Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Cross Checks [Print without images]

Friday, July 1, 2011
GM Dale Tallon quickly redefines Panthers

By Scott Burnside

Watching the dramatic transmogrification of the long-suffering Florida Panthers and their gung-ho dive into free agency Friday, we can't help but think of the situation GM Dale Tallon was in during the first couple of seasons after the lockout.

Then with Chicago, Tallon knew he had some good young talent in Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. He also knew he needed to try to accelerate the growing curve, and to do that meant spending money and, in some cases, over-spending.

Not everything worked out, but when the Hawks hoisted the Cup in 2010, Tallon's fingerprints were all over that team even if he'd been replaced by that time by Stan Bowman.

Now in Florida, Tallon has a bevy of top young talent, including what they hope will be a young franchise defenseman in Erik Gudbranson, centers Nick Bjugstad and Quinton Howden and junior scoring star Jonathan Huberdeau (selected third overall in last week's NHL draft).

Ed Jovanovski
Ed Jovanovski returns to the team that drafted him with the first overall pick in the 1994 NHL draft.

But to try and bridge the gap between the team's ugly past and its promising future, Tallon has within a matter of days completely retooled the Panthers' lineup with an interesting mix of veterans and emerging young players. Florida signed Tampa Bay playoff hero Sean Bergenheim and one-time Panthers star Ed Jovanovski to a four-year deals after acquiring Brian Campbell and Tomas Kopecky via trades in the past week.

From top to bottom, front to back, Tallon has quickly remade this team.

"It changes our whole personality," Tallon told ESPN.com on Friday.

Unable to get Tomas Vokoun to return to Florida, Tallon also elected to give former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner Jose Theodore a chance to recapture the magic, signing him Friday to a two-year deal worth $1.5 million annually.

"He's really rebounded nicely the past few years," Tallon said of his new No. 1 netminder. "He's turned his career around. He's a winner."

Tallon also brought in oft-injured but skilled center Marcel Goc (three-year deal worth $1.7 million annually) and forward Scottie Upshall (four-year deal worth $4.5 million per), who scored 22 goals last season in Phoenix and Columbus. The GM then acquired former Blackhawk Kris Versteeg from Toronto via trade.

Late in the day, Tallon finished his buying spree by signing Tomas Fleischmann to a four-year deal worth $4.5 million per year. The skilled center missed the last half of the 2010-11 campaign with blood clots in his lungs, but is believed to have the condition under control and is expecting to be at full health come training camp.

Upshall, Fleischmann and Goc should help take the pressure off Stephen Weiss, who has struggled as the team's "franchise" player. Throw in Kopeck and a rookie head coach in Kevin Dineen, and it's a lot to throw at the wall all at once.

But it was the same way in Chicago; while not all the pieces stuck, enough did to create the core of a team that would win the Stanley Cup.

Now, is four years at $3.5 million per year too much for Upshall?

Is four years at $3 million too much for Kopecky?

Is four years at $4.125 million overpaying for Jovanovski?

It's only too much if it doesn't work and you continue to flounder, as the Panthers have done in failing to qualify for the playoffs for 10 straight seasons.

Assistant GM Mike Santos explained that Friday's moves were part of a clearly defined process.

"We didn't just come in here this morning and start making calls," he said.

It's funny how people have belittled the eight-year deal Tallon gave to Campbell when both were in Chicago, but we don't think anyone complained when the Hawks held their Cup parade. People forget Campbell actually turned down more money elsewhere to sign in Chicago and agreed to go beyond his limited no-trade clause to follow Tallon to Florida.

In the end, sometimes it's about more than the money, it's about credibility, and sometimes credibility costs more when you don't have any.

Maybe Campbell and Jovanovski and the rest of the players brought into the fold can help kids like Gudbranson and the rest mature into winners.

Imagine that, a winner in South Florida. If it happens, folks will remember this July1 as the day the franchise perhaps turned an elusive corner in the land that hockey forgot.

"A lot of players wanted to come here," Tallon told ESPN.com, "and that's really exciting."