Florida Panthers gearing up to spend big on free-agent market

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Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon, left, and Joel Quenneville, right, pose for a photograph after Quenneville was introduced as the new Panthers head coach at a news conference in Sunrise, Fla. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

VANCOUVER — Dale Tallon has a message for impending free agents: Bring your sunscreen.

The Florida Panthers general manager has more than $20 million of free cap space and he intends to put it to good use. The next step towards his ambitious July 1 starts when the free-agent interview period opens Sunday and Tallon is currently making plans to carve out one-on-one time with impending UFA’s during that window to sell them on the merits of his organization.

“Well, I hope those people have a lot of sunscreen,” Tallon said Thursday. “Come down to Florida, it’s nice and hot.”

It’s no secret that Florida has interest in the two biggest names on the UFA market: Winger Artemi Panarin and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

But, speaking generally about his free-agent needs, Tallon didn’t sound like someone who would stop his shopping there. His biggest priority is getting the team’s goals-against down next season and there are other options who could help the Panthers improve defensively.

Tallon anticipates his first big free-agent catch — new head coach Joel Quennevile, brought over in April — will also help in that regard and he plans to use Quenneville as part of the recruiting pitch to free agents.

“I want them to get to know me,” said Tallon. “I want to sell our wares and tell them where we’re headed and what we’re doing in the marketplace. Yeah, I’d love them to know Q and I face to face.”

The rest of his pitch is relatively straightforward: The Panthers aren’t too far off after registering 96 points two seasons ago and 86 this past year. They’ve brought in Quenneville to improve the team’s structure and hope to add impact players around a core that already includes Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Aaron Ekblad.

Then there are ancillary benefits like fantastic weather and the state’s favourable tax situation.

“I think it’s the fact that we’re committed,” said Tallon. “We have a solid culture there now. We’ve got a coach in place for the next five years. [Owner] Vinnie Viola’s committed, we’re staying there. We have got stability all through the organization and we’re committed to winning and those are the things that we want to say, regardless of where we’re located.

“You could be located anywhere. If you’re not committed, it doesn’t matter. We have to let people know and show them that we are committed.”

Tallon is still waiting to hear from veteran goaltender Roberto Luongo on his future plans before free agency opens. There are three years remaining on the 12-year, $64-million contract the 40-year-old originally signed in Vancouver, but after being slowed by injuries in recent seasons it is unclear if he intends to continue playing.

Tallon believes a decision could come as soon as this weekend — and certainly before July 1 — but wants to give the player space to work through everything.

“We’ve got to give him his due and let him [decide]. It’s a tough decision — I’ve gone through it — and he’s been through the grind for a long time and it’s hard to say no to it,” said Tallon, who last spoke with Luongo earlier in the week. “We had dialogue then we gave him space, a little dialogue, space. A little more dialogue. I don’t want to put any pressure on him. Let it be his decision. We owe him that much.”

Depending on where things go with Luongo — and whether he retires or goes on long-term injured reserve, should he stop playing — the Panthers could wind up with even more money to spend in free agency.

They plan to be aggressive shoppers with every available dollar. The Panthers are all-in in a way we haven’t yet seen before.

“I’m anxious to see where it all comes down to, what we do,” said Tallon. “I know we’re going to get some [free agents], it’s just a matter of who and how many and where it puts our budget.

“But we’re committed to spending what we have to spend to get to the cap.”

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