Greg Cote

Why Florida Panthers enter summer of reckoning poised to be NHL’s next big thing | Opinion

Dale Tallon refers to it now as “the detour.” It was a mishandled mess that angered the Florida Panthers general manager to the point he nearly quit.

This was early in the 2016-17 season. The Cats were coming off the best regular-season record in franchise history the year before, but after a slow start the ownership abruptly decided to fire coach Gerard Gallant, replace him with Tom Rowe and reassign Tallon in a way that felt like a demotion and humiliated him.

“Yes,” he admitted Thursday. “That was a kick in the gonads right there. The detour was wrong. I had a lot of offers to go different places. I chose not to because I really felt it was going to happen here. I was too committed to our young players to leave. Now I’m glad I decided to stay.”

He smiles from behind his desk in his spartan office at the Panthers Ice Den facility in Coral Springs.

“The detour was corrected,” he said.

It is strange to say of a team that has made the Stanley Cup playoffs only five times in 25 seasons (the last two on Tallon’s watch), but Florida is poised in an enviable spot one week before the NHL Draft and then the onset of free agency.

Poised to be a playoff team, maybe a championship contender.

Poised to be be really good much sooner than the Dolphins, Heat or Marlins.

Panthers fans have been hearing about promise for about five years, it seems. Now, finally, it feels like wait ‘til next-year has at long last arrived.

“This is our summer,” said Tallon, his GM powers long since fully restored. “This has taken lots of fertilizer and lots of seed, but it’s building to a crescendo.”

The Panthers struck gold in April in landing Joel Quenneville, the second-winningest coach in NHL history and a three-time champion with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010, 2013 and 2015. He is this club’s Don Shula, its Pat Riley. Within three days of his hiring the Cats saw a spike of more than $500,000 in ticket sales.

“Our players are going to be in for — I don’t want to say rude awakening, but they better be ready,” Tallon said of the man they call Coach Q. “He’s not going to put up with any crap.”

In addition to the massive upgrade in coaching, Florida will have 26 picks in the next three drafts, having added five extra picks through shrewd trades that also saved at least $15 million in salary-cap space. The Cats are expected to think defense first with the 13th overall selection next Thursday, with Philip Broberg from Sweden a popular mock-draft pick for Florida.

Then comes free agency starting July 1, and the Panthers plan to be active “and aggressive in pursuing the top guys,” said Tallon, who has more than $20 million to spend on a couple of premier free agents or perhaps a handful of less expensive ones.

Tallon would not confirm his interest (that would be tampering), but league sources indicate two Panthers priority targets will be goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, 30, a four-time all-star and twice Vezina Trophy winner as goalie of the year, and left wing Artemi Panarin, 27, a consistent 30-goal scorer. Both played for Columbus in the season just ended.

Will the stature of Quenneville be added ammunition as Florida tries to attract free agents?

“Oh, absolutely,” said Tallon. “Without a doubt.”

Bobrovsky would especially fill a pressing need. Longtime Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo is 40, and the team is ready to move past him as the starter. Luongo will decide in the next week if he will retire or accept a backup role.

Goalkeeping and defense were the club’s weaknesses last season. The offense and special teams (power play and penalty killing) were not the problem.

Tallon is looking to the draft, free agency and perhaps a trade or two to solidify a team with an impressive youthful core in the likes of Aleksander (Sasha) Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Vincent Trocheck and Aaron Ekblad — all locked up for at least the next three seasons. Barkov is a budding superstar who might be the most gifted South Florida pro athlete of all right now.

New Stanley Cup odds for the 2019-20 season, out Thursday, reflect the sense Florida is headed right. Only 11 of 31 teams have better odds than the Panthers’ 25-1.

And St. Louis winning its first Stanley Cup ever with Wednesday night’s Game 7 win in Boston was a reminder that “once you get in the playoffs, anything can happen,” as Tallon said. “The parity is so intense now. If you get in, you have a chance.”

Tallon, upset nearly to the point of quitting two years ago, now feels reinvigorated. Landing Quenneville has been a big part of that.

“It’s a very comfortable feeling for me now. It has elevated my desire and my passion to do the work,” Tallon said. “He’s the full package. In the past we had guys we were hoping would turn into that. With him we have it.”

Tallon says his Panthers are “tracking in the right direction” heading into their big summer -- a long way from that “detour” that nearly chased him out of town.