#FlaPanthers: Could draft be Tallon’s Summer of Sams?

By Bill Whitehead

Welcome to what could eventually be labeled as Dale Tallon’s Summer of Sams.

With the Florida Panthers bucking the odds last Tuesday and winning the NHL Draft Lottery for the No. 1 overall pick, Tallon, the Florida Panthers general manager, found himself in the enviable position of having that what everyone else wanted: the top pick.

But is it what every GM wants? In this draft the answer might be, “Hardly.” No consensus No. 1 pick has emerged in this year’s crop of talent, though most scouts and services agree that a serious dropoff occurs after the first five selections in the late June draft in Philadelphia. The current pool of skill is forward-heavy, though steady, rugged defenseman Aaron Ekblad will be a key figure at the top and may even be a selection Tallon turns to.

It’s hard to forget about the Barrie Colts blueliner – at 6-foot-4, 216 pounds and owning a strong shot, very hard to do – but let’s set the defenseman aside for a moment and focus on another area of concern for the Panthers.

Tallon has let it be known that Florida wants to add five NHL-proven veterans in some form, and he’d like two of them to be defensemen. He also knows he needs to address the scoring situation because too many times this year the Panthers had a chance to take some pressure off their defense but couldn’t score. The Cats buzzed often but received little production near opposing goaltenders.

One way to fix the scoring is by trading that No. 1 pick that some GM surely covets and get a legit scoring winger in return. Tallon would also likely want to stay in the top five somehow, preferably the top three where the top-tier talent is. There may not be a clear No. 1, but that doesn’t mean a valuable asset isn’t there, perhaps even a future big-time scorer.

Tallon spoke highly of the two premier forwards mentioned in the draft – Kootenay center Sam Reinhart and Kingston center/left winger Sam Bennett – during the season’s final weekend.

“They’re good players. They’re different players. Bennett’s got a little more grit,” said Tallon, who likes physical skaters. “But Reinhart’s very smart. Every play’s got a purpose. He’s very intelligent, makes great passes and is a great scorer. A very intelligent player.”

If Tallon’s looking to get a top six forward and more in exchange for Ekblad at No. 1, three of the first five teams drafting make little sense. The rosters of Buffalo, Calgary and the New York Islanders don’t have much there worth grabbing, and none of those would part with any of their exceptional first-line talent, present or future. Florida’s not going to snag John Tavares or Sean Monahan.

But what about the Edmonton Oilers at No. 3?

No team has stockpiled top-scoring skill and ignored defense more than the Oilers, who drafted first overall in 2010 (top scorer Taylor Hall), 2011 (Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) and 2012 (Nail Yakupov). Edmonton also boasts Jordan Eberle (second in team scoring), David Perron (third) and Sam Gagner (fifth) up front.

Of those six forwards, only the 24-year-old Gagner, who’ll make $4.8 million next year, has a no trade/movement clause to consider, while Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle are all locked up until at least 2019 and will make $6 million each season. Perron will make $3.8 million over the next two years, and Yakupov will be an RFA after his entry-level contract expires next season.

Oilers GM Craig MacTavish gave coach Dallas Eakins a vote of confidence last week and said Edmonton is headed in the right direction. The one piece that’s missing is “a very high-end defenceman” to “move the dial of our team from the back end,” said MacTavish, who lost middling rearguard Anton Belov to the KHL last week. Also, there’s no Ryan Suter or Shea Weber in this year’s thin UFA class. Barring a big trade by MacTavish, that might leave the highly-touted Ekblad as the best option. MacTavish has said he’s willing to be patient and ice a young club, and that’s where Tallon’s leverage with Ekblad at No. 1 comes in.

There’s a little history here, too.

The night before the 2011 draft in Minnesota, a rumor floated around that Tallon was trying to move up from No. 3 to the top spot occupied by the Oilers in an effort to choose Nugent-Hopkins, but Tallon and then-Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini never announced anything. At least that’s how the rumor went. Perhaps it was just speculation and the rumor simply had no legs. Regardless, RNH went to the Oilers and Florida selected future Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau after Gabriel Landeskog.

If Tallon can successfully work a deal with the Oilers and bring in some bona fide scoring talent and swap first-round picks, Edmonton can take Ekblad, which would leave Buffalo to choose either of the Sams at No. 2, likely Reinhart. Florida could then add Bennett, whom many say is the most explosive scorer and best shooter in the draft. Or if the Sabres like Bennett, the Panthers could add the cerebral Reinhart, who scored 105 points in 60 games for the WHL’s Ice.

Tallon should suggest a deal with the Oilers that is a clear overpayment to the Panthers. After all, this isn’t a straight-up, talent-for-talent even swap. Florida has access to something Edmonton has shown a blind eye to for years: A top-pairing defenseman who is clearly the best blueliner in the draft; there’s not even a close second. For Florida’s sake, the Oilers will ultimately need to sweeten the deal somehow.

Sure,  there will be many trades out there for Tallon involving Florida’s No. 1 pick — if nothing else, he probably has a fantasy five list already lined up that he’s keeping an eye on — but start with MacTavish and the Oilers and go from there.

Part II: #FlaPanthers Tallon’s Pre-Draft Lottery Look

By Bill Whitehead

The most important number for Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon and the organization over the summer may be the number of minutes dished out for a fighting major.

Five.

If the Panthers are to have any fight in them next season, they will need to add significantly in the offseason. The number of NHL veterans Tallon wants to add to improve the team? Five.

Funny, that number plays a prominent role in this year’s draft. Tonight at 8 p.m. on NBC Sports, the initial fate of the Florida Panthers will be determined when the NHL holds its draft lottery. It will be tense, brief and decisive in affecting how the Panthers approach the summer.

Last year’s lottery, of course, proved to be a major letdown for Florida, who struggled to the league’s worst record in a truncated season. Gridded to pick No. 1 overall, Tallon sat and watched as the Colorado Avalanche climbed over the Cats to grab the top selection.

Instead of choosing homegrown defenseman Seth Jones, the Avs went offense and took standout center Nathan MacKinnon, who responded with 24 goals and 63 points a rookie season that will surely earn him Calder Trophy honors. Florida then selected Aleksander Barkov, who was having a fine first year before injuries during NHL and Olympic competition shut him down.

As for this draft, Tallon is letting members of the new ownership, the Violas, represent the club, but the GM will be watching, knowing his Cats will have a shot at another impact player. Just where is the question.

“Some of these guys aren’t ready yet either. We still have kids coming. We’re going to have another good draft this year, either 1, 2, 3 or 4 and 31, 32, 33 or 34. This draft is pretty good on the front end,” Tallon said over the weekend before Florida and Edmonton determined their pre-draft lottery slotting at Nos. 2 and 3, respectively. 

The Buffalo Sabres have the best shot at landing the top pick, and the Panthers find themselves in a nice position by picking no worse than third if last year’s bad luck is resurrected.

The top four picks are expected to be – in some order – Kootenay Ice center Sam Reinhart, Barrie Colts defenseman Aaron Ekblad, Oshawa Generals center Michael Dal Colle and Kingston Frontenacs center/left winger Samuel Bennett. That’s the top-four order ISS Hockey released on Tuesday.

After those talented skaters, watch for big German-born center Leon Draisaitl of Prince Albert and Swedish center William Nylander, son of former NHLer Michael Nylander, though the former seems to be a much better fit for the physical type of team Tallon is molding.

“This draft in the front end is pretty good and we have 10 picks next year. There are some wingers who are very good,” said Tallon, who added that some Panther prospects will have to move from center to wing if they want to move up the system.

“There are some good players in the draft in Europe and North America.”

But there are five really good ones. Five who put distance between their talents and a thinner group below them.

First, though, let’s see what happens tonight — and hope it’s better than a year ago.

Dale Tallon’s “State of the Cats”: Part I — Adding Talent

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE – The following is the first segment of a number of blogs that will feature an interview with Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon, who met with the media over the weekend to discuss a variety of issues – kind of a “State of the Cats” address, if you will. One major point, obviously, he made will be the onus of fixing the club, and it won’t necessarily be by watching the youth develop.

 

PART I: ADDING CATS

Specifically, Tallon said he will add to this team in the offseason, and the feeling was pervasive that it won’t be your run-of-the-mill low-level signings. The club has $30 million to spend over the summer, and the new ownership has made it clear the Panthers need to be pointed in the right direction and have some kind of buzz about them when camp opens.

“We’re going to fix it. We’ve got to surround these kids with some great players,” Tallon said, alluding to Florida’s deep pool of young talent.

While goaltending primarily is no longer an issue after the acquisition of Roberto Luongo – though a strong case could be made against Dan Ellis and his poor play since his arrival – Tallon said to expect changes on the blue line and up front.

“I’d like to bring in at least five (veterans). We have 11 kids in our system under 23 years old that are over 6-foot-2. So we have those coming. But we have to go in the free agent market or make a trade at the draft to get probably two defensemen that are experienced, good NHL defensemen,” he said.

On the offensive front, Florida finished the season with 188 goals, a 2.29 per game clip. Only Buffalo, at 1.82 per game before Sunday’s game, was worse, so a priority will also be placed in finding a winger who can alleviate some of the pressure that’s on the defense.

“You have to have a guy that can score goals and score easily. We’re at the bottom of the heap in scoring. We’ve had a lot of close games. We need a scorer to play with Barkov, we need a scorer to play with Bjugstad, we need one to play with Trocheck, Shore or Pirri. All of these assets we have, some are going to have to go to wing. They can’t all play center. It’s easier to go from center-to-wing than wing-to-center,” Tallon said.

He said that acquiring Luongo could be valuable at attracting talent, just like the organization did when they traded for defenseman Brian Campbell at the Minnesota draft in 2011.

“I think getting Louie here is going to help us close the deal on these free agents. It’s going to be a real asset for us. I think you sell winning and a desire to win. We now have the ability to put a team together to win, and that’s what players want. You can have the best facilities in the world; they just want to go somewhere where they win,” said Tallon.

“I was denied for two years in Chicago – a great city, an Original Six team – nobody wanted to come because the perception was they didn’t want to win. But that’s a perception that’s gone away, and it’s gone away here. We’re going to get the players that want to win.”

 

Part II…coming soon

#FlaPanthers 4, #Leafs 2: Bjugstad with a Big Night

By Bill Whitehead

SUNRISE, Fla.Nick Bjugstad and Brandon Pirri had big nights for the Panthers in Florida’s 4-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at BB&T Center on Thursday night.

Bjugstad assumed the team lead in scoring with two goals and an assist while Pirri celebrated his birthday by opening the game’s scoring as the Panthers won the season series from the Maple Leafs 3-1. Florida outscored Toronto 14-10 over the four games, with the Maple Leafs’ lone win a 6-3 home victory on Jan. 30.

Bjugstad assisted on Brad Boyes’ goal as the second period came to a close to give Florida (29-44-8) a 2-1 lead. He skated around behind Toronto goalie Drew MacIntyre, making his first NHL start, and fed Boyes, who tapped in the pass for his team-high 21st goal.

Bjugstad, a University of Minnesota alum who had keen interest in the Gophers’ Frozen Four semifinal against North Dakota following the game, scored from behind MacIntyre by fending off Toronto defenseman Paul Ranger for a goal 3:23 into the third. He soon added a shorthanded marker on a pass from Tomas Fleischmann to finish off a 2-on-1 rush less than three minutes later for a 4-1 edge.

“It was a good night. Boyes and (Sean) Bergenheim are great to play with. They talk to me a lot. They’re veterans and guide me through it. They’ve been very positive with me,” said Bjugstad.

The Minnesota native said Florida’s approach was to get pucks in deep and work behind MacIntyre.

“We were doing a lot of stuff down low tonight. We had to get pucks to the net. It was the first game for that goalie. We had to get shots on him. The pass (to Boyes), I saw him on the back door,” he said.

Pirri, a Toronto native, started the scoring when he whipped a shot over MacIntyre’s glove on the high side for a 1-0 lead at 6:06 of the first period. Linemate Quinton Howden set up the score with a pass from the boards to Pirri in the left circle, and Brian Campbell collected an assist on the tally.

“I had a lot of family back home who went to a local bar (to watch), so it was cool. It was good for us to get a good start, and we played well in the first,” said Pirri, who celebrated his 23rd birthday with his 13th goal.

Pirri, acquired from Chicago, has shown the offensive flair that the Cats desperately need.

“Obviously, getting points is nice, but the team won in the end. That’s what’s important. We’re just trying to build every game and get better,” he said.

Toronto tied it when Tyler Bozak fired in a shot off a pass from Jake Gardiner for his 19th goal, beating Florida goaltender Roberto Luongo over his blocker. James Van Riemsdyk also had an assist on the play for the Leafs (38-35-8), who were eliminated from a wildcard playoff spot when Columbus won in Dallas on Wednesday night. Ranger had Toronto’s other goal.

Luongo made 27 saves to earn the win while MacIntyre faced 37 shots from Florida, who closes its season Saturday night at home against playoff-bound Columbus.

NOTES: Pirri has 13 points in 17 games…Boyes has recorded three goals in his last five games…Bjugstad now has 38 points and leads the team in scoring, eclipsing Scottie Upshall’s 37. Bjugstad, who posted the first two-goal and three-point game of his career, is tied as the fourth-highest scoring NHL rookie…By winning its 67th meeting against Toronto, Florida improved to 27-28-7-5 against the Maple Leafs…Toronto starting goaltender Drew MacIntyre was selected in the fourth round by Detroit in the 2001 NHL Draft held at BB&T Center.

Panthers have ties to Toronto

The Florida Panthers (28-44-8) host Toronto (38-34-8) tonight here at BB&T Center (7:30, FSN). As I sit here being entertained by the Union College-Boston College Frozen Four semifinal – featuring Cats’ prospects Michael Matheson and Ian McCoshen – here are a few notes for Florida’s 81st game of the season:

 

FACING THE HOME TEAM: Six current Florida players and two coaches have their roots in Ontario, the home of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Captain Ed Jovanovski, Krys Barch, Jesse Winchester, Brad Boyes, Brian Campbell, Brandon Pirri and Erik Gudbranson are all Ontario natives, as are interim head coach Peter Horachek (Stoney Creek) and assistant John Madden (Barrie).

 

THE LONE GUY: Barring an incredible finish by Sean Bergenheim, Scottie Upshall or Nick Bjugstad, right winger Brad Boyes will end the season as the only Cat with a 20-goal effort. Boyes had 20 markers through 76 games and has been one of Florida’s most reliable scorers after being brought in on a tryout during camp. Bergenheim is the next highest goal-scorer with 16, then points leader Upshall (15 goals, 22 assists) and Bjugstad (14 goals).

 

ONE-TIMERS: Florida is 2-1 against Toronto, outscoring the Leafs 10-8 with six of the Toronto goals coming in a 6-3 home win on Jan. 30…Entering Thursday night’s game, Florida held an overall record of 26-28-7-5 against the Maple Leafs…The Panthers own a winning record against Toronto in South Florida, posting a 14-13-5-2 mark…Florida recalled G Scott Clemmensen earlier on Thursday…Florida had lost 283 man games before Thursday’s game…D Dmitry Kulikov is just one point shy of 100 NHL points…F Brandon Pirri has 12 points (6-6-12) in his last 16 games, including a four-game point streak from Mar. 31 to April 6 (3-2-5).

 

THIS DATE IN CATS’ HISTORY: Defenseman Bryan McCabe, currently the team’s manager of player development, tallied his 1,000th NHL point by recording an assist in a 4-3 loss to Tampa Bay on April 10, 2010.