Good times in Florida (Photo by Jamie Sabau/NHLI via Getty Images)
For years the Panthers have struggled both on the ice and at the gate, but GM Dale Tallon has built up the franchise to an enviable point. Now we're seeing the payoff.
When Teddy Purcell was a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, he saw a lot of the Florida Panthers. He wasn't exactly envious. "They had a lot of coaches," he said. "And it always seemed like the personnel on the ice was changing."
But that was then. This season, the Panthers have been one of the top teams in the East and a buyer before the trade deadline. One of those acquisitions was Purcell, most recently of the Edmonton Oilers.
What is most promising about the Panthers is that their window appears to just be opening. Sure, the biggest names on the team are veterans such as Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo and Brian Campbell, but the youth contingent led by Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad is just as impressive. And the credit for building this machine goes to Dale Tallon.
Just as the GM did in Chicago, Tallon has slowly constructed a contender. In fact, this year's Panthers are analogous to the 2008-09 Blackhawks. That squad had veterans such as Martin Havlat (their leading scorer), Sammy Pahlsson and Nikolai Khabibulin. The youth core included Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Andrew Ladd and Brent Seabrook (Duncan Keith was already 25 at the time, though only in his third NHL season).
Chicago lost the Western Conference final to Detroit that year, but it was the first NHL playoff experience period for kids such as Toews and Kane. The next season, the Hawks won their first Cup of the current era. They had learned to win by losing the year prior.
So I guess what I'm saying, Florida fans, is that you probably won't win the Cup this year, but that's OK.
Because this is more than a one-year process and there is a sea change happening in South Florida. While attendance is still near the bottom of the league, it is up about 2,500 fans per home game from last year - not bad at all. Just an importantly, however, is that the team is becoming a destination for talent.
Just three years ago, the Panthers had to trade away draft pick Corban Knight to Calgary, or risk losing the NCAA product for nothing when the player and team couldn't agree on a contract. Now fast-forward to this weekend, where the Panthers won the services of WHL free agency Dryden Hunt, a high-scoring left winger who could have signed with any number of NHL suitors.
"Honestly, I've heard nothing but exceptional things about Florida's organization and how they treat their players," Hunt said. "Not only on Florida, but also in (AHL) Portland."
Sure, Hunt may be just one convert, but it's a step in the right direction for a team that just a few years ago, made agents cringe when they thought of their elite clients getting drafted there.
Tallon has made the Panthers viable. Will they be as consistently good as the Hawks some day? That of course is the big challenge, since Barkov and Bjugstad still have a ways to go before they're in the same conversation as Toews and Kane.
But there is a lot going right for the Panthers right now. Bringing in the experience of Purcell and Jiri Hudler (plus depth in D-man Jakub Kindl) will help in the playoffs, as they can add to the chorus of vets such as Jagr, Luongo and Campbell.
"You need guys who can control the highs and lows in the room," said Purcell, who also mentioned Shawn Thornton as a key voice. "Hopefully we can slide in rather seamlessly."
That's the next step for the Cats - turn the early good vibes into something substantial in the post-season. And they'll need players both old and young to make it happen.