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By now, Florida Panthers fans are used to it. They're used to a bit of expectations heading into the season and they're used to watching their hockey season end in early April. That's the culture surrounding the franchise that GM Dale Tallon set out to change.
Missing the playoffs for a 10th straight season (and 12 out of the last 13), Tallon gutted the Panthers' roster after a 30-40-12 (72 pts.) finish that saw them finish 28th in the NHL. The roster overhaul last season began when players like Chris Higgins, captain Bryan McCabe, Michael Frolik, Cory Stillman, Radek Dvorak, Dennis Wideman and Bryan Allen, among others, were all dealt in February leaving the lineup mimicking one you'd see in the AHL. Florida's roster was so bare even Hugh Jessiman -- the only player from the first round of the 2003 Draft to never play in the NHL -- finally got called up for two games.
But the roster dumping was all part of Tallon's plan. It freed up salary cap space for this past summer that saw the Panthers have $30 million to spend just to reach the cap floor. And spend Dale Tallon did, bringing over a dozen new faces in the off-season making the Panthers the talk of South Florida for once.
There was also change behind the bench as Peter DeBoer was fired after seeing Florida's points totals diminish over the past two seasons after a 93-point campaign in his first year. In replacing DeBoer, Tallon hired Kevin Dineen, who'd spent the last six years coaching the Portland Pirates of the AHL.
Expectations are high in Pantherland that the days of playoff-less Aprils are over and the pressure is now on for the new faces to gel together and bring a winner back to South Florida. Tallon helped build a winner in Chicago; can he repeat the process with the Panthers?
Having a large satchel of cash at his disposal to spend on free agents just to hit the cap floor, Tallon was the most active GM over the summer beginning at the Draft when he convinced Brian Campbell to waive his no-trade clause and reunite with his former GM in Chicago. Days later, Tallon acquired the negotiating rights to forward Tomas Kopecky and signed him to a 4-year, $12 million contract just before free agency opened. In another deal, Tallon sent two draft picks to Philadelphia in exchange for Kris Versteeg.
Those trades opened the floodgates that saw Sean Bergenheim (4 years, $11 million), Scottie Upshall (4 years, $14 million), Jose Theodore (2 years, $3 million), Ed Jovanovski (4 years, $16.5 million), Marcel Goc (3 years, $5.1 million), Tomas Fleischmann (4 years, $18 million) and Matt Bradley (2 years, $1.9 million) all cash in and move to South Florida.
Name tags will be on hand at BankAtlantic Center when the Panthers open up camp later this week.
Leaving town was Tomas Vokoun (1 year, $1.5 million), who signed the steal of the summer with Washington after being unable to come to terms on a new deal to stay.
Joining Vokoun on the move out of town was Rostislav Olesz, who went to the Blackhawks in the Campbell deal; Marty Reasoner, who inked a 2-year, $2.7 million deal with the New York Islanders; Niclas Bergfors, who came over from the Atlanta Thrashers at the trade deadline, signed in Nashville; tough guy Darcy Hordichuk went west signing with the Edmonton Oilers; and former Vancouver fan Mike Duco was dealt to the Canucks in exchange for the rights to Sergei Shirokov who had signed a 3-year deal with CSKA Moscow of the KHL days earlier.
At forward ... You won't get to the playoffs if you're ranked 28th in goals for in the NHL. As one of four teams that didn't hit the 200-goal mark (191), Florida needed an offensive injection after seeing just Stephen Weiss (21 goals), Mike Santorelli (20) and David Booth (23) score at least 20 goals.
Trade rumors hung over Weiss' head last season and it showed on the stat sheet with an 11-point drop off and 9-goal decrease on the power play. Booth, on the other hand, bounced back well after a much-publicized concussion during the 2010-11 season with a 40-point season and showed no fear in playing physical finishing with 129 hits.
Bringing the likes of Fleischmann, Bergenheim, Upshall and Versteeg -- who are capable of hitting 20 goals -- will help lessen the offensive burden on the go-to guys like Weiss and Booth. Despite being on his fourth team in three seasons, Versteeg has surpassed the 20-goal mark in each of the last three years.
Those new offensive leaders should also improve a power play was absolutely dreadful last season finishing 30th in the NHL and succeeding at a 13.1-percent clip.
Florida's first round pick in June, Jonathan Huberdeau, will get a chance to make the club out of training camp, but chances are he'll likely be sent back to the defending Memorial Cup champion Saint John Sea Dogs of the QMJHL for more seasoning as the roster is quite crowded after Tallon's summer moves.
Other youngsters that could have more of an impact will be Mike Santorelli, who's coming off a career year with 20 goals and 41 points; Shawn Matthias, who inked a new two-year deal last week and struggled to break through last season after suffering a broken ankle; and Quinton Howden will get a look and is a budding power forward.
One question on many minds is how much of an aberration was Sean Bergenheim's playoff run of nine goals in 16 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning. With a fat new contract, Panthers fans are hoping it was a sign of things to come.
On defense ... Of Florida's seven blueliners last season, Mike Weaver (421 games) was the most experienced of the group with Dmitry Kulikov (141) and Jason Garrison (121) right behind him. Adding Jovanovski and Campbell to the mix brings over 1,600 NHL games to the table. That experience and their leadership will help bring along a young corps starting to come into their own now.
For as much as the offense was a weak link last season, the defense wasn't terrible. With a 2.71 goals-per game average and a sixth-rank penalty kill (84.6%), the inexperienced group overachieved. Adding 2010 first round pick Erik Gudbranson to the mix should give the Cats a good blend of youth and experience.
In goal ... With prospect Jakob Markstrom waiting in the wings for his chance, Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen will handle the duties in goal. The Panthers were 22nd in shots allowed (2609), but only 14th in goals against (2.71) last season, mostly thanks to the work of Tomas Vokoun and his .922 save-percentage. Theodore and Clemmensen will provide adequate coverage in net and an improved defense should decrease the amount of rubber thrown at the Panthers' net. With only Theodore signed through next season, it'll be interesting to see how soon Markstrom is brought into the conversation with an eye to the future.
"The A-Team" remake. Sort of looks familiar. Does things you remember. But the cast is completely different and the margin between a hit and a flop is a thin one.
The new ownership that took over the Panthers in 2009 is committed to winning. They know the struggles of the franchise's past and bringing in a guy like Tallon shows that they are serious about turning things around. Say what you will about Tallon and how he certainly overpaid for free agents, but the Panthers needed to spend a whole lot just to get to the cap floor and when you're trying to convince players to come Florida who've been rebuilding forever, that extra cash is needed to entice them.
Dineen had a successful run in the AHL and while the jump from junior to the NHL didn't work out so well with DeBoer, we've seen a number of coaches find success moving up from the A. It'll be Dineen's challenge the quickly find chemistry among his lines with the amount of turnover on the roster.
The Panthers finally were able to get Gudbranson under contract in July and the 6-foot-4, 195 lbs. defenseman -- after some bulking up -- will bring good size in the back and offensive ability. Being around the likes of Campbell and Jovanovski, he'll quickly learn what it takes to be a good pro.
The final chapter of Ed Jovanovski's career will end where it all began. The No. 1 overall selection in the 1994 Draft enjoyed early success with the Panthers before moving onto stardom with the Vancouver Canucks and Phoenix Coyotes. But at 35-years old, JovoCop's skills are diminishing and he's missed 42 games the past two seasons. His experience in the back will be helpful for Florida's up-and-coming blueliners in Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Jason Garrison, and Keaton Ellerby, but his 4-year, $16.5 million deal is sure to become an albatross in the sense that the output won't match the salary. Jovo's cap hit will, however, be a benefit to the Panthers as they're used to sitting at the bottom of the salary list, so his $4.125 cap hit will at least help them towards the floor every season.
Party City sponsored the upper bowl of the BankAtlantic Center beginning last season and as part of that partnership, Jason Garrison and (now departed to Winnipeg) Kenndal McArdle spent an afternoon shopping for Halloween costumes at the store:
With so many faces in the lineup, how long will it take for the team to gel together? And how far in the Eastern Conference standings will they be behind if it doesn't happen immediately?
Since the lockout, in the first season under a new coach the Panthers have responded with an increase in points. Jacques Martin added 10 points to Florida's totals from the 2003-04 season and Peter DeBoer led the Panthers to a 93-point season -- eight higher than the 2007-08 campaign -- that saw them miss out on the playoffs due to a tiebreaker with the Montreal Canadiens. Historically, the team has responded to new leadership. But with the number of new faces, Dineen will have to work some magic to get the roster to settle right off the bat.
- Dale Tallon