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Panthers GM Tallon enjoys huge day with six signings

by Alain Poupart

SUNRISE, Fla. -- Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon figured he'd be busy on the first day of NHL free agency, but he didn't expect to be able to land all the players he targeted.

Tallon said that's what happened after the Panthers signed six unrestricted free agents Tuesday:?forwards Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen, Shawn Thornton and Derek MacKenzie, defenseman Willie Mitchell and goalie Al Montoya.

"It was a great day for our franchise,"???Tallon said. "We exceeded expectations. We identified a number of players and we got 'em all. I've never had that happen before; the guys that we identified were guys that we ended up getting."

The Panthers' shopping spree almost matched what they did on the first day of free agency in 2011, when they signed seven players who helped them get to the salary floor and would produce a division title the following season.

Tallon was expected to be active again Tuesday, but this time it was because he was given the green light to spend by new Panthers owners Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu.

If there was any surprise, it was that Tallon added one defenseman after saying a couple of times the goal was to pick up two of them.

The one the Panthers did sign, Mitchell, figures to replace the leadership that was lost when they used a compliance buyout on captain Ed Jovanovski.

Mitchell, 37, signed a two-year contract and joins a defense loaded with young talent including Erik Gudbranson, Dmitry Kulikov, Alex Petrovic and Aaron Ekblad, the No. 1 pick at the 2014 NHL???Draft.

"Willie, you saw him in the playoffs what he's done with [Slava]???Voynov and all the young defensemen [with the Los Angeles Kings],"???Tallon said. "He will fill a role here for our young defensemen -- Ekblad, Gudbranson, Petrovic, [prospect MacKenzie]???Weegar -- and also he'll be a good teammate, a good partner maybe for [Brian]???Campbell. He's a tremendous defensive player and he contributes offensively. He's got a big shot from the point. He's well-schooled in the defensive aspects of the game and he's got impeccable character."

Tallon said he sees Bolland and Jokinen playing leadership roles after signing a five-year and a four-year contract, respectively.

In particular, Tallon said Jokinen can serve as a mentor for center Aleksander Barkov, a fellow Finn and the No. 2 selection in 2013.

"He's got a lot of class,"???Tallon said of Jokinen, who finished his first full season with the Pittsburgh Penguins. "He's a real pro. Good skills, can score. He's got great hockey sense and he really will help Barkov on and off the ice. He wanted to play here because of Barkov and all the young good players we have in our system. He did his homework. He knew our team inside and out. He was excited to get an opportunity to play with Barkov, getting to know him at the Olympics this year. It was a big plus."

Bolland, who was a second-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2004 when Tallon was their assistant general manager, will be playing for his third team in three seasons. He's on the move again after a disappointing season with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who traded for him last June not long after he scored the Stanley Cup-winning goal for the Blackhawks against the Boston Bruins.

Bolland had 12 points in 23 games in an injury-plagued 2013-14 season.

"David is a unique player,"?????????Tallon said. "He's a hockey player. The statistics don't tell the story with him. He gets the job done. He goes against other teams' top players. He's skilled, but he's gritty and he's smart defensively. The team is No. 1 with him. He's a champion in every league that he's been in, and he's got tremendous toughness and skill and all those things that we want him to lead our young guys with.

"He's just a hockey player and he wants to play and he wants to win and he really cares. They wanted term. They wanted a lot of term and we cut the term down and raised the salary a bit to get the deal done."

Tallon said Thornton, who signed a two-year contract, and MacKenzie, who agreed to a three-year contract, likely would team up on the fourth line.

Montoya got a two-year contract to compete with Dan Ellis for the backup job behind Roberto Luongo. Tallon said Montoya, who had a 13-8-3 record with a 2.30 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage for the Winnipeg Jets last season, probably has the edge at this time.

Tallon said he explored the possibility of trying to sign Penguins defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, but they ended up joining the Washington Capitals.

At some point, Tallon is going to have to work out contracts for the seven restricted free agents to whom he extended qualifying offers:?????????Gudbranson, Kulikov, defenseman Dylan Olsen, and forwards Jimmy Hayes, Ryan Martindale, Brandon Pirri and Garrett Wilson.

As for adding another veteran defenseman to the mix, Tallon said that's still the plan, but not immediately.

"Obviously we're in good shape for now and we'll just sit tight and see what happens,"?????????he said. "We'll probably look at another defenseman, a left-shot guy, to play depending on what type of player and what the situation is as far as contracts are concerned. But we're going to sit tight for a while and see what happens."

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