David J. Neal: Florida Panthers taking a passive approach to free agency

NHL free agency opened Friday afternoon. You could say the Panthers played possum. Or, you could say they barely played at all.

The Panthers resigned 25-year-old center Shawn Matthias, ideally a third-line center. With an eye on organizational depth, they signed defenseman Mike Mottau and wingers Joey Crabb and Jesse Winchester. And, that’s it.

Any criticism of the Panthers relative inactivity must consider a few factors.

First, for long-term success, free agents are the salt of your team, not the food. Players you draft or develop comprise the latter.

Also, this free agency class includes several big names whose reputation exceeds their production.

What would’ve made a dynamic roster after the last lockout now comprises the club of guys paid for performances past, not future.

Also, you don’t make moves with the coaching staff or player personnel to “excite the fan base.”

Whatever you do or don’t do should be done with the goal of winning today or tomorrow.

Unpopular moves get celebrated when they lead to progress in the standings or playoffs.

It’s only Day 1.

That’s why the Panthers staying on the periphery while the rest of their divisional rivals jumped into the fray with checkbooks flashing doesn’t give as much queasiness as something Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said during a conference call with South Florida media.

Tallon was asked if budgetary limitations held him back from doing anything major Friday, or even re-signing center Stephen Weiss or forward Peter Mueller.

Tallon paused for a few seconds before replying, “We have a budget, and we have a budget we have to stick with. That’s what the mandate is. It’s all in the budget. So, that’s what we’re doing.”

Whenever a team near the salary-cap floor starts talking about budget, there’s a problem. And Tallon sounded about as happy as if he had been told he would need to move to Winnipeg.

The Panthers don’t need another person in charge of hockey personnel begging to escape Sunrise.

That instability helped stunt the Panthers growth in the post-Murray Family early 2000s, and in the Mike Keenan-Jacques Martin period of 2004 to ’08.

“We’re going to go young,” Tallon rumbled. “We’re going to go with our young guys. That’s been our plan all along.”

Detroit dropped almost $5 million per year on the longest-serving and suffering Panther, center Stephen Weiss.

The Red Wings can cast Weiss perfectly as a second-line center instead of Weiss masquerading as a first-line center, as he had to do with the Panthers.

Weiss’ last contract set him up to make $4 million in 2011-12 and $4.1 million in 2012-13.

Even if the Panthers matched Detroit’s dollars to make Weiss their highest-paid forward — and they didn’t — why would Weiss stay for another round of Florida Young Guns?

He stayed through the last change of brain trust, the hiring of Tallon during the 2010 offseason.

Columbus overpaid for 2003 Panthers first-round pick Nathan Horton, considering they didn’t also bring linemates Milan Lucic and David Krejci from Boston.

Only between them did Horton discover any consistency in his game. The depth of Horton’s talent matches the depth of his injury history.

The Blue Jackets gave a seven-year, $37-million deal to a guy unavailable until December after yet another shoulder surgery.

That’s exactly what you don’t want your team to do. You can say it’s a sign that they’re trying. Yeah, trying like The Coyote and I don’t mean anyone from Phoenix.

(Oh, and did anyone find it interesting that Horton claimed he was looking for a place that’s a little more quiet than Boston? He also considered schools, what the city had to offer.

I like Columbus. Horton, however, wants us to believe he thinks there are more things to do and better schools in Columbus than what a Nathan Horton could afford in Boston? And there are plenty of low-key places in the Boston area. Just say they offered a pile of money and be done with it.)

“We don’t play a game until October,” Tallon said. “We’ve got time to keep fixing and adding.”

Time, yes. Money?

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