NHL: Florida Panthers "Optimistic" About Their Future

Justin ColmanContributor IMay 26, 2010

SUNRISE, FL - JANUARY 16: Goaltender Tomas Vokoun #29 and Dominic Moore #19 of the Florida Panthers look towards the point with Stephane Veilleux #19 of the Tampa Bay Lightning on January 16, 2010 at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Florida. The Panthers defeated the Lightning 5-2. (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

Last week it was Dale Tallon. Today it is Steve Yzerman. Something is happening in the state of Florida that has not happened for a while.

A commitment to hockey.

Last Tuesday, Dale Tallon was introduced as the new General Manager of the Florida Panthers.

Tallon is the man responsible for bringing together Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Brian Campbell, Marian Hossa, and others. Right now, those guys are waiting for the Stanley Cup Finals to start on their home ice in Chicago.

Tallon was fired as the GM of the Chicago Blackhawks last year. "Without them, (the Blackhawks) I wouldn't be here," Tallon paused before finishing, "in more ways than one." 

"We're going to have a hell of a lot more exciting days and games in this building in the month of May," said Bill Torrey.

Torrey, the alternate governor of Florida, has been responsible for finding the Panthers' next GM for the past two seasons. After Jaques Martin left to become head coach of the Montreal Canadiens, Randy Sexton filled in the position of GM.

"It's been a while since we've had it, and I'm firmly convinced that he (Tallon) can bring us back to that."

Now wait a second. That almost sounded like...


Optimism in Florida. About hockey.

You don't ever hear the word "optimism" describe Florida and hockey.

You only hear that about the Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, Tampa Bay Rays, and sometimes the Miami Dolphins and the beginning of a Florida Marlins season.

But the Florida Panthers? That can't be possible.

Believe it.

Tallon took the Blackhawks from the bottom of the NHL and brought them to the top in just four years. This year, Chicago posted their best season point total in franchise history.

Success wasn't immediate upon Tallon's arrival, and he had to go through several coaches before finding the right one in Joel Quenneville.

But when the Blackhawks were eliminated in five games in the Western Conference Finals by the Detroit Red Wings last year, everyone knew that this Blackhawks team would be scary down the road.

Again, to run over who he brought in—he drafted Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane—acquired Andrew Ladd and Kris Versteeg, two first round draft picks from Carolina and Boston, respectively.

Tallon also signed Patrick Sharp, Nikolai Khabibulin, John Madden, Brian Campbell, and Marian Hossa.

Everyone, excluding Khabibulin, remains on the team and have been considered important players to the team. So if Tallon has a knack for anything, it's knowing which players are talented and can work together.

He told the Miami media that he feels like the Panthers are in a better position to win than the Blackhawks were when he started as GM.

"There are some good assets here, some good young players here."

Players such as Michael Frolik, David Booth, and Nathan Horton are players that Tallon talks about. All three are below thirty, Frolik being the youngest at only 22.

They've all produced, and despite injuries to Horton and Booth, if all three can stay healthy for a full year, they can be a good line.

Frolik is expected to improve, but can Horton and Booth (especially him after two scary hits this past season) help the Panthers?

There are places that need fixing, Tallon admitted.

"We obviously have a few holes to get to the next level. We just need to add the right people to create the right chemistry."

One of the areas Tallon said the Panthers need help on is in the defense. He likes Brian McCabe and Keith Ballard, but believes that the team could use one more defenseman that could shut down an offense.

Dan Hamhuis could fill that need. He does more than just shut down the offense.  

He's an unrestricted free agent, and will be 28 come December of next season. He's contributed at least 20 points each season and this year, significantly decreased his penalty minutes by nearly 20.

Another spot that Tallon talked about was the goaltending. He said that the goaltending needed to be evaluated. Vokun will be entering the final year of his contract, and backup goaltender Scott Clemmensen is not young, either.

Florida's young goaltender, Alexander Salak is showing signs of improvement compared to last season in the FNS. But it could be a few years before he is called up as a backup goaltender.

So things look exciting in Florida. Very exciting.

Panthers fans haven't been this excited since they made it to the playoffs nine years ago, and before that, when they went to the Stanley Cup.

Then there is the Tampa Bay Lightning, the team that won the Stanley Cup before the NHL Lockout and then mysteriously found itself at the bottom of the standings...again.

But that is more than likely going to change.

The Lightning have brought in as their GM one of the most well-known names in hockey, Detroit's all-time favorite, Steve Yzerman.

This may come as a shock to Red Wings fans, but Yzerman has been ready to leave the Red Wings organization, though only under the right conditions.

"It's something I've always been intrigued by," said Yzerman, "and in the right situation I'd consider it."

The situation that Tampa Bay is in right now is perfect for someone like Steve Yzerman.

Unlike Tallon, who has had the experience of being a GM, this will be Yzerman's first gig as a General Manager. However, he already knows that this is not going to be a cake walk.

"This is a long-term project for me, building a Stanley Cup team takes time," the new GM said. "I don't have a notion that I can wave a magic wand and make the Lightning a Stanley Cup contender."

What Yzerman does have though, is high-profile talent that are more likely to stick around Tampa Bay if they have one of the greatest players in their sport running the team.

The Lightning have highly touted defenseman Victor Hedman and a very gifted scorer in Steven Stamkos. Yzerman also gets to work with Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, players who are highly effective on the offense.

Outside of these players, however, there is little to work with.

The bright side to this is that the Lightning will have $21 million in cap space to spend during free agency, so they can make a big splash in signing a few veterans.

What if Tampa Bay were to shock the NHL community by luring Nicklas Lidstrom away from Detroit to the Lightning?

It's a long shot, yes, but who would have guessed that after Brett Favre retired, he would come back and not play with the Green Bay Packers?

Anything can happen.

I wrote a few days ago that the San Jose Sharks would more than likely keep Patrick Marleau, but it wouldn't come easily, due to competition.

I never thought that Tampa Bay would be one of those teams. But Yzerman and Marleau won a Gold Medal together, and with Yzerman having money to spend, I think it's possible we'll see Marleau leaving San Jose for Tampa Bay.

Imagine the potential of one line having Lecavalier and St. Louis, and then switching it off with Stamkos and Marleau. There is immediate improvement.

Maxim Afinogenov could also help the Lightning. His best days might be behind him, but he played a full season after three straight seasons of playing fewer than 60 games. This season, he was able to tally up 61 points with the Atlanta Thrashers, which shows that he can still play and could contribute more with a better team.

Tomas Plekanec could also provide an offensive spark for Tampa and would be cheaper to go after than Marleau. Plekanec had a 70 point season and dished out 45 assists this season.

And like Florida, Tampa Bay should consider looking at Dan Hamhuis. He is a defender who can play on both sides of the ice, and would be a welcome addition to any team.

In the San Jose article I wrote, I addressed how goaltender Michael Leighton of the Philadelphia Flyers could get a big pay raise this offseason, and how teams that are using a two goalie system could benefit from him.

I still stand by what I said, and his efforts in the playoffs should be enough to earn him a significant pay raise. Maybe he isn't a legitimate starting goaltender, but he could work with Mike Smith and lighten the load for him.

Even better than Yzerman coming to Tampa Bay is the fact that he is leaving the Red Wings, the organization that drafted him 27 years ago, and the team of which he aspired to be General Manager.

Unfortunately for Yzerman and many Red Wing fans, the wait for him to run the show in Detroit will have to wait because Ken Holland and Jim Nill are far from ready to give up their positions as General Manager and Assistant GM.

But perhaps this is what is best for both the Red Wings fans and Yzerman. He will learn what it means to be a GM in Tampa Bay, and when Holland and Nill are done, Detroit's beloved player will have an opportunity to return if he chooses.

And Red Wings fans should be happy for their Captain to be moving on to bigger and better endeavors. I've already read posts and writings by Red Wings fans calling out Yzerman, asking how he could "betray" the Red Wings and calling him a "traitor."

Hockey became a business for Yzerman when he retired.

He stuck with Detroit because it was, and still is, the best front office organization in the NHL. He learned from Holland, Nill, and Jim Dellvano about being a GM. They all knew that he would leave Detroit one day, because they weren't.

So he saw Tampa Bay as the perfect franchise to revive, and has taken his lessons as a player and a businessman in Detroit to the Bay.

With Yzerman at the helm of the Tampa Bay Lightning's ship and a young kid in Stamkos, it's easy to think Yzerman will echo what Dellvano had told him so many years ago.

After all, this is the situation that Yzerman wanted to come into, and if I am correct, he sees Stamkos as himself and plans to give Stamkos everything to make him stay and make the Lightning a Stanley Cup caliber team.

It sounds funny now when I say this, but in a matter of years, the Panthers and Lightning could be vying for the Prince of Whales trophy, possibly even facing each other in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Whether they do or not, Tallon and Yzerman will make sure that the Florida/Tampa Bay rivalry is known throughout the NHL and that whenever these two are set to play each other, the game will be one not to miss.


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