|Mikael Samuelsson (in-season trade), Sean Bergenheim (July 1 signing) and Marcel Goc (July 1 signing) were all brought in by Dale Tallon and have helped the Cats clinch their first Division title in franchise history. (Getty Images)
About 30 minutes after the Panthers wrapped up their first postseason practice in 12 years, the man largely responsible for the team’s return to the playoffs met with a group of reporters at the Saveology.com Iceplex.
So maybe it was fitting that the conversation with Dale Tallon began with a question regarding his standing as one of the top candidates for NHL Executive of the Year.
Except that Tallon wasn’t having any of it.
“You know,” Tallon said, quickly cutting off the question, “that and three bucks will get you a Starbucks. ... It used to be 20 cents, when I was kid anyway.”
Make no mistake, Tallon is overjoyed and extremely proud of his team’s accomplishments during the regular season, starting with snapping the long playoff drought and including the Panthers becoming the first team since the NHL went to a two-conference format in 1974-75 to win a division title after finishing last in the conference the previous year.
But Tallon wants to spread the credit around.
“Great team effort from all aspects,” he said, “from scouting to Mike Santos, my assistant, the whole staff has really believed in what we’re trying to do here and it’s evident that the players see that and the coaching staff has done all the work and the players, that’s who I’m happiest for. They’ve put in so much sweat and tears and blood into this. We were injured and banged up and no one gave us a shot at the beginning of the year.
“It’s pretty gratifying to see the results so far and we’ve only achieved one of our goals and now we’ve got to move forward and win the first period of the first game (of the playoffs). That’s basically how we approach it. We try to get better every day and we did get better every day since we’ve started, and that’s the goal. We continue to stick with the same game plan and do it with honesty and sincerity and humility and go from there.”
Of the 26 players on the current Panthers roster, a whopping 20 were brought in after Tallon was hired as general manager in May of 2010. Of those, 17 were not with the team last season.
With that kind of turnover, along with a new head coach in Kevin Dineen, it was difficult for many to envision this kind of dramatic success for the Panthers.
The way Tallon sees it, regardless of what happens in the playoffs, this already has been a successful season.
“A successful season is right, a winning season,” Tallon said. “Regardless if we hadn’t gone to the playoffs, we went up 22 points over last year. And you look at my record, we want to get better every year and we exceeded expectations this year. But it doesn’t surprise me knowing the character of these players that we brought in. They really care.
“I’m excited for the guys that made the commitment to come here in July and the guys that have been here in the past that have gone through tough times have really been able to weather the storm and get themselves back on top. From here on in, it’s just bonus time. Let’s shoot for the moon.”
Tallon admitted that the last few weeks of the regular season were a bit nerve-racking.
Asked when he first started thinking the Panthers might be able to win the Southeast Division, Tallon said: “What was the date on Saturday? You just never know. You talk to the 29 other buddies that are general managers and every night your stomach is in turmoil. If you care, you’re certainly going to be tied in knots every night. But it’s fun. It was exciting to go to the rink the last month and the last seven or eight games were pretty exciting. But it was well worth it.”
Maybe the best part of all for Tallon is that the Panthers were able to add the parts necessary to complete the turnaround from last-place team to division winner without deviating from the blueprint of stockpiling quality prospects.
After the start of the 2011-12 regular season, the Panthers were able to acquire six veterans — Mikael Samuelsson
, Marco Sturm
, Krys Barch, John Madden
, Jerred Smithson
and Wojtek Wolski
— without sacrificing a high draft pick or a key player on the roster.
And with all the team’s success this season, it might have become easy to forget there might not be an organization in the NHL that matches the Panthers’ collection of high-end prospects — a group that includes guys like Jonathan Huberdeau
, Quinton Howden
, Nick Bjugstad
, Alex Petrovic
and Drew Shore
“That’s what’s really exciting for me is the fun begins now,” Tallon said. “With Drew Shore
down in San Antonio and (Alex) Petrovic down there as well, moving forward we didn’t disrupt our future to get success early here in the present. We have a bright future ahead of us. Now we can keep adding pieces to this core that’s really a good strong core now. So we’re in good shape as far as the organization is concerned.”