Besides enjoying autonomy on personnel decisions for a third consecutive summer, the Florida Panthers’ Dale Tallon this offseason was given something new that any general manager would crave: the ability to spend up to the $81.5 million salary cap.
As a byproduct of that extra cash and the organization’s deft decisions in the draft, the Florida Panthers begin training camp on Friday with their most skilled roster in many years, augmented by free agent pickups Sergei Bobrovsky (a top-five goaltender awarded a seven-year, $70 million contract), forwards Brett Connolly and Noel Acciari and defenseman Anton Stralman.
After repeatedly falling short of expectations over the years, Tallon made this very clear when he met with reporters at BB&T Center on Thursday, on the eve of the start of Panthers training camp:
“Let’s stop talking and start acting. We’ve got pieces in place. Come on, now we have to prove it. It’s not an ultimatum, just fact.
“We had the great second half two years ago, everyone came to camp and thought it would happen. It didn’t. This league is so hard.”
You’ll always get bottom-line bluntness from Tallon, who was immensely disappointed by last year’s 86-point season, down from 96 the previous year, and third consecutive year missing the playoffs.
And he knows the Panthers’ biggest shortcoming last season must improve, with the addition of Bobrovsky a huge step and Stralman a helpful one. Florida gave up 273 goals last season, fourth most in the league.
“We have to stop the puck,” he said. “We can’t give up as many easy goals as we did last year. With more depth and more experience, that should be something that hopefully takes care of itself.”
With an offense that was ninth in the league in scoring last year and should be even better this year — combined with the arrival of one of the game’s best goalies — Tallon’s expectations rise simply beyond merely making the playoffs, something the Panthers have done only three times this century.
He said he expects to compete for a top four seed in a loaded conference.
“I think so,” he said of whether this team is good enough to compete for home ice in the first round. “You don’t want to just sneak in. You want to develop like a snowball down a mountain.
“Once everything gets solid and we start playing together as a unit, I think it will come together quickly. My expectations are very high. Once people realize on your team guys are waiting to take your job, they’re going to play harder. Now I feel we are getting deep enough in our organization, we have inner competition for jobs. We will have the 22 best players” coming out of preseason.
Tallon said the Panthers, organizationally, finally have everything they want in place.
“We have great support from [owner] Vinnie Viola and his family. We have great stability with coaching” with the hiring of Joel Quenneville.
Tallon said the Panthers exceeded their offseason goals by signing the four aforementioned free agents whom we discussed here, even though they backed out after an initial pursuit of Artemi Panarin, who signed a seven-year, $81.5 million deal with the Rangers.
“It’s never easy to get everyone you want,” Tallon said. “We thought we would get the two top names [in free agency, in Bobrovsky and Panarin] but elected to get more depth in the organization [instead of trying to outbid the Rangers for Panarin]. We addressed more of our needs than if we just did [the Panarin] move for marketability and offense.”
What can players expect from Quenneville, who has made the playoffs in 18 of 20 full seasons as an NHL coach?
“No BS,” Tallon said, adding that the new coach carries a message of “this is what we’re going to do and we better do it or [there will be] consequences. There’s accountability, knowledge.”
Players that Tallon hopes to see a jump from?
He mentioned defensemen Aaron Ekblad and Mike Matheson, noting “it’s time for them” to “make big steps. They’ve gotten enough experience as well.”
He would like to see another jump from winger Henrik Borgstrom, the Panthers’ 23rd overall pick in 2016 who had eight goals and 10 assists in 50 games with the Panthers after his AHL promotion.
And winger Owen Tippett, the 10th overall pick in 2016, will get a long look after producing big numbers (33 goals, 41 assists) in 54 games in the Ontario Hockey League last season.
“Tippett came to camp in great shape,” Tallon said. “This kid can score goals. We will see if he can maintain that. We like his chances down the road of being a prolific goal scorer.”
Panthers legend Roberto Luongo, who retired in June, was at BB&T Center on Thursday and is shadowing Tallon and others in the organization, while he and Tallon discuss a potential role for him this season. Both Luongo and the Panthers would like to come up with a role that appeals to both.
We’ll have more on the Panthers next week as we close in on the Oct. 3 regular season opener at Tampa Bay.