Senators GM Bryan Murray and Panthers GM Dale Tallon drew considerable criticism for their efforts at roster building last summer, but their teams performances has silenced their critics and drawn justifiable praise.
Last season was not a particularly happy one for Ottawa Senators general manager Bryan Murray and Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon.
Murray, GM of the Senators since 2007, had presided over the slow decline of the club from Stanley Cup Finalist to missing the playoffs two of the past three seasons, including the Sens hard fall to 13th overall in the Eastern Conference, the fifth-worst record in the league.
Tallon, the former GM of the Blackhawks who’d been in the job with the Panthers for a year, saw enough of his team’s poor performance to commence cleaning house near the trade deadline. He cleared cap space for an off-season rebuild of a team which not only went on to miss the playoffs for tenth straight season, but also finished dead last in the East with the third-worst record in the league.
Of the pair, Murray came under the most scorn. In a hockey-mad market which had grown accustomed to annual playoff appearances, and had been hoping for a return to the Cup Final, Murray was singled out for the team’s deterioration, and there were numerous calls for his ouster, including from yours truly.
Tallon wasn’t facing the same level of pressure, but in a market which had driven away its fans through a decade of incompetent management prior to his arrival, he nevertheless understood the urgency to turn around the moribund Panthers, lest it become a candidate for relocation, as the Atlanta Thrashers would ultimately become later in the year.
Both opted for different routes for improving their respective teams.
After several years of free-spending on retaining the Senators best players and inking unrestricted free agents in an effort to bolster his lineup, Murray and team owner Eugene Melnyk opted to change tactics after the mid-point of last season, shipping out most of their pending free agents near the trade deadline, placing the focus instead on rebuilding with youth from within their farm system.
Tallon, on the other hand, understood that was no longer an option for the long-woeful Panthers, and went into last summer with the plan of building with veteran talent via trades and free agency.
Murray did have some promising talent to work with. Sophomore defenseman Erik Karlsson finished second in team scoring with 45 points. Winger/center Colin Greening and winger Bobby Butler looked good in their late-season call-ups. Physical center Zack Smith and winger Eric Condra showed potential.
Down on the farm, goalie Robin Lehner backstopped Binghamton to the AHL championship, assisted by promising prospect blueliner Jared Cowan, along with Greening, Butler, Smith and Condra.
Murray also hired Red Wings assistant coach Paul MacLean to his first head coaching job at the NHL level. While MacLean was considered the right coach for a rebuilding club, sceptics continued to wonder if Murray was the right man to be the general manager of a rebuilding club.
Tallon, meanwhile, wasted little time making big moves, acquiring Bryan Campbell from Chicago at the entry draft, and Kris Versteeg from Philadelphia on July 1st.
Via free agency, Tallon quickly added Jose Theodore, Ed Jovanovski, Tomas Fleischmann, Tomas Kopecky, Scottie Upshall, Sean Bergenheim and Marcel Goc, effectively turning over nearly half the Panthers lineup almost overnight.
Those moves with met with considerable doubt, as history suggests most teams relying predominantly on trades and free agent signings as their means of rebuilding rarely saw success.
Tallon was widely praised for building the Chicago Blackhawks into a Stanley Cup champion, but it was also his free-spending ways – including overpaying Campbell to a lengthy deal worth over $7 million per season – which ultimately resulted in Tallon’s successors having to break up that championship roster to become compliant with the salary cap.
Many observers doubted these moves would turn around the Panthers in a single season.
Like Murray, Tallon also hired a new head coach, bringing in Kevin Dineen, a move seen by most observers as a good one, though he’d face a challenge getting the most out of a lineup having to get acquainted with each other and gel quickly if they were to have any shot of making the playoffs.
A year later, and the Senators surprised critics who expected them to finish among the worst teams in the league this season by clinching a playoff berth, while the Panthers clinched their first playoff berth since 2000.
Under MacLean’s coaching, many of the aforementioned promising Senators continued to develop well. Karlsson blossomed into a true star, leading all NHL defensemen in scoring. Rookie defenseman Cowan has shown consider promise as a shutdown defenseman.
Even veterans like Milan Michalek and
Mike Nick Foligno showed considerable improvement under MacLean’s guidance, posting career-highs in goals and points.
Murray, meanwhile, didn’t sit on this laurels, acquiring young center Kyle Turris from Phoenix and goaltender Ben Bishop from St. Louis, both of whom played key roles in the Senators march to a playoff berth.
Most of Tallon’s acquisitions, meanwhile, went on to become the Panthers best players. Campbell was the league’s second-leading scorer among defensemen, thriving with the extra responsbility and leadership he’s been given by Dineen.
Fleischmann and Versteeg were among the Panthers leading scorers, while Theodore, whose NHL career seemed in doubt, has had his best season since 2003-04, widely praised for carrying the Panthers toward playoff contention.
Like Murray, Tallon also didn’t sit on his laurels, shipping David Booth and Steven Reinprecht to Vancouver for Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm, then adding shoot-out specialist Wojtek Wolski near the trade deadline.
It remains to be seen how both clubs perform in this year’s playoffs, let alone if they can build upon this season’s significant improvement.
The work of Murray and Tallon has only just begun, but they’re off to a very good start, silencing their critics, saving their reputations, and reversing their respective teams’ fortunes.