For those hockey fans who are involved in fantasy leagues, Dale Tallon's work with the Florida Panthers in the calendar year of 2011 looked like a real-world nod to the yo-yo nature of keeper-based contests.
Tallon gutted an underachieving roster before the 2011 trade deadline, and it looked like he ushered in a new five-year plan in South Florida. Instead, the rebuild happened much quicker. Tallon added players in bulk last summer, in part because he needed to fill roster spots and reach the salary cap floor.
2012-13 Panthers Fantasy Team Preview
Under-valued: Peter Mueller - Posted nine goals and 20 points in 15 games after getting traded to Colorado in 2009-10, but then missed all of 2010-11 and totaled just seven goals and 16 points in 32 games last season. Now in Florida, Mueller has the skills to put up decent numbers -- he just has to stay healthy.
Over-valued: Stephen Weiss - After recording 33 points and a plus-17 in first 37 games last year, Weiss cooled off with 24 points and a minus-12 in his final 43. He's good for around 50 points, but don't expect him to be a top-30 center this year.
Sleeper: Jonathan Huberdeau - Likely to make the team this season, Huberdeau could end up centering the second line. If that happens, he's worth a flyer in final round of fantasy draft after scoring 30 goals and 72 points in 37 games in the QMJHL last year.
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His new collection of players jelled much quick than anyone could have expected, and new coach Kevin Dineen led the Panthers to the first division title in franchise history and the first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in more than a decade.
This offseason was much quieter for Tallon, and now the building process becomes more about patience than prodigious spending. Peter Mueller was a low-risk signing who could provide a nice return if he can stay healthy, but otherwise the rest of the key pieces remain the same from last season -- at least among established NHL players.
Florida has one of the best collections of prospects in the NHL, and the next season or two will be defined by how Tallon and Dineen assimilate a wave of young talent that could make the Panthers contenders for the Stanley Cup for several seasons.
Defensemen Erik Gudbranson and Dmitry Kulikov have already arrived in South Florida, and Jonathan Huberdeau is almost certain to join them this season. How many other prospects join the club and when will be worth monitoring.
The Panthers sped up their timetable for being contenders with a surprising 2011-12 season. Now they must prove it wasn't a fluke. Regardless, the young talent could make the Panthers better this season even if some of the regulars from last season fall off, and they could make Florida a lot better in forthcoming campaigns.
NOTES: While the top line of Fleischmann, Weiss and Versteeg faded in the second half of last season, there's little reason to think they won't start this campaign together unless Dineen wants to help Huberdeau out early in his rookie season. Upshall is far from a lock as a top-six guy, so if one of the team's other tantalizing forward prospects (Quinton Howden, Drew Shore, etc.) is ready, he could be pushed down the lineup. There are plenty of bottom-six type guys on guaranteed contracts, so don't expect one of the kids to stick with the big club if not as a second-line forward.
Kuba makes a lot of sense as a replacement for Jason Garrison, but like Upshall, Ed Jovanovski's grasp on a key role could be fleeting. Colby Robak and Alex Petrovic might not be far off, and there aren't a lot of options to sit among the defense corps after maybe Ellerby (who is also still young enough to improve and earn a regular top-six spot). Those extra years on contracts last summer for Upshall, Jovanovski and Tomas Kopecky could make for some awkward transitions and expensive healthy scratches in the near future.
Then there is the goaltending situation, which might be the most intriguing part of Florida's plan to integrate the kids. If Jacob Markstrom isn't ready for at least part-time NHL duty, he's really, really close. Theodore has one year left on his contract, so maybe that is a natural sucession. There's also a certain ex-Panthers goaltender currently on a roster in the Pacific Northwest with 10 years left on his contract who would really make things interesting.
If anything, last season will help Tallon and Dineen not feel the need to rush the kids because the new players performed so well. They are coming though, and fitting everyone, young and old, together will be the challenge.