Panthers general manager Dale Tallon was the good soldier a year ago, subjugating his ego when ownership – after an Atlantic Division title, no less – implemented this curiously-timed plan to take away his autonomy and share decision-making personnel power among Tallon and six other team executives.
After the immense disappointment of last season – the Panthers went from 103 points and a playoff berth to 81 and no playoffs – owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu did the only logical thing there was left to do: Go to Tallon and give him back the keys to the franchise.
“I was elated they came to me and asked if I wanted to get back,” said Tallon, days before the roster he crafted opens the regular season Friday at Tampa Bay. “I would go through the wall for Vinnie. Whatever he asks me to do, I’ll do.”
And what did he think of the ditched decision-by-committee approach of the previous year? “Everyone’s intention was the right one but it just didn’t work according to plan,” Tallon said. “It’s not like they were trying to do it to piss anybody off.”
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When he took over again in April, Tallon knew what had to be done: “We needed to add speed, skill, smarts, sandpaper. We needed some good complementary players for our young people. Those were the things we addressed. The teams that had success in the playoffs were smart and skilled and had some edge to their game as well.”
He hired a coach who clearly commands respect, Bob Boughner, who implemented a style that accentuates speed and attacking.
Tallon also made the difficult decision to move on from Jaromir Jagr, who signed with Calgary this week. Beyond wanting to get younger and faster, Tallon – while holding Jagr in high regard - didn’t want his young players deferring any longer.
“It’s time for [Aleksander] Barkov, Nick Bjugstad, [Vincent] Trochek to take over this team,” Tallon said, later adding Aaron Ekblad and Jonathan Huberdeau to that group. “The proverbial crap or get off the pot. Maybe they were too respectful of [older] guys in the past. It’s their team! Take it over! Lead!”
Tallon loves his defense, even after trading Jason Demers, and the goalie combo of Roberto Luongo and James Reimer, who are expected to split games about evenly.
Luongo, 38, posted his worst goals against average since 2005-06 (his final year in Florida before eight in Vancouver), but Tallon said “he’s refreshed and healthy and has a good attitude and I think he will have a good bounce back year.”
But is there enough offense after losing Jonathan Marchessault and his 30 goals to Las Vegas in the expansion draft and Reilly Smith’s 15 goals in a trade with Vegas (for a fourth rounder in 2018)?
“I am counting on some guys that are unknowns as far as scoring,” Tallon said. “A healthy Huberdeau, a healthy Barkov will help. We need Nick to get back to his game. I’m confident with the coaching staff and him being healthy he can get back to the 24-goal season he had a few seasons ago. Owen Tippett has been terrific in camp; we’re counting on him to come through offensively. [Veteran free agent pickup Radim] Vrabata is a steady scoring forward.
“And the way Boughner wants to play, our defense will be more involved in the offense and play up tempo. I expect [defensemen MacKenzie] Weegar and [Mike] Matheson and Ekblad to provide more scoring from the back end.”
And then there’s the most intriguing offseason pickup, forward Evgenni Dadonov, who spent the past five years in Russia. During his earlier nondescript stint with the Panthers, Dadonov “was a young guy who didn’t quite have it together,” Tallon said.
“Watching him perform in the world championships– arguably the best player in that tournament among the best in the world. He’s mature now, dedicated to fitness, became more committed to the game. He’s become a world class player. Plays with high speed. He always had the skill.
“Watching him play for Russia in the world championships, I said, ‘We’ve got to get this kid,’ he’s ready to show the world.”
So is this a playoff roster? “I think so,” Tallon said. “It’s going to take a little time to absorb all the new stuff the coaches want to implement.”
And for Tallon, who says he holds “no grudges,” it feels satisfying to have back full authority on player personnel moves.
But he said Cifu and Viola will always be consulted. “Of course I will have Vinnie and Doug weigh in and get their opinion too because they own the team and they’re the ultimate bosses,” he said. “And I respect that. And they have a lot of good ideas as well.”