On January 21, the Florida Panthers were on a six-game winning streak, playing some of their best hockey and looked primed to end a playoff hex.
On February 16, the Florida Panthers are back to where they usually are, looking up at a playoff spot and in a death spiral of which they cannot get out of.
In their seven losses since the All-Star break, one of the best offenses in hockey has barely mustered eight goals. They’re 23rd in CF%, 28th in xGF%, 27th in high danger CF%, two for 27 on the power play, and their high shooting percentage is regressing. It sure looks like they will miss the playoffs for the 21st time in 26 seasons, which is an unconscionable level of ineptitude and failure.
At one point, arrows were aimed at past decisions that are now well in the rearview mirror. Then, it was coaching, followed by goaltending. Every one of the supposed “core problems” has been addressed, but the results haven’t changed. There is one constant in an organization where everything changes at the drop of a pin, and that is Dale Tallon. For all the good he has done, for all the good decisions he has made, the failures of this team in such a high stakes season can all be traced back to him.
After last season, it was abundantly clear the Panthers fundamentally needed to change the structure of their defense corps. Aside from the addition of an aging Anton Stralman and giving Riley Stillman minutes, the problems from past seasons remain.
Aaron Ekblad has been looking for a consistent partner since 2016 and hasn’t gotten one, Mike Matheson’s regression since he signed his long contract has been stark, and there has been no development of prospects to fill the void – if there were any high-level defense prospects to even begin with.
Aleksander Barkov cannot do everything on his own; he needs help down the middle. Vincent Trocheck has never regained his early career form and too often tries to make things happen on his own. When he does, he makes mistakes, many of them fatal. His future as a second-line center is certainly in question, and behind him, Noel Acciari has barely played center and Dominic Toninato and Brian Boyle are not long-term solutions.
Supposed future of the organization centers such as Henrik Borgstrom and Denis Malgin have had their growth stunted with poor management both in Sunrise and Springfield, and it doesn’t look like they will reach their potential in the Panthers organization. That too is an organizational failure laid directly at the feet of the GM.
Adding Sergei Bobrovsky seemed like a no-brainer in the offseason considering the Panthers desperate need at the position, but his play has been a disaster, not solely because of him but he is nowhere near living up to his contract; one the Panthers will be dealing with for many years to come.
Other contracts like those of Mike Matheson, Keith Yandle (though not signed by Tallon) and even those of Connolly and Stralman could be anchors around the neck of the team even as the cap goes up. Many of those decisions fall at the feet of Dale Tallon. And it’s not as if he has injuries as an excuse this year; the Panthers have been pretty healthy.
Outside of one season, he has been at the helm of a franchise that has made the playoffs twice in ten years. With that hit rate, Tallon would have lost his job ages ago in most places. Thanks to his personal resume, history with the team and mismanagement around him, Tallon has been able to keep his job. But if this season ends without the playoffs, which looks likely, he does not deserve to keep his job. If the best coach in modern NHL history can’t get the Panthers to play another way when Plan A has repeatedly failed, it’s possible he doesn’t have the tools to succeed.
Tallon doesn’t have many options at the trade deadline to fix these systemic issues, even with rumors that Matheson and Trocheck are on the block. They’ve dug themselves such a hole that it’s unlikely any moves will be enough to get them out, rentals or not. If Andy Greene is worth a second-round pick (even in 2021), what would someone like Sami Vatanen be worth, or better yet, someone with term? A team with this much talent on the ice and behind the bench shouldn’t be resorting to desperate trade deadline moves to barely scrape into the postseason.
A failure of this magnitude will force Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu to ask serious questions about the direction of the franchise. They can find a GM to sell off everything, including Barkov and Huberdeau and rebuild from scratch, which would be extremely risky. They can find a new GM who will find a way to build around the core but won’t be loyal to players who need to find new homes, which isn’t an exact science. They can also stay the course, which doesn’t seem palatable to the marketplace at this stage.
With each passing day, it seems more and more evident that a change at the top of the Panthers organization is necessary. When a critical failure for the Panthers has seemingly been identified, the change has been made but the story has been the same. Dale Tallon is the one constant.
If this season ends the way it is heading, the Panthers may have no choice but to move on from Dale Tallon. High stakes might lead to high rewards, but massive consequences too.