My not-so-wide-awake report from Helsinki: GM Sexton earning right to stay with Panthers

September, 29, 2009

HELSINKI, Finland -- Bleary-eyed and barely awake, I walked into my hotel in downtown Helsinki this morning after a 12-hour travel day and was welcomed by the all-too-familiar smell of hockey equipment.

Near the elevators was a Florida Panthers bag. Yep, there is indeed NHL hockey here this week.

The Chicago Blackhawks don't arrive until tomorrow and the Panthers canceled their practice for today, so getting reunited with Hartwell Arena will have to wait another day (I covered the 2003 world championships here six years ago).

In the meantime, Randy Sexton was kind enough to meet with your disheveled scribe. It was at some point during the flight (in fact, the plane was just passing over Greenland at the time) when the thought occurred to me that Sexton was still a GM in limbo. He took over on an interim basis after Jacques Martin bolted to Montreal in early June and remains the man running the NHL team, even if his return e-mail address still says "assistant GM."

"No one knows what to call me," he said with a laugh as we grabbed a seat in the hotel lobby. "Some people call me the GM, some call me the interim GM, some call me the acting GM, some call me the assistant GM."

Veteran Panthers executive Bill Torrey interviewed other candidates, including, we believe, Doug Risebrough and Doug MacLean. But as the summer passed, there was Sexton, still in charge, for a team that many believe is for sale.

"There's not likely to be any change, so I'll just keep running the team," said Sexton. "There were interviews for sure, Bill talked to lots of guys. But the focus should not be on me, it should be on the team. It'll all sort itself out in due course. ...

"I fully expect to be running the team a year from now. I'm not too hung up on titles."

My guess is you'll see the team officially name him GM at some point over the next month or so. Makes no sense keeping up this in-limbo stuff. But Sexton didn't act like a guy in limbo this summer. He was busy, doing his best with a limited budget, adding the likes of Jordan Leopold, Steve Reinprecht, Ville Koistinen, Dennis Seidenberg and Scott Clemmensen.

He also re-signed his top star forward, David Booth, to a six-year contract extension. That was a sizable achievement, especially for optics, given that the team had just lost Jay Bouwmeester.

"This was a unique opportunity to audition for the [GM] job. I've had lots of positive feedback," Sexton said. "I never once spent a second worrying 'What should I do?' or 'Is this the right thing to do to help me get the job?' I'm a man of first principles, and first principles was that I was given the job and charge ahead until otherwise told. And that's what Bill told me, 'This job is yours, make things happen and improve the team. We'll tell you if there's going to be a change, if there is one.' So far there hasn't been a change and it's been full steam ahead."

Just getting anything for Bouwmeester was a minor coup given that it was clear the star defenseman was walking away from South Florida as an unrestricted free agent. Sexton worked hard at the NHL draft in Montreal and got Calgary to bite, receiving the rights to Leopold plus a third-round pick (67th overall) in exchange for sending Bouwmeester's rights to the Flames.

"I just tried to do what was best for the franchise and I believed from day one that we needed to get some tangible assets back for Jay," said Sexton. "I wasn't sure if we could do it, but I think the fact we did, it was a positive thing for our franchise."

The key was getting Leopold, also UFA-bound, to stay on. Sexton did.

"Jordan's been a terrific addition both on and off the ice," said Sexton. "The guys like him and he's played well. And Josh Birkholz, stash that name away; he's the kid we took with the pick we got in the third round and I think he's going to play in this league."

Still, Bouwmeester was not replaced. Leopold is top-four blueliner, yes, but not a stud like Bouwmeester.

Sexton believes the team is better. The Panthers certainly weren't far off last season, tying eighth-place Montreal on points but losing out on the tiebreaker.

Are they a playoff team? Here's my take on the East:

After Pittsburgh, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington, the rest of the conference is a big group of closely matched teams. Some would say a dog's breakfast, but I think that's a little harsh. I just think from No. 5 to No. 13, the gap might be smaller than ever in the post-lockout, salary-cap NHL, which has produced tremendous parity.

But enough about that. We're in Helsinki, a beautiful city where part of the NHL regular season begins Friday. The Panthers arrived here Saturday and played an exhibition game in Tampere, two hours away, last night. They'll play another one here tomorrow night against Jokerit.

"The players and the coaches were excited about this trip," Sexton said. "I said, 'You know what? This might be a once-in-a-career opportunity.' We have no regrets. It's been a fabulous experience. The people here in Helsinki have been wonderful and accommodating. We did a little team-building thing offshore and the guys had a blast. The Finns are famous for their saunas and we did that. It's been good."

Sauna? That sounds pretty good about now. Time for a little R&R, my friends. I'm zonked.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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