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How Dale Tallon can rebuild Panthers

3/30/2011

Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon has rebuilt a team before.

As GM of the Chicago Blackhawks, he traded for Patrick Sharp and Kris Versteeg; he drafted Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Niklas Hjalmarsson; he signed Brian Campbell and Marian Hossa. And, ultimately, those players were the core of a team that won the Stanley Cup last season.

So he can do it again, right?

Yes, but not in the way that you think.

Thus far in Florida, Tallon has cleaned house and left a plethora of draft picks in his pocket. Last year, he had six selections in the top 50 picks -- including three first-rounders. This season, he has seven picks in the first three rounds. Stockpiling draft picks isn't a new idea for rebuilding teams; what's supposed to be different for the Panthers is Tallon's knack for finding talent. However, there's one problem with that idea.

He wasn't a brilliant draft manager in Chicago.

Before you crucify me, let's look at the facts. Tallon was in charge of the Blackhawks for five drafts -- 2005 to 2009. And of the 43 players he selected, only four of them played an NHL game by the end of last season. Three of them -- Toews, Kane and Hjalmarsson -- were crucial parts of the championship squad. But 39 of 43 draft picks didn't contribute to that Hawks team. While that total is about average, when you consider the strong draft position throughout his tenure, he was actually below-average.

Of course, all of this is malleable, because I'm talking about developing players. But it does show one thing: Tallon's drafting wasn't what won the Blackhawks a championship.

Let me be clear: Tallon wasn't a bad drafter, he just didn't work any miracles with his draft picks. The ultimate judgment for Tallon's drafting prowess will come in a few years, when these late-round picks get a chance to develop. But, so far, it's not looking good; only two out of 22 players from the 2005 and 2006 drafts have played 82 NHL games. If he falls short, it will be because he couldn't find late-round contributors. So with the jury out on whether Tallon can find diamonds in the rough, he has yet to earn his stars as a strong drafter.

That's why there's no historical reason the Panthers should be confident in Tallon's drafting.

But here's the brilliant part: It doesn't matter.

As we showed, Tallon won a Cup without having late-round success. In fact, the "Blackhawks Blueprint" has more to do with finding elite talents and surrounding them with solid, affordable role players. So the crucial place in the draft is the top-five -- because that's where superstars are found. That's how Tallon added Kane and Toews. And it didn't take a small miracle to find these guys. In the top five, it's quite likely that you'll find an elite player.

The tough part is the late rounds, where Tallon tends to make the safe choices -- and that hurts him. For example, in Chicago, he didn't take many risks on international players. Just 10 of his 43 picks in Chicago were European players, which is well below-average. Europe is where the biggest steals are found -- especially in late rounds. So sticking with Canadians and Americans in the late rounds is the low-risk, low-reward play.

But, like I said, it doesn't matter whether he finds gems here. So how can he turn around the Panthers? Well here's what a three-year plan might look like:

Year 1 (2010): Like we said, top-five picks are crucial. And Tallon was lucky enough to inherit one last year. With the No. 3, he drafted Erik Gudbranson, which is a risky pick because he's a defenseman. But there probably wasn't a forward worth taking at that spot. In addition, he added potential contributors in center Nick Bjugstad (No. 19) and winger Quinton Howden (No. 25) later in the first round.

Year 2 (2011): This season -- after an array of trades that sent away roster players -- the Panthers ensured themselves a spot at the bottom of the standings, which means another top-five pick (Currently they project to the No. 4 pick). This is another chance to add a potential superstar. In Chicago, Tallon also had two consecutive top-five picks in 2006 and 2007.

Year 3 (2012): Next season, if the Panthers aren't in contention, expect another fire-sale of the veterans -- not only to acquire draft picks, but to increase their chances for a higher draft pick. Or if Tallon feels there's enough base talent, he might start adding additional pieces via trade, like he did with Sharp and Versteeg. This could also be when he looks at key free agents -- for the right cap hit. (Of course, the new CBA might change the rules of salary caps and free agency.)

Tallon's plan doesn't seem to rely on finding draft value -- and that's the genius of it. It's a plan that takes advantage of the certainty of top-five picks, as well as the great financial value they provide during their entry-level contracts. In doing so, he avoids both the hit-or-miss success of late-round players and the hefty contracts of free agent stars.