It seems Dale Tallon loves a reclamation project.
Widely credited with transforming the Chicago Blackhawks from a team that missed the playoffs nine times in 10 seasons between 1997-98 and 2007-08 into the reigning Stanley Cup champions, Tallon was named general manager of the Florida Panthers on May 17.
He immediately found himself in a situation similar to the one he faced when he took over in Chicago, prior to the 2005-06 season. When Florida finished last season with 77 points -- good for 14th in the Eastern Conference, ahead of only Toronto -- it marked the ninth consecutive season in which the Panthers failed to qualify for the playoffs.
Turning the red light on behind opposing goaltenders will be the biggest improvement they need to make if 2010-11 is to be any different. Florida only had three players eclipse the 20-goal mark last season -- one of them, Nathan Horton, was shipped to Boston in an offseason deal -- and just seven who reached double digits.
Tightening up in the defensive zone also ranks high on the list. The Panthers averaged the most shots-against per game in the NHL last season (34.1); Tomas Vokoun managed to post a stellar .925 save percentage in the barrage, but also had a losing record of 23-28-11.
Competing in the Southeast Division always will be a challenge as the Washington Capitals don't show any signs of slowing down. But Tallon told NHL.com he sees that as a positive, a way the Panthers can get more out of their players.
"When I started in Chicago, Detroit was the model, and I think in the East it's George (McPhee, GM) and what he's done in Washington," he said. "That's the model. We want to emulate what they've done and where they are going. We've got to get across the finish line. Some people get comfortable with being only good enough, and that's not going to be acceptable."
Vokoun tied for third in the League in shutouts, and there were plenty of nights when only a shutout would have garnered the Panthers two points. The triumvirate of Stephen Weiss, Michael Frolik and David Booth will be pivotal in making sure that is not the case again this season.
While many of his teammates struggled to put the puck in the net, Weiss actually doubled his goal output from the previous season, scoring a career-high 28 (including 12 on the power play), and falling one shy of the 61 points he established as a personal best in 2008-09. Frolik is just 22 and has put together back-to-back 21-goal seasons to begin his career.
The big key here may be Booth, who posted 31 goals and 60 points in 2008-09, his third NHL season. Who knows how Florida's season might have panned out had Booth not absorbed a mammoth check from Philadelphia's Mike Richards in an Oct. 24 game, one that led to him being carried off on a stretcher with a severe concussion that sidelined him over three months. Booth scored half of his 8 goals for the season over the final five games, production the Panthers hope will carry over.
Steven Reinprecht (16-22-38), Cory Stillman (15-22-37), Radek Dvorak (14-18-32) and Rostislav Olesz (14-15-29) aren't players who are going to carry a team offensively for any significant length of time, but they're all useful secondary scorers who can pop in a goal at a critical moment. A shorthanded specialist, Dvorak added 3 more last season to his career total of 22, while Stillman and Olesz combined for 7 game-winners.
Michael Grabner and Steve Bernier were acquired via trade from Vancouver. Grabner is a former first-round pick of the Canucks who recorded a hat trick among the 5 goals he scored during a 20-game call-up last season. Bernier is another depth player who figures to contribute in the neighborhood of 10-15 goals.
Shawn Matthias, Byron Bitz and Kenndal McArdle all return and will be pushed for playing time by new additions like Christopher Higgins, Marty Reasoner and Andrew Peters. Also keep an eye on youngsters like Michal Repik, who has 5 goals in 24 games spanning parts of two seasons, and Michael Santorelli, an accomplished scorer at the AHL level whose career never took off in Nashville.
Tallon expertly used the draft to turn the Blackhawks around, and he immediately addressed the Panthers' need to get better on defense by taking 6-foot-4 Kingston (OHL) blueliner Erik Gudbranson with the third pick of the 2010 Entry Draft. Compared to elite players at his position like Chris Pronger and Dion Phaneuf by NHL Director of Central Scouting E.J. McGuire, Gudbranson is expected to be an impact player, though that impact may not be felt in the NHL right away.
"I wouldn't say Gudbranson can't make the team, but he has to make the team. We're not going to give anything to him," assistant GM Mike Santos told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "If he comes in and he's better than any of those guys in front of him, then he'll be on the team. But there's nothing wrong with an 18-year-old continuing to develop in juniors. It's nice to have this depth, so you don't put that pressure on an 18-year-old where he has to come in and step in."
The depth of which Santos speaks includes holdovers Bryan McCabe, Bryan Allen and Dmitry Kulikov, free-agent signings Nathan Paetsch and Mike Weaver, and trade acquisition Dennis Wideman.
McCabe, who has totaled as many as 19 goals and 68 points in a season, wears the "C" in Florida, and at age 35 still can let it rip from the point. Wideman came over from Boston in the Horton deal; he scored 13 goals in consecutive seasons before slumping to 6 in 2009-10. The most intriguing face in this group until Gudbranson arrives is Kulikov, who doesn't turn 20 until Oct. 29 but already has a full NHL season under his belt, during which he routinely logged over 20 minutes of ice time without looking out of place.
Anyone unconvinced Vokoun remains capable of being one of the elite at his position needed only to pay attention to the World Championships this past May in Germany. Vokoun led the Czech Republic to gold, punctuating his efforts with a brilliant 35-save performance against Russia in the tournament finale.
Vokoun is a three-time 30-game winner, including his first season with the Panthers in 2007-08, and he hasn't posted a save percentage lower than .919 in the past five seasons. But even the best goalies need a little help, something Vokoun rarely got during a 14-game stretch that spanned from mid-January until right after the Olympic break, when Florida scored a grand total of 17 goals -- never more than two in a single game -- and was shut out three times. Vokoun managed to win four of those games, posting three shutouts of his own.
Scott Clemmensen, who won 25 games spelling an injured Martin Brodeur in New Jersey during the 2008-09 season, only got into 22 games as Vokoun's backup, but posted a solid 9-8-2 record with a .912 save percentage.