When a team like the Chicago Blackhawks completes the turnaround from bottom-feeder to Cup-contender, generally the team’s general manager deserves a lot of credit. That isn’t what happened in Chicago, however; instead, Dale Tallon was demoted and replaced by Stan Bowman.
Fortunately for Tallon, however, the owners of the Florida Panthers give him more credit for his success in Chicago than his own team did, and thus they decided to name him general manager of their club a few days ago, replacing Randy Sexton, whose future at this point is unclear. It’s a decision that appears to have gone over well among Panthers fans, but there are things that worry me.
For starters, Tallon spent a lot of dollars on free agents during his time with the Blackhawks, and there’s a trend to those moves that I’m not convinced is encouraging.
Tallon made four significant free agent acquisitions after being named G.M. in the summer of 2005. Here’s the list:
- Nikolai Khabibulin – four years at $6.75 million per season
- Adrian Aucoin – four years at $4.0 million per season
- Martin Lapointe – three years at $2.4 miilion per season
- Jaroslav Spacek – One year at $2.25 million per season
Those dollar figures may not seem like much now, but one must remember that they occurred immediately after the NHL lockout, with the salary cap set at $39.0 million. Under today’s cap, those deals would be equivalent to the following:
- Khabibulin – $9.83 million per season
- Aucoin – $5.83 million per season
- Lapointe – $3.5 million per season
- Spacek – $3.28 million per season
Fortunately for Tallon, the cap skyrocketed over the coming years, because those deals could have completely handcuffed the Blackhawks. Nikolai Khabibulin had won a cup with Tampa Bay prior to the lockout (and had been brilliant in the playoffs) but Tallon made him far and away the highest paid goalie in the league – paid a full 25% more than Martin Brodeur, who sat number two on the list – despite the fact that Khabibulin’s 0.910 SV% ranked him 18th among NHL starters in 2003-04. Using either regular save percentage or even-strength save percentage, Khabibulin had over the last few years slotted into the second tier of NHL goalies: somewhere between eight and 15. Based on the Cup win, however, Tallon chose to pay Khabibulin like an elite goaltender.
As for the others, Aucoin was coming off a career year with the Islanders, one in which he’d posted his highest goals, assists, and point totals, Lapointe was coming off two ugly years in Boston, while Spacek had established himself as a useful NHL defenceman with Columbus.
The Khabibulin and Lapointe deals were overpays from day one, but Tallon got very unlucky with Khabibulin, who crashed and burned out the gate and developed chronic injury problems that had not been evident earlier in his career. Lapointe’s play improved from his time in Boston but not enough to justify the money he got. Aucoin, coming off three good seasons, struggled through injury and underperformed before being dealt to Calgary a few years later. Spacek played well before being dealt to Edmonton.
So Tallon made one good signing (Spacek) one decent signing which backfired because of unforeseeable injury (Aucoin), one bad signing which got worse thanks to unforeseeable injury (Khabibulin) and one bad signing that stayed bad (Lapointe). The signings represented a huge infusion of cash, but had negligible impact on the standings.
Tallon was content to make minor tweaks to the Blackhawks over the next two years rather than inject more money into the team, and so he signed a series of small fish, none of which ever amounted to much in Chicago. Denis Arkhipov, Peter Bondra, Yanic Perreault and Robert Lang were all one-and-done, with only Lang having much impact during his single season stay. The only long-term player acquired via free agency over these years was Brent Sopel.
After two years of mostly quiet summer shopping, Tallon returned to signing big name players, acquiring two: Brian Campbell and Cristobal Huet. Like Khabibulin, Huet had a good if not overwhelming track record, but Tallon didn’t pay quite as much for his newest goaltender as he had for Khabibulin, perhaps in part because Khabibulin was still on the payroll. Once again, he was rather unlucky in his choice of goaltender; the Huet signing has been an unmitigated disaster from the first time he put on a Blackhawks uniform.
Tallon also overpaid for Campbell, offering him an eight year deal worth just over $7.1 million annually. His cap hit currently ranks fourth among NHL defencemen.
Tallon would be fired the following year after making his best free agent signing – Marian Hossa, at a lengthy term but modest dollar figure. However, even including Hossa in this discussion, of the five long-term, big-dollar deals Tallon signed, four of them either represented overpayments or failures. It’s a track record that would make me leery of putting him in charge of my team’s free agent recruitment.