You knew it was trouble the second it was announced.
Dale Tallon was back in charge of all personnel decisions after a year of being, ahem, promoted, and all the smart, younger hockey guys who worked to improve a team with a decent framework were out.
The way the Florida Panthers have been run the past few years has been tumultuous to say the least, with new ownership and a vascillating commitment to whatever they deem the best way forward in any given week.
The Panthers made the playoffs in 2015-16 — despite subpar underlying numbers — on the strength of their PDO and a whole lot of three-point games. They were a talented team, no doubt, but one with numerous procedural deficiencies. They spent the following summer after losing in six games to the so-so Islanders evaluating what was wrong with them and working to address it.
Shawn Thornton retired. They signed Keith Yandle. Dmitry Kulikov got shipped to Buffalo for Mark Pysyk. James Reimer signed on a pretty reasonable long-term deal. Jonathan Marchessault came in on a bargain contract. Jason Demers was another relative bargain given what he brings to your second pairing.
These are all good things that make your team better on paper. But Florida went from 103 points and first in their division to 81 and a mile out of the playoffs. Panthers management was certainly expecting a step back in terms of the win total, but this was more than a little beyond the pale. Lots of people lost their jobs as a result.
That brought Tallon back into the fold as everyday GM, and his singular focus this offseason has been to undo all the progress his predecessors (who were also the guys who took over from him in the first place) made. This doesn’t need to be relitigated too much, but let’s start with the obvious fact that the Panthers took their CF% from 20th to 11th in a single offseason and played a far more up-tempo brand of hockey that’s generally more conducive to success in the game as it’s played today.
Moreover, while the power play didn’t take a step forward for reasons we’ll get to in just a second, the penalty kill improved markedly, jumping to 85.3 percent from the previous 79.5 percent.
However, a few problems presented themselves that hindered their results. First and foremost, Jonathan Huberdeau and Sasha Barkov, two-thirds of the team’s top line, missed big chunks of the season. Then Roberto Luongo went from a .922 save percentage (well above the league average despite his advanced age) to .just .915 (right at it probably because of that advanced age). Reimer was very good at .920, and Reto Berra was predictably awful as a short-use stopgap, but the team’s decline from .921 to .915 overall did some serious damage to the goal differential.
But wins are wins and hockey lifers are stuck in their ways, so Tallon sees the only rational solution he could put forward here as a means of getting back to the kind of success the team had two seasons ago as, “undoing everything the Computer Boys did, or would have done.” That includes the following personnel decisions which, taken as a whole, actively make the team worse:
Jussi Jokinen got bought out despite huge possession numbers two years in a row (over 53 percent both years), a perfectly fine contract ($4 million), and a shootout skill that all but ensures you get a few extra points every year (close to a 40 percent success rate).
He made no attempt to re-sign Jaromir Jagr despite his status as a clear top-line player at his position.
He not only let Vegas take Marchessault, a 30-goal scorer on a sub-$1 million contract, in the expansion draft, he actively traded Reilly Smith, a youngish possession driver whose normal strong goalscoring record was undone by a shooting percent of 6.7 last season, to entice them to do so. As if they needed the enticement.
Most recently, he traded Demers, who’s a good second-pairing guy, to Arizona for forward Jamie McGinn, who is just bad in any circumstance. And he retained salary to make that trade happen. (Confirmed by local media: He first tried to trade Demers to Vancouver for Erik Gudbranson, who’s arguably even worse at what he does than McGinn, but Demers rejected the trade.)
This is irresponsibility of the highest order. The Panthers roster had its problems, but none of them were the guys Tallon either actively or passively let go. Then you look at the guys he brought in, apart from McGinn, who is bad. Michael Haley, who sucks. Radim Vrbata, who fills some sort of second-line role but he’s certainly no Jagr. And that’s it.
The message here is clear enough based on the talent swapped in and out: Tallon thinks the team succeeded two years ago on “effort” and “being hard to play against,” and absolutely not on “a PDO of 102.2.” The hiring of Bob Boughner, known in his playing days as a real hard-nosed kind of a player, seems to confirm this thinking.
(That two of his big pickups this summer were Arizona Coyotes, who have been decidedly not hard for anyone to play against for a good long time doesn’t really help Tallon win the argument, or more hockey games.)
The good news is Tallon has a good, young core to fall back on. Basically all their good forwards are under 25 and therefore still set to improve (if they can stay healthy) and the blue line of Ekblad, Yandle, Pysyk, Petrovic, Matheson, and one more guy seems pretty solid. If Luongo bounces back, great, and if not, Reimer looks like he can carry the load a ways.
However, forward depth seems to be a major issue. Who puts the puck in the net once the top line comes off the ice? And moreover, what do Huberdeau and Barkov look like away from Jagr, who has a bit of a talent for making already-good young forwards suddenly look like great young forwards? These are major questions with no clear answers.
The Panthers are now a team that has suddenly and markedly rejected “process,” because “process” didn’t work for a single injury-riddled season, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Tallon were also acting out because he felt a little hard done by with the whole Computer Boys thing. Don’t see why he’d want to take it out on his roster.
Whether the Panthers will return to their winning ways or continue to mire in the NHL’s non-playoff doldrums as they did for much of Tallon’s initial reign — he took over in 2010 and played just 13 playoff games in seven seasons — is obviously consequential, but now they’re going to win or lose on Tallon’s terms.
At least when they lost last season, you could see the process behind what they were doing. If they lose again this season — which seems more likely than not — they have no apparent process to go on, save for whatever idea occurs to Tallon next June. If things go sideways because Tallon threw a summer-long temper tantrum, where do you go from there? If you accept that as the cost of doing business, how far back are you resetting the odometer on this new, worse process?
They don’t say, “Trust the process but only for one season,” because the process takes time and occasionally, mitigating circumstances will slow or even reverse your apparent progress. Patience is a virtue for a reason.
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