One year ago, Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon had seemingly managed a hockey miracle.
Bucking conventional wisdom in the summer of 2011, he turned over roughly half his roster largely via unrestricted free agency and trades.
Those acquisitions – notably, goalie Jose Theodore, defensemen Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski, and forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim and Marcel Goc – helped lift the once-moribund Panthers to their first post-season appearance in a dozen years.
Expectations were high entering this season, especially when the Panthers won their season-opener by routing the Carolina Hurricanes 5-1, but it’s been all downhill ever since.
As of March 7, 2013, the Panthers were mired in the basement of the Eastern Conference, winning only seven of 23 games this season. They were 22nd in goals-per-game, dead-last in goals-against per game (3.68), and possess the second-worst penalty kill.
Versteeg has been sidelined for most of this season, and this week came news Theodore would miss most of this season to a groin injury, while first-line center Stephen Weiss will undergo season-ending wrist surgery.
Defenseman Filip Kuba and winger Alex Kovalev, brought in during the off-season to replace the departed Jason Garrison and Mikael Samuelsson, have been disappointments.
Barring a stunning second-half turnaround, the Panthers not only seem destined to miss the playoffs, but could find themselves jockeying with the Columbus Blue Jackets for the first overall pick in the NHL draft lottery.
Having achieve a modicum of short-term success with veteran talent, it remains to be seen if GM Dale Tallon continues down the path of quick fixes, or opts for long-term development with more youth.
The latter could be the Panthers path to salvation.
Rookie left wing Jonathan Huberdeau is among the club’s leading scorers. He is a prime candidate to win the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year (which would make him the first Panther to achieve that honor), and has the potential to become their franchise player.
Huberdeau’s linemate and fellow rookie Drew Shore is also among their scoring leaders, as is oft-injured Peter Mueller, who’s rewarded the Panthers for taking a chance on him last summer with a healthy, productive season.
Youngsters Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov represent the future on their defense, while Theodore’s injury should give promising Jacob Markstrom the opportunity to prove himself as an NHL starting goaltender.
Long-suffering Panthers fans, however, have bitter memories of the club’s earlier efforts under previous managements to rebuild with youth, only to see those hopes dashed again and again.
Tallon will have to find the right balance between his promising youth and skilled veterans.
He’ll also have to decide if Weiss, an unrestricted free agent who was the subject of trade rumors prior to his season-ending injury, still has a future with the Panthers.
The injury to Theodore could prove a blessing in disguise in another way, for if Markstrom fails to impress this season, it could push Tallon toward bringing back Roberto Luongo.
The Canucks netminder has made no secret that, if he’s to be dealt, his preference is to return to the Panthers, where he played nearly six seasons before being dealt to the Canucks in 2006.
Tallon was reluctant to part with young talent to land Luongo last summer. Depending upon the Canucks asking price, it might be worthwhile this time to bring in a proven starting goaltender who actually wants to play for the Panthers.
It would also be worthwhile to shed some salary this summer, but it won’t be easy. They’re stuck with the contracts for Jovanovski and Kuba because both fall under the “over-35” rule, meaning the Panthers cannot get salary cap savings by demoting them, nor will they get cap relief if they retire.
The often injured Upshall has a modified no-trade clause and has $7 million left on the remaining two years of his deal. Bergenheim was a playoff hero last year, but injury has sidelined him this season, and when he’s finally cleared to play, the $5.5 million left on his contract could prove tough to move.
Ultimately, Tallon must determine if the Panthers performance this season is merely an aberration caused by the lockout-shortened schedule, or an indication his free agent acquisitions two years ago merely masked the club’s significant flaws.