Nobody was busier than Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon this past deadline. The erstwhile Blackhawks executive went about actively deconstructing his team, despite the fact their -12 goal differential and 59 points through 62 games had them within spitting distance of the post-season. With about a quarter of the season left to go, Tallon clearly made the decision to throw in the towel by moving Michael Frolik, Cory Stillman, Chris Higgins, Radek Dvorak, Bryan McCabe, Bryan Allen and Dennis Wideman.
With the exception of Niclas Bergfors, Jack Skille, Ryan Carter and Sergei Samsonov, the returns were universally prospects or draft picks. David Pacan, Jake Hauswirth and Evan Oberg were added to the stable of kids while the Panthers draft choices now include two 2011 fifth rounds pick (CAR, ATL), a 2011 third round pick (WSH) and a 2013 third round pick (VAN). One can bet that the likes of Stephen Weiss, Tomas Vokoun, Rostislev Olesz and Marty Reasoner will be up for bid during the upcoming draft in June as well.
Tallon is going scorched earth, which is somewhat surprising since the Panthers were technically in the middle of a “rebuild” already and merely mediocre rather than terrible. To understand his thinking, it makes sense to investigate his past.
Tallon started in the Chicago Blackhawks organization in 1998 and was their director of personnel until 2002, at which point he became the assistant GM. He became the head guy in 2005 and was there just long enough to see the team rise back up to contender status before he was canned in favor or Bowman the younger.
One of the more popular notions about the Blackhawks recent success is that it was based on outstanding scouting/drafting. And while the 2010 championship squad was based largely on homegrown Chicago players, the truth is the organization didn’t garner all those players through savvy, exacting scouting or procurement methods – it was more a sawed-off shotgun approach, with the added benefit of being terrible for a long time.
Between 2000 and 2005, the Blackhawks had 76 draft picks, 24 of them in the top-100. For context, the average team over that span would have had 52 total and 18 in the top-100 without adding or deleting any picks. Between 2001-2002 alone, the Hawks picked 28 different players in the entry draft. In 2004, they boasted a mind-boggling 17 picks over nine rounds. In 2005, it was “just” 12 – although the draft had fallen from nine rounds to seven, so that probably had something to do with it. All told, the only draft year during that span in which the club had a “normal” number of draft picks was 2002 with nine – otherwise, they were loaded up.
If draft picks are lottery tickets, then it makes sense to get as many as possible to increase the chances of a winning ticket. That’s essentially what the Blackhawks did with varying degrees of success during Tallon’s early days as an executive in the organization. In the 2000 and 2001 drafts, despite having so many choices, Chicago yielded only two legitimate NHLers: Tuomo Ruutu (2001, 1st round – later dealt for Andrew Ladd) and Craig Anderson (2001, 3rd round), although neither would end up doing much in Blackhawks colors. The following two years would be far more fruitful, with the club picking Anton Babchuk (2002, 1st round), Duncan Keith (2002, 2nd round), James Wisniewski (2002, 5th round), Adam Burish (2002, 9th round), Brent Seabrook (2003, 1st round), Lasse Kukonen (2003, 5th round) and Dustin Byfuglien (2003, 8th round). The monster 2004 draft would yield Cam Barker (1st round), Dave Bolland (2nd round), Bryan Bickell (2nd round), Jake Dowell (5th round) and Troy Brouwer (7th round). By the time Tallon rose to power in 2005, the team had a foundation for their future cup winner, although it would take time to sort the wheat from the chaff as well as two more seasons of terrible results to pick up the final pieces in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane*.
*Notably, Kane was the last Hawks draft pick to make the NHL so far and he was selected four years ago.
In looking over the Blackhawks draft record over the first half of the past decade, a couple of things strike me:
1.) Outside of the first few picks, the draft seems exceptionally random.
2.) The Florida Panthers first draft (drafts?) looks suspiciously similar to some of the monsters the hawks had during his time there.
These two items are related: if Tallon thinks talent is concentrated at the top and then randomly distributed throughout the rest of the draft, it would make sense to burn the Panthers to the foundation because it allows him to gather more draft assets while simultaneously stinking (and improving his first round draft position). This is no doubt the attitude of most “rebuilding GM’s”, although none seem to take the strategy to heart quite like Tallon. Last summer, for instance, the newly appointed FLA GM sold aggressively in June, garnering 13 picks, including 10 (!) inside the top-100. Contrast this, for example, to the still rebuilding Edmonton Oilers who had just 18 picks in 2007, 2008 and 2009 combined.
As such, one can expect Tallon to try to convert as many assets at the upcoming draft(s) into picks as possible, although he will likely be limited by the fact that the Panthers will have to spend some $30 million just to reach the cap floor next year. It will be interesting to see if his dive for the bottom results in another elite club staffed with both high-end and supporting talent…or if it just erodes the interest in hockey a little further in Southern Florida.