It was a year ago today, February 28, 2011. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a long time but that one day had to seem like a year itself for Florida Panthers fans. It was on that day that Dale Tallon did what had to be done. He took Old Yeller out back and put it out of it’s misery. Everyone knew it had to happen but no one wanted to really admit it. But Tallon realized that in order to create a new culture for his team, he needed to create a new team. So he sold. He sold like no general manager in the history of this franchise has ever done.
He kept some pieces he thought had enough talent and character to be part of the solution: Stephen Weiss, Jason Garrison, Dmitry Kulikov, Mike Weaver, and Shawn Matthias. Everyone else with a modicum of value? Gone. Chris Higgins, we hardly knew you. Same to you, Dennis Wideman. Bryan Allen, appreciate the effort. Radek Dvorak, thanks for the memories.
What was left was not pretty. With the roster almost completely gutted, the Panthers iced a team that featured the likes of Clay Wilson, Tim Kennedy, Niclas Bergfors and Joe Callahan. How bad was it? The Cats became the answer to a trivia question when they gave Hugh Jessiman, the last player chosen in the first round of the 2003 NHL Entry Draft to play a NHL game, his first ice time at the highest level.
The results were about what you would have expected. The Panthers won just four of their remaining games and finished the regular season by losing 10 of their last 11. Think that South Florida doesn’t have any hockey fans? The fact that attendance was still measured in thousands and not hundreds is testament to the contrary. Despite the effort given by those who were still around, it was pretty tough to watch.
But it put Panthers management right where they wanted to be. With roughly $30 million to spend, Tallon, along with assistant GM Mike Santos, started to put together his vision for what this hockey team should be. From the draft day acquisition of Brian Campbell to the trading of fan favorite David Booth for Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson, he put together a team that could compete without the benefit of a Jonathan Towes or Patrick Kane like he had as GM of the Chicago Blackhawks.
And those results have certainly speak for themselves. One year to the day, the Florida Panthers are in first place in the Southeast Division and poised to break 10 season playoff drought. Sure, their place in the division is partly due to the unexpected struggles of the Washington Capitals but I don’t think you’ll be able to find a Panther fan with any sympathies for their division rivals. First place and the Florida Panthers haven’t been used in the same sentence for quite awhile before this season so, they’ll take it anyway they can get it.
But if being in first place in the division for much of the season hasn’t been satisfying enough then Monday’s trading deadline sure had to be. Instead of watching players being shipped out in rapid fire succession, Panthers fans got to sit back, relax and be content with that the moves made over the weekend, when the team acquired Jerred Smithson and Wojtek Wolski in separate deals, will be enough to have their team playing playoff hockey come April.
And that’s what this last year has brought South Florida hockey fans, contentment. Not only because you can talk about the playoffs but because the moves made last year allowed this team to put the rebuild ahead of schedule. Think about it. The Panthers have gotten this far without names like Huberdeau, Howden, Markstrom or Bjugstad even being in the picture.
So enjoy this Panthers fans. After last year, you’ve earned it. And if the prospects coming up in the next few seasons are as advertised? Get used to it. Trade deadline sales should become a thing of the past.
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Topics: Clay Wilson, Dale Tallon, David Booth, Dmitry Kulikov, Florida Panthers, Hugh Jessiman, Jacob Markstrom, Jason Garrison, Jerred Smithson, Joe Callahan, Jonathan Huberdeau, Marco Sturm, Mikael Samuelsson, Mike Weaver, Nick Bjugstad, Quinton Howden, Shawn Matthias, Stephen Weiss, Tim Kennedy, Wojtek Wolski