Cohen on November 16th, 2009. Viner made it clear in media interviews following the hiring of Tallon that he was going to build the team through the draft, but that the resources would be there in other areas of the franchise.

Dale Tallon was hired on May 17th 2010 and immediately he began to prioritize the draft. He brought in six new members to the Panthers scouting staff and today that department of the organization numbers thirteen members, from European scouts to pro scouts and so on.

His first draft with the Panthers in 2010 saw him acquire two 1st round picks (one of which he traded to L.A. in order to trade down from 15th to 19th and acquire an extra 2nd round pick) in addition to his own which was a 3rd overall. He traded Dennis Seidenberg to Boston for Byron Bitz, Craig Weller and a 2nd round pick that was used to select the promising defenseman Alex Petrovic. Tallon next sent Gregory Campbell and Nathan Horton to Boston for Dennis Wideman, a 1st round pick (the 15th overall alluded to and which would eventually result in the selection of Nick Bjugstad) and a 2nd round pick later traded to Minnesota for a 3rd and a 4th round pick. After that, Tallon sent Keith Ballard and Victor Oreskovich to Vancouver for Steve Bernier, Michael Grabner and a 1st round pick (25th overall - Quinton Howden). By the end of the draft in 2010 Tallon had acquired Eric Gudbranson, Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, Alex Petrovic along with nine other prospects through the draft. He would also go on to waive Michael Grabner while Steve Bernier would find free agency after Tallon chose not to retain his RFA rights, thus whittling the Ballard/Oreskovich trade return down to just Quinton Howden.

Tallon's moves showed a great deal of faith in his newly assembled scouting staff in acquiring all of those picks. As we have already seen, in 2004 Bob Pulford put everything he had into the draft and his scouts rewarded him with few NHL players of note. It is too early to pass judgment on Florida’s 2010 draft other than to say that there are some intriguing prospects in Gudbranson, Petrovic, Howden and Bjugstad.

Following the draft, Tallon then stocked up on NHL talent of questionable quality. He traded for players such as Darcy Hordichuk, Sean Zimmerman, Hugh Jessiman, Jack Skille, Ryan Carter, Niclas Bergfors, Sergei Samsonov and Alex Sulzer. If one could be accused of deliberately acquiring a collection of underperforming players, Tallon would qualify. Many of the players brought in were either journeyman or in the reclamation phase of their careers.

During this period and up to the 2011 trade deadline, Tallon added only two additional draft picks, bringing the total to ten for the 2011 draft. At the draft Tallon would select Jonathan Huberdeau, Rocco Grimaldi, Rasmus Bengtsson, and Logan Shaw amongst others.

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire...

With the franchise already having amassed the talented prospects necessary to slowly rebuild a franchise either before or immediately after he arrived, Tallon was free to take the Panthers in a direction the club had never previously gone. Receiving both approval and funding from ownership, he began aggressively pursuing free agents and trading for players that were a financial liability on other teams but could still be productive players on the ice. The Panthers were going to buy and barter for an NHL squad.

In an interview with the Palm Beach Post shortly after purchasing the team, Viner states that he and Tallon agreed that the team would be rebuilt through the draft, rather than free agency. And yet, because of the salary cap floor, they ended up doing both.

It is important to note that Tallon wasn’t just working within the salary cap limit. He actually had to make up nearly $20 million in player salary between draft day and the beginning of the pre-season just to reach the salary floor. Where other teams were desperate to shave four or five million dollars off of their player roster, Tallon had approximately $40 million dollars to work with. This gave him an enormous tactical advantage when negotiating trades and acquiring talent.

Tallon was able to use both the lifestyle advantages of playing in Florida as well as significant, though short-term, contract offers to upgrade many areas of the roster, often with players that were familiar to him from his other NHL jobs. Through free agency Tallon also added Ed Jovanovski, Tomas Fleischmann, Marcel Goc, Jose Theodore, Matt Bradley, Sean Bergenheim and Scottie Upshall.

By trade he was able to add Brian Campbell from the Blackhawks for Rostislaz Olesz. He then acquired Niclas Bergfors and Patrick Rismiller for Radek Dvorak and a 5th round draft pick, Tomas Kopecky was brought in for a conditional 2012/2013 7th round draft pick, Kris Versteeg came from the Flyers for a conditional 2012 3rd round pick or 2013 2nd round pick (at the Panthers discretion). Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson were both acquired from the Canucks for Steven Reinprecht, David Booth and a 2013 3rd round draft pick.

Tallon also made several trades to bolster his AHL team in an attempt to improve the internal development system for the Panthers, subscribing to the philosophy that prospects thrive when they must compete for ice time.

In exchange for short-term contracts Tallon could afford to overpay some free agents. Perhaps with an eye to preventing the team from being tied to a declining player when their young prospects eventually began to vie for NHL jobs. The longest contract on the Panthers’ books right now is that of Brian Campbell which has four years remaining, a contract that Tallon himself signed Campbell to while in Chicago. Fleischmann, Upshall, Jovanovski, Kopecky and Bergenheim all have three years remaining while the remainder of the roster is either entering free agency this summer or has only one year remaining on their current contract.

Tallon’s situation is one that provides a great deal of flexibility for the team over the next few years as it begins to graduate some of the young prospects to the NHL. However, this flexibility, if managed incorrectly, can turn into instability and we will have to wait and see what he does over the next few years in Florida before declaring his experiment a success.

Soldiers of Fortune

The turnaround that Florida experienced this past season (and it deserves mention that many in the media had expected a bottom five conference team) was the result primarily of the players that Tallon pursued in this period of free agency and trade. Tomas Fleischmann, John Madden, Mikael Samuelsson, Marco Sturm, Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, Ed Jovanovski, and Brian Campbell; by gathering together this list of expendable and castoff players Tallon was able to cobble together a roster that could compete in a weak division.

Of the players drafted while Tallon was GM, only Erik Gudbranson has had any time playing at the NHL level (72 games played, 8pts, 78 penalty minutes). This eliminates the draft boon that the Panthers experienced while at the bottom of the standings as having had any impact on their overall performance in the 2011-2012 season.

Rather than simply elevate their young players to the NHL regardless of their readiness (something previous regimes had chosen to do, to the detriment of the players) Tallon approached the issue from a more patient perspective. He would keep many of the prospects in their development leagues until they were truly ready to compete for an NHL job even though it would create a void in the roster.

This gap gave the Panthers an opportunity to take a very different approach in handling the rebuild.

Putting the “T” in Teamwork

These mercenary tactics worked and Tallon put together, and held together through approximately 300 man-games lost to injury, a roster that earned a playoff berth and challenged the eventual Stanley Cup contending New Jersey Devils in the first round of the 2012 playoffs.

Dale Tallon hasn’t rebuilt the Florida Panthers in a traditional sense. In fact, if one were to discount the prospects that the team has in its system and which were predominantly drafted prior to his hiring, Tallon’s moves all bear the mark of what is generally referred to as a re-tooling. At best Tallon could be said to have executed a hybridized version of both approaches, one specifically tailored to the situation that exists in Florida where a poor team needed to plan for the future but also needed to ice a lineup that would create some local interest. Tallon traded away many of the underperforming and ill-fitting players for draft picks, then filled the available roster spaces with better players during a deep free-agency period. He capitalized on his team’s enormous cap space, and its need to reach the cap floor, to acquire good players signed to bad contracts and to overpay for free agents. He never needed to take the team to the bottom of the standings, that had already been accomplished by the mismanagement of previous GMs Jacques Martin (2006 - 2009) and Randy Sexton (2009 – 2010) under then-owner Alan Cohen. In short, Tallon preserved the integrity of the Panthers’ farm system and prospect depth while improving the team immediately through the mercenary ranks of free agency.

As in some of the other cases of franchise rebuilds, it is often a moment of change that leads a team to undertake the dramatic process of a rebuild. For the Florida Panthers it is the day that the ownership of the Panthers changed from Alan Cohen to Cliff Viner and Stu Siegel. Less than a year after the change of ownership Dale Tallon was hired to run the team.

Credit belongs to Viner in recognizing that the draft was currently the best method of acquiring high-end talent and for instructing his GM to value that process. Credit also belongs to Tallon in so far as he was shrewd enough to notice the window of opportunity available to him under very specific NHL market conditions and capitalize on them.

I Love It When A Plan Comes Together…

In summary, Dale Tallon didn’t exactly tear the Panthers down and stockpile all of the draft picks that have put the Panthers at or near the top of most prospect rankings. That was done prior to his arrival and is primarily the result of the poor management of the team under Mike Keenan, Jacques Martin, Randy Sexton and the previous owner Alan Cohen. Tallon deserves credit for flushing out the weaker elements of the old roster and replacing them, creatively and opportunistically, with better veteran options while still retaining many of his prospects and draft picks.

Before advocating this path as a viable alternative to a rebuild for one’s team, a fan needs to look at many variables. One of those being, is there a quantity and quality of free agent players available at the necessary positions to be had? Tomas Fleischmann became a 1st to 2nd line center in Florida and was only available as a free agent because of repeated health concerns over blood clots. On average, players at his position and of his caliber are not readily available on July 1st.

That being said, Tallon took a team that had finished at the bottom of the Eastern Conference the year before and turned them into a team that won a majority of its games in one of the weakest divisions in hockey. They were also beaten in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Tallon has provided an example of how a team might be reshaped in a single off-season, but his model should not be held up as a viable option of bypassing the draft and creating a cup-challenging team overnight.

Tallon and Viner purchased a modestly competitive team; if that is one’s goal then it certainly is achievable.

The 2012 season for the Florida Panthers could just as easily have gone down in the record books as another failed campaign finishing outside of the playoffs.

Tallon had been tasked with growing the team and the game. Florida is a non-traditional market for the NHL and has to fight for fan attention. At the same time the team has had 19 years to develop both and it is unlikely that ownership can afford to spend another extended period at the bottom of the standings in order to add more prospects. While the goal of seemingly every NHL organization is to win a Stanley Cup, pragmatic concerns must also be considered, and thus far Tallon has seemed to serve these two masters relatively well.

Tallon’s retooling in Florida is no more or less of a guarantee (as that appears to be what so many fans want today) of a successful franchise than the radical rebuilding methods pursued by George McPhee in Washington.

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, Sportsnet and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including the Edmonton Journal, Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.