When a team loses on the scale as the Florida Panthers do, management is naturally to blame. Bad management decisions compound themselves multiple times over if left unchecked.
Before Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu bought the Florida Panthers in 2013, problems could all be linked to money or lack thereof. For a solid decade, the team spent the bare minimum necessary, and not a penny more. When Viola and Cifu arrived, there was hope that at the very least, the spending problems would come to end, and in many ways they have. But money, as this past season proved, can’t buy you success. As it turns out, money is the least of the Panthers’ problems. In fact, the endemic front-office dysfunction that has defined Panthers history is actually worse than anyone could have ever imagined, and came about sooner into Viola’s and Cifu’s tenure than previously known.
This stems from an item in a column written by The Province’s Patrick Johnston, out of Vancouver. Buried in the story after notes about the Canucks victory over the Wild is a segment about Dale Tallon’s exit from Florida. There are many different notes about the exploits of the front office since 2013, and all of them paint a picture of dysfunction that is deeper and more damning than ever suspected before, all stemming from ownership decisions that spectacularly backfired.
Ostensibly, this is a piece designed to show how bad Dale Tallon was and highlight some of his more infamous decisions (Dave Bolland, Lawson Crouse, Erik Gudbranson) and highlight how Steve Werier and Eric Joyce made better decisions when they were in charge, or would have done if they were in charge earlier. That might be the intended interpretation, but a closer look reveals a front office fighting itself with dueling camps of thinking and no willingness to work with one another at all, and an owner not willing to settle on any one vision or direction for more than a minute.
Werier and Joyce weren’t initially in hockey ops when they were hired, but worked their way into their roles through a well-timed combination of managing up and taking advantage of Viola’s purported uncertainty with Tallon’s management style. As Johnston explains, via The Province:
“Viola quickly grew skeptical of the GM he’d inherited. Tallon’s style was to run everything himself. There may have been people listed in other roles, but he wouldn’t let anyone make any decisions. Like a paranoid tin-pot dictator, decisions it would seem were made on a whim.”
If this is true, and there’s no reason to believe it’s not, then why didn’t Viola make a move to remove Tallon earlier? He had an opportunity to do so after the disastrous 2013-14 season where the Panthers were the second-worst team in the league as he also learned about what he was inheriting. Not coincidentally at the end of that season, the Panthers fired then AGM Mike Santos and by October, Joyce was managing the Panthers AHL operations.
Thus set up a front office in which Tallon, previously largely independent, now had someone who could be viewed as eyes from ownership working directly underneath him. This came after an offseason in which Tallon spent lavishly (and poorly in many cases) on Dave Bolland, Jussi Jokinen among others, but the set up almost inevitably created friction between Tallon and ownership, beginning the process of muddying the front office waters in an untenable way.
As Werier also gained more influence, this friction began creating even bigger heat by the infamous 2015 draft, in which Tallon drafted Lawson Crouse and the analytics crew was (rightfully) against it. There were dueling draft boards from both sides, and that was only going to end up in one place: massive conflict.
“That board is the talk of urban legend but among other major differences from Florida’s board under Tallon, this one recommended Barzal, Connor and Konecny in the top 10, each far above Lawson Crouse, who Tallon selected at 11.
“There were huge battles between Tallon’s scouts and Viola’s new staff in the war room. In 2016 some of Tallon’s old scouts got in a shouting match over Adam Fox not being good and just having “good analytics” because he “played with good players” on the national development team.”
This is not a picture of a functioning front office, no matter who ends up being correct about player evaluation. It’s the sign of a front office fighting itself with no agreement, no sign of working together, and a culture of distrust. Good teams find harmony in the war room even after disagreements about players, and in this case, there was no harmony. There weren’t even token indications of a collaborative process, or performative attempts at one either.
Even as Werier and Joyce won the power struggle after 2016, the front office structure with them having the final say and Tom Rowe as GM as “hockey man cover” was also destined to not last, not just because the structure itself is built on a house of cards (and there are legitimate questions as to why a figurehead “hockey man cover” was needed at all) but also because “[Rowe] proved far more erratic than was expected,” which is an understatement, as Reilly Smith found out the hard way.
These anecdotes perfectly elucidate front office structures changing on a whim, with no guiding philosophy, long term plan, or belief that underpins them. The timeline when spelled out is even more jarring:
2014- Dale Tallon operating as he had under past ownership.
2015- Eric Joyce and Steve Werier now have hockey operations titles and influence, operating underneath/parallel to Tallon.
2016- Joyce and Werier are co-AGM’s with ultimate decision making power, with Tom Rowe operating as a figurehead GM, and Tallon is “President of Hockey Ops.”
2017- Werier and Rowe are fired, Tallon is back as GM.
In four years, one could argue that there were four different front office structures and philosophies, which is no way to run a hockey team. There’s no sense of identity, patience, or plan, which are all fundamental in setting up winning organizations. Since 2017, there have been wild swings between spending and not spending from year to year too. And after a season in which ownership spent big on free agents and Joel Quenneville, now Tallon is on his way out and ownership is mandating another salary cut. For all that Viola and Cifu admire about the Tampa Bay Lightning, they don’t seem to have any clue as to how to bring those successful structures to the other side of Alligator Alley.
Without that consistency of vision, patience, or a plan, the Panthers will never be anything more than they currently are. It turns out that Viola and Cifu’s twitchy trigger finger came around far sooner in their tenure than anticipated, and that insecurity has never left their decision-making process. Neither Tallon nor the Computer Boys had any hope of success with ownership never giving either a reasonable chance to succeed, and it stands to reason that whoever the next GM is might have to look over his shoulder too, just in case Viola and Cifu end up second-guessing themselves again.
People outside of the small Panthers orbit are starting to take notice:
The Panthers organization is at a crossroads. Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau are closer to the end of their fantastic contracts than the beginning, and they haven’t won a whole lot here. Losing them would be catastrophic, and right now, one wouldn’t blame them for wanting out. They should be pillars of success for this franchise, yet neither has had an iota of support from management in giving them the tools to succeed. At a bare minimum, they deserve a plan from above that at the very least is seen through, rather than thrown out after a losing streak or someone whispering in Viola’s ear at just the right time.
Under Vinnie Viola and Doug Cifu, coaches, scouts, managers, philosophies, and plans are discarded on a daily basis for something new, until they themselves are thrown to the curb for the next hunch or gut feeling. That’s no way to run a hockey team or a business unless you want them to be a consistent and perpetual failure.
Impatience and indecision have always been Panthers’ staples. Under this ownership group, there’s been more of both than ever before, and it’s only led to more of the only thing the Panthers are ever consistent at: losing.