“Take time to deliberate, but when the time for action has arrived, stop thinking and go in.” –Napoleon (the real one, not Gary Bettman)
Clearly, Napoleon knew exactly how he wanted to build a hockey team. He’d be a fan of Dale Tallon. Just like in any other walk of life, there are usually two obvious options when times are tough. The first is to sit on your hands, do nothing, and hope things get better. It’s usually easier to sit back and bury your head in the sand—it’s just not always productive. The second option is to get up and do something. Anything. Get up and change the circumstances that have made the current outlook so hopeless. Transform the existing reality and things will be different.
Most of the time, the new reality is a little better than the miserable situation that was left behind.
Say what you want about the manner in which Dale Tallon and Co. are rebuilding the Florida Panthers—at least their doing something. The new regime has had a plan since taking over and the last few weeks have been nothing more than the organization putting the plan into action. They cleared out cap space last season at the trade deadline and took back expiring contracts for the sole purpose of rebuilding in their own mold. Management was so efficient in implementing their plan that they had only spent $11 million of next year’s cap space going into the offseason. That’s like Vinny Lecavalier and a 4th liner.
“We’re never done, we’re never satisfied. We’re committed to turning this around. It was very painful last year to do what we had to do, but now we want to start to enjoy this process and see some success. I want to see these guys, together, have success.” –Dale Tallon (July 1, 2011)
In the days since the Panthers’ spending splurge, Tallon’s been accused of “throwing cash around like a Russian oligarch.” Even though more than 50 players were signed amidst the frenzy, their moves “seemed to border on the ridiculous.” Mike Brophy went as far as to use the Panthers as the poster boys of out of control spending when he said that “the bottom feeders that are throwing things out of whack.” Obviously, teams like the Maple Leafs and Rangers had nothing to do with the broken systems when they signed Jeff Finger and Wade Redden to their ridiculous contracts.
Were mistakes made? Of course there were mistakes made. No one is claiming this has been a perfect two weeks. They couldn’t get a deal done with goaltender Tomas Vokoun before he hit the open market—and couldn’t get a deal done with him as he held out for something better with the Colorado Avalanche. Most hockey people will concede the Panthers would be a better team if they had Vokoun between the pipes instead of the Jose Theodore/Scott Clemmensen tandem. But when the team couldn’t come to an agreement with Vokoun, they immediately went after Plan B and locked him up. They could have waited; they could have had Mike Smith as their starting goaltender next season. Instead, they were proactive and got their second choice instead of waiting around and settling for the fifth best option.
Another major objection from critics is that the Panthers grossly overpaid for most of the free agents they acquired. There’s no doubt the Panthers went big this offseason. We’re not talking about nickel and dime free agents when a team drops $67 million in committed salary in a single day. They aren’t shopping at the Dollar Tree when they picked up Brian Campbell’s $7.1 million cap hit for the next half decade. Kris Versteeg’s remaining year isn’t cheap and Erik Gudbranson’s entry-level deal isn’t exactly cap friendly either. Even in Panthers’ circles, the binge hasn’t been met with universal approval.
“For every Fleischmann, Campbell and Theodore I see a Zednik, McCabe, and Belfour–the names might be different, but from a impact point of view these players all are very similar, and a reminder that for every exciting off-season, there’s a possibility of impending hardship. Now don’t get me wrong, these players past, present, and future have become fan favourites and often have been the few bright spots to cheer for when watching a Panthers season, but the fact remains the same, this plan has not helped the Panthers rid themselves of their 10 year playoff drought–so why will it suddenly work now?” –Craig Fischer (Litter Box Cats)
Let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. They pulled in just about every free agent they wanted, they’ve put together one of the deepest (and brightest) prospect pools in the league, and going into opening night they have four legitimate NHL lines and three legitimate defensive pairings. They’ve only given up Rusty Olesz, a few picks, and a gangster’s wad of cap space throughout the process. All this for a team that was the worst team in the Eastern Conference last season. Are there really people out there who think this is a bad thing for hockey fans in South Florida? Do they remember how bad that team was last season?
“…we had to spend money to get to the salary cap floor. We did. Don’t be mad at us for that. Don’t be mad at us for finally doing the right thing and begin to take the organization in the right direction. Not every trade works, and not every free agent or drafted player lives up to the hype. Florida knows that better than anyone else, but for the first time in years, we aren’t dependant on goaltending to save us. We’ve spent money on a group of players that will add credibility to our team, and make us tougher to play against. –Frank Rekas (The Rat Trick)
A wise man once said, “there are risks and costs to a program of action. But they are far less than the long-range risks and costs of comfortable inaction.” It would have been much easier for the Panthers to sit back and slowly rebuild by accumulating prospects, bridge players, and hope the prospects swim when they just as easily could sink. In making brash, swift moves in the free agent market, Tallon not only put together a more competitive team—he’s bought more time for his prized prospects to properly develop.
A team could draft decent prospects for a decade, but if they aren’t developed properly, they won’t succeed once they arrive to the NHL. The secret to the Red Wings success is they lock their draft picks in juniors (or Europe) and throw away the key for a few years. When was the last time we saw the Wings show desperation and bring a 18-year-old kid up to the league? Following the same model, Tallon would love nothing more than to send kids like Jonathan Huberdeau, Quinton Howden, Nick Bjugstad, and Jacob Markstrom back to juniors or the AHL for further grooming. Do teams ruin prospects by rushing them to the NHL or by allowing them to develop over a few seasons?
As a fan, I’ve heard the empty rhetoric of teams talking about a rebuild as they continually offer an inferior product on the cheapest of budgets. I’ve shelled out money as I watched my team struggle on a nightly basis and get hammered whenever a decent team took them seriously. I’ve been there—and it sucks. There’s no polite way to say it. It sucks, it’s depressing, and it makes you wonder why you’re a fan. But when the organization starts to make a concerted, public effort to pull their team out of the basement and back to respectability, then it almost doesn’t even matter if it’s a sure-fire plan. All that matters is there’s hope that things are going to get better.
With these moves, the organization has shown the Panthers fans that they’re committed to making things better. They haven’t said things are going to get better. They’ve shown it. It doesn’t even matter if they’re a playoff team next year—because at least their fans will feel like they’re on an equal playing field again. Instead of being resigned to another six months of porous hockey before calling their golf pro for tee times, the players see it as well. They won’t be an elite team next season and they might not make the playoffs. But they’ll compete for the playoffs—both the fans and players believe they will. That’s what the spending spree bought the Panthers. It bought them immediate hope for something better. They’ve already succeeded.
But all the same, I’m rooting for them to succeed on the ice next season as well.