Heading down the stretch, the Florida Panthers are in an unfamiliar position -- fighting for a playoff spot and the Southeast Division title with 20 games to go.
Their success to date has surprised many, perhaps even the team's architect.
"With 13 or 14 new players now, a new coaching staff and all the injuries we have accumulated over the year, I take my hat off to the players and the coaching staff for playing so hard and buying in to what we are trying to do here," said Panthers Executive Vice President and General Manager Dale Tallon.
When Tallon was hired by the Florida Panthers in May 2010, the ownership group hailed his arrival as the beginning of a new chapter in club history. With his team heading into the final five weeks of the season with a very real possibility of earning a playoff berth for the first time in 12 years, Tallon is inching closer to putting his stamp on what he prefers to call "the first act."
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"We are in the first phase of what we are trying to accomplish," he said. "I would say it's a three-phase situation and let's say it's Act 1 and we are ahead of schedule."
Tallon had no small task when he joined the team. The last Panthers' playoff appearance was in 2000, the longest drought in the League.
"Our fans in Florida have suffered," he said. "I have gone through this before in Chicago. You can't do it quick, you just have to be patient and do the right thing. It just can't happen overnight."
While Tallon has hired a coaching staff headed by Kevin Dineen and drafted top prospects, his biggest stamp in the 21 months he has been on the job has been what he was able to do this past summer.
"We were able to be aggressive in the free-agent market," he said. "We were able to get some real solid players. That was the goal. We had a budget and we knew the floor was going to be our budget and we made the best of it."
Tallon signed forwards Sean Bergenheim
, Tomas Fleischmann
and Marcel Goc
, all whom are every-day players that add what Dineen would term "diversity" to the Panthers' offense. Tallon added veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski
who was a member of the 1996 Panthers team that went to the Stanley Cup Final. He also signed goalie Jose Theodore
, who has a .919 save percentage that's his best since the 2003-04 season.
There is something all of these players share in common that Stephen Weiss
, the franchise's all-time leader in games played, cannot relate to -- a postseason appearance.
There is no one more cognizant of the Panthers' shortcomings than Weiss, who has played his entire career in Florida since being selected by the club with the fourth pick of the 2001 Entry Draft.
"We are well aware of what’s gone on here in the past," Weiss said. "It's been a while since we played some playoff hockey. We are all anxious to get these 20 games going and fast-forward to the end of the season."
As the NHL Trade Deadline passed Monday, Weiss noticed a difference from previous seasons.
"It's night and day to deadlines in the past where we are 10-12 points out of a playoff spot to where you are third in the conference," Weiss said.
He didn't mention the countless players he has seen come and go, among them long-time teammate Nathan Horton, who was dealt to Boston prior to the 2010 draft and in his first season there, won the Stanley Cup.
It is no surprise, then, that as much as his teammates want to make it to the second season, at least part of the motivation is so he can get a taste of it.
"It's our first act. We've got a long way to go and I'm not going to mortgage the future just to get a little early success. Success for me is being a Stanley Cup winner and contender for a lot of years to come. ... We are on the right track and I feel really good about our future as well." - Panthers' GM Dale Tallon
"We're looking forward to the playoffs and I know Stephen is excited, we are all excited," said Panthers forward and three-time Stanley Cup champion John Madden
. "Stephen has been with this organization his whole career, through lots of ups and downs -- certainly more downs than ups."
While getting to the playoffs would be a wonderful accomplishment, Tallon did not stray from his mandate at the deadline, nor does he plan to at any point down the line. He has his template and he is sticking with it.
"It's our first act," he said. "We've got a long way to go and I'm not going to mortgage the future just to get a little early success. Success for me is being a Stanley Cup winner and contender for a lot of years to come. Getting to the playoffs would be great, we are excited about that chance, but we are just going to take it one period at a time, one game at a time -- the old clichés have to work here. We are on the right track and I feel really good about our future as well."
Dineen echoed Tallon's sentiments. As he preps his squad for games that will become increasingly meaningful heading into March and April, he feels that Florida fans have something they can latch on to not only now but perhaps for years to come.
"There's a good buzz," he said. "It's a great feeling when you are a Panther fan, you can cheer your team on and you can feel like we are heading in the right direction."
Author: Neil Acharya | NHL.com Correspondent