The Panthers won the Southeast Division, but were ousted by the Devils in seven games in Round 1. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
When Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon remade his roster last summer in a frenzy of trades and free agent signings, many observers were skeptical the moves would bring an end to the club’s 10-season playoff drought.
But Tallon’s efforts paid off, as his new acquisitions - goalie Jose Theodore, defensemen Brian Campbell and Ed Jovanovski and forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, Scottie Upshall, Tomas Kopecky and Sean Bergenheim - were key to the Panthers not only clinching their first post-season berth since 2000, but also winning the Southeast Division title.
Critics, however, are unwilling to praise the Panthers for this accomplishment, noting they struggled in the final weeks of the regular season and backed into the playoffs.
Not given much of a chance in their opening round against the New Jersey Devils, the Panthers showed their mettle by pushing the Devils to the limit before falling 3-2 in double overtime of Game 7.
The Panthers’ improvement bolstered attendance, especially during their four playoff home games, when the noisy crowds and plastic rats harkened to the enthusiastic support the franchise enjoyed in the late-1990s.
Tallon will attempt to build upon that success this summer. He’s not expected to make a lot of changes as he did a year ago, but intends to tweak his existing roster and seek additional scoring depth.
The Panthers have more than $40.6 million invested in 16 players for next season.
They have six players - goaltender Scott Clemmensen, defenseman Jason Garrison and forwards Mikael Samuelsson, Marco Sturm, Krys Barch and John Madden - eligible for unrestricted free agency. Versteeg, left winger Wojtek Wolski and blueliners Dmitry Kulikov and Keaton Ellerby are restricted free agents.
Of this group, Sturm, Barch, Madden and Wolski aren’t expected to be re-signed.
Tallon’s priorities are getting Versteeg, Kulikov and Garrison under contract. He’ll also have to decide if he’ll re-sign Clemmensen or promote promising Jacob Markstrom to the backup or tandem role with Theodore.
Samuelsson, 35, is a player Tallon would like to keep to mentor his young players. Though Samuelsson is getting long in the tooth and was waylaid by injury for much of the season, he proved his value in the playoffs with five points in seven games. He earned $2.5 million last season and might be willing to return for another year at around the same price.
In Campbell, Jovanovski, Kulikov, Garrison, workhorse Mike Weaver and budding star Erik Gudbranson, the Panthers are set on the blueline.
Tallon might have to find a replacement for Garrison if the 27-year-old, who netted 33 points in 77 games, decides to cash in on the lack of quality depth in this summer’s free agent market.
Kulikov, a developing talent with 28 points in 58 regular season games, is coming off his entry level contract and will seek around $2.5-3 million per season.
Versteeg, 26, is only one year away from UFA eligibility and has arbitration rights. Having earned a little more than $3 million this season while posting career-bests in goals (23) and points (54), he will likely seek more than $4 million per season on a long-term deal.
It was Tallon who brought Versteeg to Chicago from Boston when he was GM of the Blackhawks and again acquired him from the Philadelphia Flyers via trade last summer, so it won’t be surprising if the two quickly work out a long-term extension.
Tallon won’t find much scoring depth available in this summer’s free agent market, though.
The Panthers aren’t expected to be serious bidders for New Jersey Devils left winger Zach Parise. If Capitals right winger Alexander Semin becomes available, Tallon could give him some consideration depending on Semin’s salary demands.
Other possibilities include Dustin Penner, Kristian Huselius, Brad Boyes, Andrei Kostitsyn or former Panther Olli Jokinen.
They could also get an offensive boost if promising center Jonathan Huberdeau is ready for prime time next season.
Tallon is unafraid to make bold trades, so that possibility shouldn’t be ruled out this summer either.
The Panthers have been linked to Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo in trade rumors, based on the fact Luongo played several seasons for the Panthers and met and married his wife in Florida.
Having committed to another season with Theodore and with Markstrom waiting in the wings, the possibility of Luongo returning to the Panthers seems remote.
Rumor Roundup appears Monday-Friday only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla's Korner.