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Let's hope Panthers have learned from their mistakes

Reports indicate that Dale Tallon is back where he always should have been, making key personnel decisions on his own for the Florida Panthers.

So if we’re to believe Florida Panthers majority owner Vinnie Viola, Dale Tallon, “has always had final say over hockey decisions.” That’s what he told Elliotte Friedman of Sportsnet amid speculation that Tallon is once again the alpha male in the Panthers’ hockey department.

Following that logic, then, we’re also to believe that Tallon essentially took a team that had a franchise-record 103 points last season and transformed it into the dog’s breakfast we’re seeing on the ice this season. We’re to believe that he traded two reliable defensemen, Erik Gudbranson and Dimitry Kulikov, for what amounts to Jared McCann and Mark Pysyk. Tallon should also be credited with signing 30-year-old defenseman Keith Yandle to a seven-year deal worth more than $44 million and Jason Demers to a five-year pact worth $22.5 million. While we’re at it, he must have also signed off on trading a top prospect in Lawson Crouse – a kid who’s playing in the NHL this season – in order to rid the organization of the Dave Bolland contract. Tallon would have also been behind the decision to give a backup goalie a five-year deal worth $17 million.

And then, of course, it was all Tallon’s doing that coach Gerard Gallant was fired and replaced behind the bench by Tom Rowe, the guy who had taken Tallon’s title, but apparently not his duties, we’re led to believe.

All right then.

If we’re to believe the Florida Panthers media guide, Viola himself graduated from West Point, then the US Army Airborne, Infantry and Ranger Schools, then served in the prestigious 101st Airborne Division. If we’re to believe Wikipedia, Viola was a second lieutenant and rose to major after leaving active duty and serving in the reserves. Not being an American or a military expert, your trusty correspondent has a few questions. They do have a chain of command in the U.S. military, right? And in that chain of command, there is one person who is ultimately accountable for the strategic decisions that are made, correct?

If so, then why would Viola have created this epic mess the Panthers have become in record time? If anyone thinks nothing changed when Tallon was “promoted” to president of hockey operations last May, they’re kidding themselves. If Tallon was still the point man for all hockey decisions, he would not have been replaced in the role by Rowe and his two assistants, Eric Joyce and Steve Werier. He would have simply remained as GM and would have received the help he needed, let’s say in negotiating contracts, by others around him. Instead in the words of one observer, “Dale had (a certain part of his anatomy) cut off.”

Yes, amid very strong and very credible speculation that if Tallon is not already running the hockey department again, he soon will be, the Panthers are a complete mess. And as is the case with most of these kinds of situations, the responsibility for all of that goes right to the top, in this case Viola and vice chairman Doug Cifu. Look at any team in the NHL, or any other sport for that matter, and whether or not the team ultimately succeeds or fails can be directly traced to ownership.

Viola and Cifu are in their fourth year with this team and in that time, they’ve established themselves as a couple of guys who think they’re the smartest in the room. And maybe they are. Viola is obviously very gifted and has the billionaire status to prove it. He managed to stabilize the Panthers off the ice by reaching a deal with Broward County, and left himself an out by including a clause that will allow the team to leave if it can document more than $100 million in losses. With the Panthers losses pegged at $36 million in 2014-15, even with all the help they’re getting and an improved business model, it’s not a far-fetched scenario.

Then you look about four hours northwest of Sunrise and you see another really smart billionaire in Jeff Vinik, who took over a Tampa Bay Lightning franchise that was in every bit as bad shape as the Panthers. But Vinik doesn’t think he’s the smartest guy in the room. So he left the business side of things to Tod Leiweke, who has since left the organization to become the NFL’s chief operation officer, and the hockey side to GM Steve Yzerman. When the Lightning were in the Stanley Cup final in 2015, he told me at the time that he still couldn’t tell whether a Lightning defenseman was having a good game or a bad game. In short, he knows what he doesn’t know. And what he doesn’t know, he leaves to people who know and the Lightning are the better for it.

With Tallon reportedly taking the helm again, perhaps Viola and Cifu have learned what Vinik appears to have known from the start. The funny thing is, all of this could have been avoided. Now, all the good vibes the Panthers built up with their players and their fan base has eroded. Former Panthers captain Willie Mitchell tweeted out yesterday: “Just to be clear. Feel bad for ex mates and fans who need a clear direction/path. Confusion by no clear path stunts the kids (sic) growth. Dale (A-OK emoticon).”

If it is indeed the case, Tallon is being asked to come in and clean up a mess that was not of his making. Unless, of course, you believe that nothing has changed and Tallon was the one with his hand on the tiller all along. Either way, it’s no way to run a hockey team. Let’s hope Viola and Cifu, with the scorched earth they’ve essentially created in front of them, have learned that lesson this time.


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