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Tallon adds youth, size to Panthers in Versteeg trade

by Alain Poupart

Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon was telling the truth when he said after the firing of coach Kevin Dineen last week that more changes were coming.

It was somewhat of a surprise, though, that the next move involved forward Kris Versteeg, who was traded back to the Chicago Blackhawks two years after he signed a four-year contract extension and three years after Tallon had traded for him.

"We made the playoffs with Kris Versteeg two years ago for the first time in over a decade," Tallon said in a conference call Friday. "He played well that year and we had success. That hadn't been happening the last year and a half so we've got to make the best of the situation and look for changing and improving our team. He's an asset and he had value and we needed to make a change. It just so happens that it's Kris Versteeg."

In exchange for Versteeg and minor-league forward Philippe Lefebvre, the Panthers got Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen.

Kris Versteeg will rejoin the Blackhawks after being traded from the Panthers for Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen. (Photo: Jeff Sanzare/NHLI)

Hayes, a 6-foot-6 forward, will join the Panthers in time for their game Friday against the Minnesota Wild. Olsen, a 6-foot-2 defenseman, will join the San Antonio Rampage of the American Hockey League.

Hayes was a 2008 second-round pick (No. 60) by the Toronto Maple Leafs who was traded to the Blackhawks in June 2010. Olsen was Chicago's first-round selection (No. 28) in 2009.

Hayes had 25 goals and 45 points in 67 games with Rockford of the AHL last season and had four goals and four assists in 13 AHL games this season while also appearing in two games for the Blackhawks.

"He's a big kid that's just coming on," Tallon said. "He's starting to get his coordination, his timing. Both these kids are in the position where they got blocked in Chicago with the talent that they have on the big club. It's an opportunity for them. They're excited. They understand they have a great chance to mean something and they're proud to be Panthers and they look forward to the challenge."

To consummate the trade with Chicago, the Panthers had to agree to pay half of the remainder of Versteeg's contract, which has two years left after this season at $4.4 million per season.

After Versteeg registered career highs in goals (23), points (54) and ice time (19:55 average) while helping the Panthers win the Southeast Division title in 2012, his performance diminished, in part because of injuries.

He underwent hip surgery after the 2011-12 season and was limited to 10 games last season due to surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee.

In 18 games this season Versteeg has two goals and five assists while averaging a career-low 15:42 of ice time. His minus-9 was the worst among Florida forwards. His low point came when he was a healthy scratch for a game against the Washington Capitals on Nov. 2.

"He's trying to do too much, probably carrying the burden of a big contract," Tallon said. "He probably tried to do too much and it wasn't consistent enough. This was based on performance and performance only.

"I just think that he had some flashes of brilliance but we need to be excellent every shift. He's going to a place where he had success and he'll be a good fit for them. This is a trade that fits both franchises very well with the direction that we're both headed in."

Tallon said the acquisition of Hayes and Olsen fits the blueprint of putting together a roster with a lot of size.

"We feel that we added two good young players to our foundation," he said. "They're big. We want to be big, we want to be strong, we want to be deep and we want to be tougher. And those are the things that we need to improve on. Adding size and diversity to our lineup -- Jimmy Hayes can play center and play wing. He's 6-foot-6. We have [Nick] Bjugstad at 6-foot-6, we have [Jacob] Markstrom at 6-foot-6, we’ve got [Erik] Gudbranson at 6-4, [Aleksander] Barkov, 6-3, [Alex] Petrovic is 6-4, [Quinton] Howden, 6-3. We're focusing on being bigger, faster, stronger, tougher, all those things to be a Stanley Cup-winning team."

The Panthers begin a five-game road trip Friday in Minnesota hoping to build on their 3-2 victory against the Anaheim Ducks on Tuesday. The victory snapped a nine-game winless skid (0-5-4) that included Dineen's firing.

While frustrated with the team's performance, Tallon constantly has expressed optimism about the franchise's future because of its long list of blue-chip prospects, such as current Panthers Bjugstad, Barkov, Gudbranson and Jonathan Huberdeau, along with minor-leaguers like Vincent Trocheck and Petrovic as well as Boston College defenseman Michael Matheson.

"I only know one way to do it and we're building a tremendous foundation here for the future," Tallon said. "Jimmy Hayes will play on our team now and you see Bjugstad and Barkov and Huberdeau and Gudbranson, how good they are. And we have a lot more coming like them. Obviously you have to be patient. I know it's frustrating. I don't like what's happening. I want to win now too. We're going to do everything we can to win now and keep our eye on the future as well."

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