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Panthers poised to surprise in 2013-14

10/4/2013

With each veteran Dale Tallon invited to camp and then signed, the notion that this unique strategy could lead to an interesting season in South Florida started to grow. It was a game plan by the Panthers' general manager that grew out of necessity, aided by the unique circumstance created by the salary cap falling for the first time in its NHL history.

The whims of the salary cap seem to impact the Panthers as much as any team. In 2011, it was the salary cap floor that forced Tallon to go on a spending spree that ultimately propelled the Panthers into a surprising playoff berth in which they nearly knocked out the eventual Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Devils.

This year, it was the opposite. Instead of shopping on Rodeo Drive, Tallon mined the thrift store. For the price of one season of Ed Jovanovski, he got both Tom Gilbert and Ryan Whitney, plus $2.3 million in change. For the price of one season of Tomas Kopecky, he got Scott Gomez and Brad Boyes, plus $1.1 million remaining to spend. It was almost like some sort of discounted buy one, get one free sale.

His best move of all? Getting a Vezina Trophy-winning goalie for a bonus-filled contract that could be worth $3.75 million in Tim Thomas.

"It was kind of a necessity. We had to," Tallon said of his offseason strategy when we chatted Wednesday. "We were hopeful. We had a plan in place. Wait until August and September and see what was there."

Once the new ownership was in place, with Vinnie Viola's purchase of the team, Tallon was able to complete the transactions.

But watching the Panthers in their debut against the Stars on Thursday night, it's apparent that the bargain shopping Tallon pulled off is only part of the story. Really, a small part. The Panthers may very well end up being one of the surprise stories of the season, but it won't be simply because of the collection of veterans signed at the end of the summer like the how playoff trip in 2011-12 depended heavily on the veterans Tallon signed.

This will be a different story. If the Panthers succeed, it will be a mix of a Thomas comeback plus the emergence of the young talent Florida has been collecting.

Tallon suggested as much earlier this week.

"[Erik] Gudbranson has been terrific. We're looking for him to really step it up," he said. "Jonathan Huberdeau looks strong. [Aleksander] Barkov is going to get a good opportunity to show himself."

That's exactly how it played out in the Panthers' season debut. Gudbranson was terrific. He looked poised to make a major step forward this season and fearlessly dove in front of a shot late in the game that helped preserve an eventual 4-2 win.

"If he doesn't block that shot, we don't win that game," Thomas told reporters after the game. "It was awesome."

Huberdeau looked prepared to build off of his Calder Memorial Trophy-winning rookie season.

And then there was Barkov. Earlier in the day, Don Cherry called out Tallon on Twitter for picking Barkov over well-known commodities Seth Jones and Jonathan Drouin, concluding the tweet with, "Hope you know what you're doing."

Tallon, who built the 2010 Stanley Cup-winning Blackhawks, just might.

Barkov looked like anything but an 18-year-old kid, using his size and strength to protect the puck and set up scoring chances. He was completely comfortable in front of the net, where he was able to send a rebound past Kari Lehtonen for the game-winning goal. There's some work to do still -- he won just three of 13 faceoffs (23 percent) -- but it's easy to see what attracted the Panthers into taking the risk.

"Barkov engaged," Panthers coach Kevin Dineen wrote in an e-mail after the game. "[He was] not intimidated and showed the skill we have seen in spurts over the last three weeks."

His goal was the game-winner because Thomas kept the Panthers in it from the start. The Stars came out flying, an impressive mix of physical play and speed that will lead to plenty of wins down the road once they put it together for an entire game. But Thomas was up for it. He was his usual aggressive self, spending most of the night challenging shooters outside the blue paint. No signs of rust at all after a season off, which is another encouraging sign for Florida's hopes of being this year's surprise team.

"Thomas [was] poised and confident and gave our team great lift when Dallas pushed hard," Dineen said in the e-mail. "He gives us a level of security."

The Panthers are due a break after last season, which was filled with injuries. Stephen Weiss, Jose Theodore, Kris Versteeg, Sean Bergenheim, Ed Jovanovski, Dmitry Kulikov and Scottie Upshall all missed significant time with injuries; By April 16, a total of 278 games were lost to injuries.

Simply getting healthy was going to lead to improvement. The Panthers' PDO, which is an indication of how lucky they were on the ice, was a league-worst .963 last season. It's another sign that things should be better in 2013-14.

For the sake of Tallon, it may need to be. Tallon was hired in 2010 to rebuild the Panthers, and he's quietly gone about that job in South Florida. It takes time to bottom out and collect young talent, and the Panthers are now at the point where Tallon needs to start hitting on some of the young players he drafted. Comments like those from Cherry add even more pressure.

He's now working for a new owner in Viola who will be evaluating everything about the hockey operation in South Florida. He named his 25-year-old son, Travis Viola, the vice president of hockey operations and special projects. Clearly, this family won't be hands-off in its operation of the Panthers.

It's Viola's team, but during an intermission interview on the Panthers' television broadcast Thursday night, the new owner shared that his sons are devoted hockey fans and played hockey growing up. He indicated that he won't be acting alone in this process.

"We do everything as a family," Viola said.

You can't help but get the feeling that this may end up concluding like Tallon's run in Chicago, where another person was the beneficiary of the foundation he built. That happens sometimes during an ownership change when the new regime wants to bring in its own people.

But right now, Tallon said he's operating like he's in this for the long haul, and he likes what he's heard so far from the new owner.

"I'm ready to do what it takes," Tallon said. "In a short period of time, I got the message. I like what [Viola] brings to the table and what his expectations are."

It was one just game, and last season in Florida showed that things can go sideways in a hurry during a hockey season, but it's certainly a promising mix that Tallon has assembled.