Michael Russo's Sunday Insider: Florida Panthers are somebody again

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 10, 2011 - 11:33 PM

An aggressive front office led by General Manager Dale Tallon has brought the Panthers out of obscurity.

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Florida defenseman Ed Jovanovski, right, is back with the team he broke in with in the 1990s.

Photo: J Pat Carter, ASSOCIATED PRESS - AP

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The Wild might be the biggest surprise in the NHL's Western Conference, but the Florida Panthers, who haven't made the playoffs since 2000 or won a playoff round since 1996, are the surprise team in the East.

General Manager Dale Tallon and assistant GM Mike Santos completely overhauled the roster and went on a spending spree for the ages on July 1 that commanded an immense of amount of strategy from Santos.

The Southeast Division leaders were $20 million under the $48.3 million salary-cap floor and "needed to get better at virtually every position," Santos said, so they were open for business and began handing out long-term deals like suntan lotion on South Beach.

It started in June when Tallon, the former Blackhawks GM, traded for Chicago's Brian Campbell and his $7.1 million cap hit, then traded for Chicago's Tomas Kopecky and signed him to a four-year, $12 million deal.

"That took a little pressure off because now we only needed nine or 10 players," Santos said, laughing.

When free agency began at noon July 1, Santos hit the phones. The Panthers set up a war room with an adjoining space where Santos could get privacy. As Tallon and staff monitored the Internet, Twitter and TSN to assure the Panthers weren't missing out on any player, Santos negotiated away.

The first agent Santos called was Pat Morris, who represented free-agent defenseman Ed Jovanovski, the No. 1 overall pick of the Panthers in 1994.

"He was really the first son of this franchise," Santos said. "I went after him aggressively knowing I might be even overpaying a little bit [four years, $16.5 million], but that I could afford it. But he was a necessary get for us because he could attract others to come here."

Jovanovski is represented by Newport Sports, which includes agent Don Meehan. So while working on Jovanovski's contract, Santos had Morris get word to Meehan that he wanted to sign then-Wild goaltender Jose Theodore.

The Panthers soon struck a two-year, $3 million deal with the former Vezina and Hart Trophy winner.

So now, the Panthers felt they addressed goaltending and the blue line. Next point of attack: forwards.

"The first guy we contacted was Scottie Upshall," Santos said.

Santos made sure agent Steve Kotlowitz got word to Upshall that the Panthers already had ironed out a deal with his former Phoenix teammate, Jovanovski. Upshall signed on at four years for $14 million.

"After Jovo and Scottie, the calls just started coming in. Players started calling us," Santos said. "Scottie started tweeting how excited he was to be here, and we were suddenly a desirable location again."

The rest of the day was a "blur," Santos said.

Tallon traded two draft picks to Philadelphia for Kris Versteeg. During that time, Santos planted the seed to sign Matt Bradley and negotiated contracts with Marcel Goc, Tomas Fleischmann and Sean Bergenheim. Versteeg, Fleischmann and Panthers lifer Stephen Weiss were tied for 11th in scoring with 29 points through Thursday's action.

Bergenheim agreed to a four-year, $11 million deal nine hours after free agency began, and the marathon was over. Florida's staff went out for a late-night dinner to review the whirlwind of a day and prepare for the next.

There was only one player the Panthers were in on all day that they didn't get.

"Everyone else we targeted and wanted, we signed," Santos said. "We had flexibility like nobody else."

The franchise has been reborn. In the past few years, virtually every Panthers player has been moved out of Florida, except Weiss, who told Tallon he wanted to be part of the rebuild.

"I had many opportunities to trade him and I wouldn't," Tallon said.

One of those teams, by the way, was Minnesota. "He's been terrific, kind of the glue."

On July 1, it was the Panthers who stole the NHL's headlines, and so far they are grabbing headlines in the East while the Wild snags them in the West.

"Hey, we're relevant again. We're not in the B pool anymore," Santos said, laughing.

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