A year ago at this time the Florida Panthers were in a much better place.
They were coming off their best regular season in franchise history, and although a back-breaking John Tavares overtime goal had just kicked them out of the playoffs after six games in Round 1, things were looking up as the Panthers’ young core had taken a giant leap forward. Heading into 2016-17, they were a popular pick to finish high up the Atlantic Division standings.
Needless to say, Panthers general manager Dale Tallon was a disappointed participant Saturday at the NHL Draft Lottery in Toronto.
And in some ways, a surprising one too.
A quick recap of the Panthers tumultuous season: Before it started, Tallon had been moved out of the GM’s chair into an upper management role that few interpreted as a true promotion, rather the team moving towards a more “progressive,” (see: analytics) approach. Head coach Gerard Gallant, a Tallon hire, was fired at the end of November, citing “philosophical differences” with the organization. But after a 35-36-11 season, and failing to qualify for the post-season, interim head coach and GM Tom Rowe was reassigned and Tallon was re-instated as general manager.
It’s certainly a good thing to have a GM with Tallon’s track record running the show, but considering the organization’s shift in the past year, will he have to conduct his business any differently now to align with the franchise’s more analytics-minded philosophy?
“I don’t see any difference,” Tallon told Sportsnet Saturday in Toronto prior to the lottery. “We’re going to do what we do. And analytics is a part of it. It’s not the end all. We use it all the time in different categories.
“I think the perception was that’s solely what we did the last year or so, but that’s not true. And we’re gonna just do what we can do to be better every day and if it takes analytics we’ll use analytics, but it’s just a part of the process. It’s not the end all — we’ve used a lot of different factors.”
To be fair, every team uses analytics to some degree — you have to if you’re going to survive in today’s game. But it’s worth asking if Tallon would have pulled the trigger on some of the moves the Panthers made in the past year had he still been calling the shots from the GM’s chair. Erik Gudbranson, a big, burly defenceman drafted by Tallon, was dealt to the Canucks for 20-year-old centre Jared McCann. Pending UFA Dmitri Kulikov was traded to the Buffalo Sabres for the more offensively inclined Mark Pysyk. Keith Yandle and Jason Demers, two more puck-moving defencemen, were then added via free agency to complete the blue-line makeover. The Panthers then signed free agent Jonathan Marchessault for two years at $750,000.
Florida’s summer moves were widely applauded in the analytics community.
Tallon also values size and strength, which isn’t exactly a priority in the analytics community. While we watch the Edmonton Oilers charge through the Stanley Cup Playoffs after adding some size and grit in Milan Lucic, Adam Larsson and Patrick Maroon, none of whom are favoured by numbers-based analysis, we should point out that the Panthers dropped off by nearly 300 hits this season from last. You, obviously, need a solid base of skill to lead the way if you’re going to win in the NHL, but there’s still something to be said for the “heavy hockey” element, which can’t always be measured.
It’s something Tallon still believes in, which could perhaps have an impact on the team’s moves this summer.
“I really put lot of weight into (intangibles), it’s important,” Tallon told John Shannon in one of Sportsnet’s Facebook Live sessions on Saturday. “Character plus more character… size, speed, skill, that’s our mantra and always has been wherever I’ve been. It’s important we get good people because it’s a game after all, but you have to have quality people to really want to go through these wars together.”
First, the team has to hire a new coach, which will be an interesting decision considering what’s happened in the past year. The Panthers have been linked to ex-Canadiens coach Michel Therrien, as well as University of Denver head coach Jim Montgomery, among others. The two offer completely different outlooks. Therrien represents an experienced, more old-school approach, while the 47-year-old Montgomery would be an NHL rookie, and certainly someone used to working with young players coming from the NCAA.
The Panthers plan to make a hiring before June’s draft.
“We’ve started the process in the last couple of weeks,” said Tallon. “We’ve interviewed a half dozen guys, probably going to do another half a dozen or so. We’re looking for a guy that’s a good communicator, is a good teacher, a modern guy, a contemporary-type guy that can deal with these millenials and Generation Z, whatever that means. That’s what we’re looking for, somebody that has a little experience, but who also is very knowledgeable about how to deal with young players because we have a young core.”
Does that mean the Panthers are more likely to bring in a rookie NHL head coach from another league?
“There’s that possibility and we’re interviewing anything from… head coaches in all leagues, college, junior, American League, assistant coaches in the NHL and also some past head coaches in the NHL, so it’s a diverse group and it’s been fun so far and we’re going to take our time and do the right thing and what’s best for our franchise.”
Whoever the Panthers hire as their next head coach, it’s a decision that needs to stick for the long run. This team has gone through five different head coaches in the past nine years. The two coaches who led the team to the playoffs were fired the very next season. Changing the leadership that often, especially with a young team, is not a recipe for sustained success.
Despite the front-office upheaval, there is plenty of reason for optimism with the Panthers given their exciting young core and the unlikelihood of sustaining as many injuries to key players as they did a year ago.
The Panthers are seeking balance in the lineup and consistency at the top. Tallon is in a terrific position to help them accomplish both.