How appropriate: The general manager of the team hosting the 2015 NHL Draft next week says none of his team’s remaining unrestricted free agents will receive an offer and the roster will get younger next year.
And that team, the Panthers, will be searching for a swift, goal-scoring winger with the 11th overall pick in the annual pick-and-pray June 26 and 27 at BB&T Center in Sunrise.
“We’re going to go young and see what’s available July 1 [first day of the free agency signing period],” Panthers GM Dale Tallon said. “I like young teams, I like young players. We have some good young players in our system and we’re going to give them an opportunity. I think that’s the direction we need to go in. My goal is to have 20 guys on our team that are all drafts of ours. I don’t think that can happen, but that’s the goal.”
So, wingers Tomas Kopecky, Scottie Upshall and goalie Dan Ellis can intensify their searches for new hockey homes or new retirement homes. Tallon said the restricted free agents, such as Jonathan Huberdeau, will receive offers and they want to lock down their core in long-term deals such as the one they signed center Nick Bjugstad to late last season.
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Meanwhile, they’ll continue searching for a goal-scorer to complete a Panthers talent garden showing signs of bearing fruit bountifully.
Defenseman Aaron Ekblad heads for this year’s NHL Awards as a finalist for the Calder Trophy (Rookie of the Year), won two years ago by Panthers winger Jonathan Huberdeau. The 2013 draft’s No. 2 overall pick, center Aleksander Barkov, not only returned from the knee injury that ended his 2013-14 season in February, but his returning health seemed to come with the bonus of offensive confidence.
After one point in his first 10 games, 2010 first-round pick Bjugstad put up 42 points in 62 games before back surgery ended his season. In the Panthers’ Fantastic Four, Bjugstad and his seemingly endless reach would be Mr. Fantastic while center/wing Brandon Pirri would essay the role of Human Torch – cool his first 19 games with three goals (albeit in three consecutive games), then lighting up goalies with 19 goals in his next 30 games. That latter pace, over an 82-game season, gives you a 52-goal scorer.
“Our depth chart is deep up the middle and we’re very strong, when you look at our future as far as the back end is concerned, it’s terrific,” Tallon said. “There are a lot of different good young players in this draft that fit our needs, so we’ll see what happens. If something shakes up and there’s a startling pick in the first 10, that opens up more possibilities for us. But we’re willing to do anything to make our team better and right now if you look at our depth chart, speed and scoring are two things that we really would like to have.”
Tallon said he’d be willing to trade the pick for a proven goal-scorer with the right offer.
The big goal, of course, is to be either Tampa Bay or Chicago, protagonists in a Stanley Cup Final that left fans flushed around the world. They chased each other up and down their respective home rinks in the Stanley Cup Final until Chicago, a team whose core Tallon and his scouts constructed during his GM years there, won its third Cup in six seasons.
“I think our core is going to be really solid,” Tallon said. “A lot of things have to come into play, but I like the direction we’re headed in and I feel we could be a very competitive team next year. We want to be with those two teams represented in the Final. We want to play that type of hockey and we want to play with that high degree of skill and pace. That’s our goal, and I think we’re getting there.”
Last year’s progress is being reflected on the business end already, according to Panthers executive chairman Peter Luukko. Luukko claimed 90 percent of season-ticket holders have renewed and the team has sold more full-season packages than it has “in recent years.”
“My observations of the marketplace is that we have fans here, they’re just looking for an excuse to come to a game,” said Luukko, who took the job in February. “We want to give it to them.”
Luukko spent more than 25 years as one of the Philadelphia Flyers’ representatives on the NHL Board of Governors, part of his job in running Comcast-Spectacor. Not only have the Flyers been one of the most consistent franchises — from 1972 to 2012 only six playoff misses, five coming from 1990 to ’94 — the franchise promoted itself well and became Philadelphia community fixtures. Unsurprisingly, they’ve enjoyed consistently strong attendance.
“There’s cycles in sports. Unfortunately, we haven’t had a good cycle for a period of time,” Luukko said. “Look at Chicago, 22,000 crazy fans with a waiting list as long as can be. They went through a period where there weren’t many people in that facility. Boston Bruins went through it. Pittsburgh went through it. Washington went through it. I really believe if we can sustain ourselves as a playoff team and contender for a period of time, the fans will support us.
“I was in Philadelphia. If we were in the playoffs once out of 11 years, there wouldn’t have been anybody in Philadelphia, either.”