As we settle in tonight to watch the Florida Panthers take on the Edmonton Oilers on Hometown Hockey, we think back to a time when the term “rebuild” had some uniformity attached to it. When there seemed to be a formula, with a definitive starting point and an end result.
Can you recall the formula? A team would lose for a few years, but through some high drafting and savvy managerial work, it would find its way back near the top again within a reasonable time frame? That was the outline that fans were willing to accept, and in Pittsburgh, Chicago and Los Angeles, that’s exactly what happened.
Hometown Hockey: Watch Panthers vs. Oilers 7:00 on City, or following along with the Honda Live Tracker here.
Today, however, there are likely more Buffalos than Chicagos; as many failed or struggling rebuilds occurring across the National Hockey League than examples of success:
• The New York Islanders — They’ve finally found some traction, thank goodness, but this is a franchise that missed the playoffs in 14 of the past 19 seasons. Is it about time the Isles were any good? Well, they haven’t won a playoff round since … wait for it … 1993.
• The Toronto Maple Leafs — The latest rebuild began with then-GM Brian Burke in 2009. Today, Toronto is still a middling, bubble team in the East, which translates to about 10th or 11th place out West. Meanwhile, Toronto has precious few elite pieces to show for five seasons of rebuilding, and only one playoff appearance in nine years.
• The Edmonton Oilers — The posterboy for wheel-spinning rebuilds, Edmonton has drafted good players in Round 1, mostly. But they’ve missed repeatedly in every other round, and their forays into free agency have produced very little help. If Edmonton misses the playoffs next season, they’ll tie the NHL record for 10 straight years outside the post-season.
Which brings us to the Florida Panthers, the other team that went 10 seasons between playoff appearances. Today, the Panthers find themselves on Hometown Hockey as an intriguing project under highly respected general manager Dale Tallon — the same guy who built today’s Blackhawks during his tenure as Chicago’s GM from 2005-09.
In his fifth season in Florida, Tallon has the Panthers in the hunt in the Eastern Conference. The Panthers won a weak Southeast Division a few years back, then the budget got tight and they fell back. The progress today, according to Tallon at least, has more chops.
“We have depth in our organization now, good young players on our farm in San Antonio, good young players in college we’ll sign here, to keep adding to the puzzle,” Tallon said. “I see it able to maintain itself for the next however many years. It looks very promising to me.”
Tallon built the Blackhawks, aided by franchise players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. The Hawks also wasted plenty of good drafts picks — Mikhail Yakubov, Pavel Vorobiev, Cam Barker, Jack Skille, Kyle Beach and more – some during Tallon’s tenure, and some before his arrival.
Can he build the same juggernaut in Florida, without generational players like Toews, Kane and Keith?
“Sure you can. It takes a little longer, that’s all,” Tallon said. “Tavares on the Islanders has grown into that role now, and he’s a hell of player. Datsyuk and Zetterberg (in Detroit), we’ve got (Nick) Bjugstad, (Aleksander) Barkov. We hope they become our guys.”
Can you do it without finishing in 30th place?
“Sure you can, but you’ve got to be ready,” Tallon said. “In Chicago, we picked third on Toews, but had him No. 1 on our list. You have to be prepared, but fortunate too. You win the lottery — we went from No. 5 to No. 1 to get Patrick Kane. Then you get Dustin Byfuglien in the eighth round, (Troy) Brouwer, with (the 214th) pick, (Niklas) Hjalmarsson in the fourth round…”
Rebuilds are all about scouting, because if you don’t build a team through the draft, then you never have a promising enough lineup to attract the unrestricted free agents that top these projects off. In Chicago’s case, it was Marian Hossa.
Tallon smartly snapped up an ‘A’ goalie in Roberto Luongo for very little (Jacob Markstrom and Shawn Mathias), took Brian Campbell off of Chicago’s payroll to give the Panthers a first-pairing, power play QB, and moved out every veteran who didn’t want to be part of his rebuild.
“I’m just doing it the way I know how,” he said. “There are certain teams that I admire how they do things, and I’ve tried to put my own spin on them. I have a philosophy — sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t — but … you have to stick with your plan, no matter where you’re at. You can’t be influenced by outside agencies. Wherever you are (in the timeline) you apply your skills, work your ass off, and stick to your guns.”