Almost simultaneously on Wednesday night, Florida Panthers GM Tom Rowe appeared on Sporstnet’s The Fan 590 while Panthers beat writer George Richards guested on the Marek vs. Wyshynski podcast.
Think Florida will be a team to watch in 2016-17?
It’s been a season of change for a Panthers club that arguably just finished its most successful season since reaching the Stanley Cup final in 1996. And now the words “Stanley Cup” are being uttered by the people in and around the organization. In early July.
“They expect a Stanley Cup and we have a duty to bring the best team possible to our fans,” Rowe said on The Fan, referring to team owner Vincent Viola and Vice Chairman Doug Cifu.
The changes the team experienced are a lot to take in, especially after winning their division last year. GM Dale Tallon was reassigned and Rowe replaced him, beloved team trainers and equipment staff were let go, and the Panthers were among the most active in free agency and the trade market. They dealt away Erik Gudbranson, signed Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and James Reimer, and gave long-term contracts to Aaron Ekblad, Reilly Smith and Vincent Trochek. Oh, and they trotted out new jerseys with a new logo.
Got all that?
“We thought we were positioned well financially to take a run at a couple guys,” said Rowe Wednesday. “We were looking to get a lot more mobile and I thought we did that.”
Despite the successful season, Florida lost in the first round of the playoffs to the New York Islanders.
“There was a sour taste getting knocked out in the first round,” said Rowe. “The phones have been very busy with season ticket sales…the fans are truly excited [about next season.]”
Another intriguing move by the club was acquiring two goaltenders when Roberto Luongo is firmly entrenched as the starter and has a contract that lasts until 2022. They traded for Reto Berra on June 23 and signed the aforementioned Reimer once the free agency window opened.
“They got the insurance first [Berra], then got the guy they wanted [Reimer],” said Miami Herald writer Richards on MvsW.
Luongo was playing so well early last season that he began getting support for a Vezina Trophy win. Braden Holtby took home the award after a dominant season with the Washington Capitals.
“Luongo allowed [Panthers] players to make mistakes early in the season,” said Rowe. “If you don’t have a good goaltender, that’s not gonna happen.”
Whether Luongo or Reimer is the goalie of the future in Florida is yet to be seen. The expansion draft rules dictate they can only protect one next June. Another behind-the-scenes move the Panthers made was to hire Loungo’s brother Leo as a goaltending consultant for their AHL club.
All of this change begs the question: who’s in charge? Tallon still has influence over personnel decisions but has moved up further in the organization. The front office has been filled out and analytics are clearly a focus for the team.
“Dale Tallon deserves a lot of credit because he drafted these kids,” Rowe said in reference to the players they re-signed.
Tallon, for example, was behind the trade the brought Reilly Smith, along with Marc Savard’s contract, to Florida in exchange for Jimmy Hayes. He also drafted Ekblad and Aleksander Barkov.
“I think [Tallon] was still steering everything [in 2015-16],” said Richards.
But no more. At least not in the same fashion.
Of all the player movement, former third-overall pick Jonathan Huberdeau has yet to be extended despite just one more year remaining on his contract. He is due to become an RFA at the end of next season.
“I’ve been told they know what it takes to get a deal done [with Huberdeau],” said Richards.
Though the Panthers now are just over $3 million under the salary cap, their willingness to give term to players may go a long way to showing others that a run to the Cup is not as far down the road as it has been in years past.
“This is going to be a very quick defence, a fast break kind of team,” said Richards. “You add Demers and they feel they have as good a defence as anybody in the league.”