Panthers' rebuild has team in Stanley Cup discussion

When GM Dale Tallon left the Blackhawks for the Panthers nearly six years ago, he said he was "going to go and build something special in Florida." If by "special" he meant another Chicago, which won the Stanley Cup in 2010, then Tallon has shown tremendous progress.

GM Tallon applying winning model from days in Chicago

Dale Tallon, whose philosophy during his five-plus seasons as GM of the Panthers has been to go young and a build a Stanley Cup contender through the NHL draft with a shrewd trade or free-agent signing sprinkled on top, is going quite well as Florida entered play Tuesday atop the Atlantic Division standings and riding a nine-game win streak. (J Pat Carter/Associated Press/File)

Fans of professional sports know the drill: A moribund franchise hires a new general manager who talks of a three- or five-year plan to bring it back to championship contention and doesn't follow through.

And then there is Dale Tallon.

The architect behind the Chicago Blackhawks' 2010 Stanley Cup winning team arrived in Sunrise, Fla., in May of that year with the Panthers fresh off a last-place finish in the Southwest Division and a ninth consecutive season out of the playoffs.

There was no mention of a three- or five-year plan, just pure excitement from a proven winner looking forward to a new opportunity and challenge.

"I can't wait to get to work," Tallon told reporters. "I'm going to go and build something special in Florida."

If by "special" the 65-year-old meant another Chicago, then Tallon has shown tremendous progress.

The Panthers extended their franchise-record winning streak to 10 games on Tuesday as they opened a six-game road trip against the winless-in-four Buffalo Sabres.

Atlantic leaders

Head coach Gerard Gallant, armed with a new two-year contract extension, has guided Florida to the top of the Atlantic Division with a 24-12-4 record, 52 points in 40 games and on track for the first 100-point campaign in the team's 22-year history.

Some might say the 15-21-4 Sabres, with some exciting young players in Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, the talented Evander Kane and veterans Brian Gionta and David Legwand, are the Panthers of two or three years ago.

Tallon, whose philosophy in Chicago and Florida has been to go young and build a Cup contender through the draft with a shrewd trade or free-agent signing sprinkled on top, went to work quickly in Florida. He stockpiled picks before the 2010 NHL draft in Los Angeles and ended up with 13, including six in the top 50 selections, with defenceman Erik Gudbranson (third overall) and forward Nick Bjugstad (19th) key members of this year's squad.

First-round picks Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov and Aaron Ekblad followed in 2011, 2013 and 2014, respectively. They are now Gallant's go-to guys, with 2015 off-season additions Jussi Jokinen and Reilly Smith joining Bjugstad to provide secondary scoring while trade acquisition Brandon Pirri and 2010 first-round pick Quinton Howden play bottom-six roles.

"We've got 10 draft picks on the team right now and the goal is to get to 15," Tallon said in October. "The future looks really good."

The future in Florida, at least the next three years, will include Tallon, who also signed a contract extension recently.

In Chicago, he surrounded young draft picks Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews with veteran forward Marian Hossa. In Florida, Jaromir Jagr skates alongside Barkov and Huberdeau after Tallon sent two draft picks to New Jersey last February for the five-time NHL scoring champion.

Jagr's presence has accelerated the development of his linemates while the youngsters are a big reason the 43-year-old leads the Panthers in goals (14) and points (29) this season.

If boasting a stud centre, frontline defenceman and standout goaltending are ingredients to hoisting a Cup, then the Panthers are in good shape with Barkov, Ekblad and Roberto Luongo. The re-acquisition of Luongo, who played in Florida from 2000 to 2006, was considered a bold move, but the cost of doing business with Vancouver (fellow goalie Jacob Markstrom and forward Shawn Matthias, now with Toronto) didn't hurt the Panthers.

Despite a salary cap hit of $4.5 million US through 2022, the 36-year-old Luongo, who had a 2.38 goals-against average in 42 games with the Canucks in the 2013-14 season, is getting better with age in Florida. He had a 2.35 GAA in 61 outings last season and was at 2.09 through Monday with a .929 save percentage, Luongo's highest since 2003-04 (.931) while a member of the Panthers.

"We're getting a great goaltender, a proven commodity," Tallon said after trading for Luongo in March 2014. "I just like what he brings to the table, giving us stability and his experience and a chance for us to win."

Given Tallon's track record, the Panthers might be winning for a while.


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