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More Work To Be Done

by Glenn Odebralski / Florida Panthers
General Manager Dale Tallon talks during a press conference last summer to introduce Kevin Dineen as the Panthers head coach. (Eliot Schechter)

In his season wrap-up press conference, Panthers GM Dale Tallon was asked a question regarding Florida becoming a desirable location for free agents.

His response?

"I think we sent a message to everyone in the hockey world that this is the place to be," said Tallon back on May 1. "Why wouldn’t you want to be here?"

Though not a free agent himself and with one year left on his own contract, Tallon and the Panthers decided Wednesday that Florida was indeed a place he should be for the foreseeable future, inking a multi-year extension with the club.

"I'm excited," said Tallon Wednesday. "This is a great opportunity to keep the franchise on the right path. We had a good season and I just want to build on this past season the next couple of years."

"We are very pleased to have agreed to a contract extension with Dale," said Panthers General Partner Cliff Viner in a statement. "Over the last two years, he has worked tirelessly to re-position our team and hockey operations department. Our team’s success can be attributed directly to Dale’s passion, leadership and the motivation that he has instilled in our organization."

Tallon has been at the helm of the franchise for two seasons and has overseen a drastic turnaround in all aspects of the club. He's reshaped the hockey operations department, the coaching department and the players on the ice.

The Panthers finished with 72 points and were last in the Eastern Conference under his first season as a multitude of players were sent away at the trade deadline.

"That was an equally difficult year for everyone," said Tallon. "We had to make some tough decisions and trade away some solid veterans. But it was worth it to get the right personnel in, in terms of fitting into our blueprint."

With money in hand this past summer, the Panthers went on a "shopping spree" so to speak, signing or trading for 10 different players including defensemen Brian Campbell (trade) and Ed Jovanovski (free agency) and forwards Tomas Fleischmann (free agency), Kris Versteeg (trade) and Sean Bergenheim (free agency), along with netminder Jose Theodore (free agency). He topped that off in tabbing an up-and-coming yet fiery head coach by the name of Kevin Dineen.

Despite all of the changes on and off the ice, the Panthers gelled quickly and got off to a great start to the season, posting a 13-7-4 record through the first two months. That vaulted the Cats to the top of the Southeast Division.

"I was a little surprised that we came together so quickly but with the character that we added in the locker room, I expected the team to come together at some point," said Tallon.

Tallon and Assistant GM Mike Santos were also not afraid to make tough decisions on personnel moves to upgrade the roster throughout the season. The trading away of fan favorite David Booth in October comes to mind but getting veterans such as Mikael Samuelsson and Marco Sturm back in return, helped the Panthers stay atop the Southeast for the majority of the season.

Adding other veterans without giving up other roster players also helped, especially when the injury bug hit - and hit hard. Florida finished the regular season with 340 man games lost as 23 different players all missed action at some point in the year.

"I've said this before and I'll say it again, we're never done upgrading our roster," said Tallon. "We are always looking for ways to improve our team both on and off the ice."

The tinkering of the roster paid off. On the last day of the season, the Panthers defeated the Carolina Hurricanes 4-1 to capture their first division championship in franchise history. They finished with 94 points, 22 more than the previous season and the second-most in the club's history (98, 1999-00). Tallon's peers recognized his efforts over the last season plus in naming him a finalist for the NHL's Executive of the Year award which will be awarded at the NHL Awards Ceremony in Las Vegas on June 20.

"These players didn’t allow themselves to fail," said Tallon back during that May wrap-up press conference. "They really bought in, they showed a lot of character. This is one of the best groups of guys I have ever been involved with in a long time...It was a pleasure to come to work every day and be involved with this group. I’m real proud of them."

As the third seed in the Eastern Conference, the Panthers held a 3-2 series lead before falling in back-to-back overtime games to the eventual Eastern Conference champions, the New Jersey Devils in seven games. Game 7 was an especially huge disappointment. With the game at home, the Panthers trailed by two goals after two periods of play. Florida fought back valiantly with two third-period, power-play goals only to see the Devils celebrate after Adam Henrique scored in the second overtime.

The Panthers earned their second-most points in franchise history during the 2011-12 season in picking up 94 to make the playoffs for the first time since 2000. (Getty Images)

"To be just one goal away from advancing and to lose in double overtime really hurts," said Tallon. "But I'm so proud of what we all did this past year and I know that the future is bright for us."

Bright it certainly is. The Panthers have the majority of their core signed for the 2012-13 season. In fact, 16 players will all be returning to defend the club's Southeast Division title. Then there is the prospect pool to think about it.

Already in the NHL is Tallon's first-ever pick with the Panthers, defenseman Erik Gudbranson. The third overall pick in the 2010 NHL Draft throughout the year and was a tremendous defensive force against the Devils in the playoffs in his first year in the league.

It doesn't stop there. Hockey's Future rated the Panthers No. 1 in their organizational rankings of all NHL teams based off of the "number of top prospects in the organization and depth of talent."

The talent that will be filling the roster, some in the near future, should bring excitement to Cats fans. Forwards such as Jonathan Huberdeau (3rd overall, 2011 NHL Draft), Nick Bjugstad (19th overall, 2010 NHL Draft) and Quinton Howden (25th overall, 2010 NHL Draft), defensemen such as Alex Petrovic (36th overall, 2010 NHL Draft), Jonathan Racine (87th overall, 2011 NHL Draft) and Colby Robak (46th overall, 2008 NHL Draft) and netminder Jacob Markstrom (31st overall, 2008 NHL Draft) all have bright futures ahead of them. All but Robak and Markstrom were Tallon’s picks.

Tallon, while excited about this past season, is even more excited about the future, particularly when those draft picks start dotting the Cats lineup on a nightly basis.

"Our staff did a great job of going into the past two drafts prepared to take the best player available that fit what we have been looking for in regards to players with charater, size, speed, skill and character," said Tallon. "I said when I started here that I would love for all 22 players to be those that were drafted by Florida. This is a great start and I'm excited to see them to continue to develop and hopefully one day the team will be comprised entirely of Panthers draft picks."

With his extension now in the rear view mirror, Tallon can turn his attention to his third summer with the Cats - during which he'll have another draft to guide the team through (picking 23rd in Pittsburgh on June 22) and another free agency starting in July. With currently four or five draft picks, and 16 spots already filled up on the main roster for next season, it seems like the Cats GM will have a much quieter summer ahead.

"I don't think anything will be like last summer," quipped Tallon in reference to the whirlwind of a summer drafting, signing and trading. "But you never know. We'll get better and be as active as we can be. I'd love to improve our offense, especially."

With the personality, character and passion that Tallon has instilled in the franchise, it's a wonder of who wouldn't want to bring their talents to South Florida.

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