Dale Tallon: A (Regretful) Look Back
The Panthers dismissed their longtime exec on Friday, and he unfortunately leaves behind a legacy of failure rather than success
The Florida Panthers let go of Dale Tallon just minutes after the team was eliminated in 4 games in their qualifying round series by the New York Islanders. It was a move that was considered overdue by many hockey fans, and a move that came mercifully according to the reactions that I saw from Panthers fans on Hockey Twitter. Tallon helped bring some bright spots to this Panthers organization during his ten years with the club, but he leaves behind a team that should have been a perennial contender years ago, and an organization with just as many internal holes as they had when he arrived. So, let’s look at the positive things he brought to South Florida, as well as his mistakes, and assess whether or not the latest disappointing Panthers season is largely his fault.
What Tallon Did Right
The Panthers are a top-heavy team, especially up front. Their lack of depth may be somewhat of a problem, but their collection of top guns is quite impressive. It’s not like the team didn’t have their chances to pick near the top of the draft after the dark years of the early 2010s, but Tallon and his scouts certainly did not miss on any of their top draft picks. In 2011, they took Jonathan Huberdeau third overall. Two years later, Aleksander Barkov was acquired by the Panthers with the second overall pick. Just the following year, they finally won the draft lottery, and took Aaron Ekblad with the first pick in 2014. Six years down the road from the latter event, it’s safe to say that the 3 players have each become elite players and franchise cornerstones. The amount of input that Tallon had into these picks compared to his scouting department is unknown, but as general manager, he always gets the final say at the draft, so I’ll give him credit for all three. Strangely enough, Ekblad, who was uber-hyped as a prospect, seems to have flown under the radar compared to the other two. He took huge strides rounding out his game in 2019-20, but doesn’t get the credit he deserves for it.
It’s easy to look at this and say that the Panthers were aided by consistent luck of the lottery, considering they picked top three in the draft three times in a four-year span. However, there are other teams in the NHL who have not fared so well with such draft lottery fortune over the years. The Panthers got their chances to pick the future faces of their franchise, and did not miss on either of them. They even nailed one of their shot-in-the-dark picks over this time too, selecting MacKenzie Weegar in the seventh round in 2013. He has since developed into a quality top-4 piece. Since the 2017-18 season, both Barkov and Huberdeau have been scoring at over a point-per-game pace, and Ekblad is delivering on the lofty expectations set for him as a youngster.
The Evgeny Dadonov Signing
Paying big money to highly-touted European free agents when they’ve dazzled overseas but are unproven at the NHL level is always a risk. There is no guarantee that it’ll work out, even for someone like Dadonov, who was coming over for his second stint with the Panthers after playing there for just over two years in the early part of the decade. After all, his return from the KHL occurred the same season that another big-name Russian free agent, Vadim Shipachyov, infamously flopped during his time with the Golden Knights, bailing on them and heading back to his native country within the first few weeks of the NHL season. However, Dadonov didn’t disappoint: The Panthers agreed to pay him $4M per year, and he instantly formed great chemistry with Barkov and Huberdeau on what is now one of the better top lines in the league. He has put up a very respectable 5.1 xWAR in the three seasons since he has returned to North America, and though he is now a pending UFA, and the Panthers didn’t go anywhere during his time with them, I’d say it was well worth it. He had an absolute banger of a season to begin his contract.
Seriously - he was one of the most dominant players in the league at even-strength that year, and this contract was well on its way to looking like a steal. His next two seasons didn’t come close to this one, but he has remained a quality asset, and I doubt re-signing him is in the cards, but if Florida chooses to keep him, it wouldn’t be the worst idea as long as they don’t give up a king’s ransom to do it.
What Tallon Did Wrong
The Vegas Expansion Draft Debacle
Today, the remnants of the Vegas Golden Knights’ expansion draft back in 2017 aren’t as prominent as one might think. Some of the team’s original pieces that were acquired during said event aren’t even with them anymore. Ultimately, the draft went well for some teams, badly for some, and the others are, as it stands, relatively unaffected by their actions during that draft. Except for Florida.
The Expansion Draft went horribly for Florida.
They lost two high-quality assets that are still great players today, in return for a 2018 4th-round draft pick, which Florida flipped to San Jose in the Mike Hoffman trade (a trade that, ultimately, has not benefited nor harmed the Panthers to any significant degree), which San Jose subsequently flipped to Montreal. The Canadiens used it to take Jack Gorniak, a 20-year-old prospect who has yet to do much of anything in the NCAA.
One of the two high-quality assets in question is Reilly Smith, who the Panthers asked Vegas to take because they wanted no part of paying Smith’s contract extension, which was signed in 2016 and would kick in at the beginning of the following season. Smith promptly put up a career-worst season from a production standpoint, and with the new deal on the horizon, Tallon panicked and shipped him off to Vegas. Quite frankly, this situation sucks for them, because Smith was already establishing himself as one of the best penalty-killers in the league the season prior despite the low point totals, and has since cultivated a reputation among the stats community as one of the best second-liners in the sport with a complete offensive skill set. I get that at the time he was coming off the worst offensive season of his career, but the fact that the 4th round pick didn’t end up going to use in a draft where two 4th-rounders appear to be on their way to the NHL (Mac Hollowell, Philipp Kurashev) is quite unfortunate.
The other player in question is Jonathan Marchessault. The Smith situation was not ideal, but this one is just downright confusing. The Panthers signed him for next to nothing in the summer of 2016. He was supposed to be a depth piece, a player to round out their third line, but he went off in 2016-17, scoring 30 goals and becoming the subject of one of the best value signings in franchise history. I get that he suddenly put up a career-high shooting percentage of 15.5% that year, which is well above league average, and the advanced metrics did not suggest that he would repeat his breakout season in any way, but Tallon has often gone directly against the percentages during his time as Panthers GM. For that reason, the fact that he exposed Marchessault in the expansion draft is puzzling to me. It spectacularly blew up in his face too, as Marchessault and Smith, to this day, are integral parts of the Golden Knights offense.
Even if you choose to look at this as a variation of Smith and Marchessault for Mike Hoffman, the Panthers still come out on the short end of the stick value-wise by quite a bit. It was hard to know it at the time, but Tallon ended up shipping off two players to the Golden Knights in favour of keeping players such as Alex Petrovic, Mark Pysyk, and Nick Bjugstad, and the players he sent there have since A) rebounded wonderfully from an awful season and B) proved their big breakout was legit, respectively. If this sequence of events had not played out this way, and Smith and Marchessault were still in Sunrise, then the Panthers offense would be feared league-wide.
Free Agency Signings (Especially 2019)
The Panthers have made many free agency blunders with Tallon at the helm, but when the floodgates opened for signing season in July 2019, there were some especially bad mistakes made by Panthers management. One of them was dishing out a $5.5 x 3 contract to Anton Stralman, a right-handed defenseman who had spent most of his career up to that point upstate in Tampa. He was coming off a down year with the Bolts, but the Panthers were banking that he would return to his 2017-18 form - a season where he saw tremendous offensive results and held his own on the defensive side. As you’re about to see, however, expecting such a rebound was a folly - and Stralman was entering his age-33 season when he signed the contract.
Aside from three seasons in the early-mid 2010s, Stralman has never been worth what the Panthers paid him. As expected, he did not perform up to that standard in his first season with Florida. There may only be two years left on this contract, but there is a real possibility that the Swedish blueliner dips to below replacement-level as soon as next year - permanently. He isn’t getting any younger, and for a Panthers blue line that boasts the likes of Ekblad, Weegar, and two inexperienced players who didn’t have great seasons but at least appear to be heading in the right direction in Josh Brown and Riley Stillman, this is a dark spot that isn’t going to just disappear on them. Stralman is being paid to be a high-end second-pairing defenseman, but he’s barely an NHL-level player, and at this rate, he won’t be one by the time this deal is up.
You all know about the second of Tallon’s massive mistakes 13 months ago: The signing of Sergei Bobrovsky. The fact that it was Florida who won the sweepstakes to get this player somewhat surprised people - sure, they needed a starting goalie, but they had just taken Spencer Knight with the 13th overall pick in the 2019 draft, making him the highest-drafted goalie since Jack Campbell in 2011. Historically, as you’ll see in this image put together by Dylan Griffing, drafting goalies in the first round has not proven to be a wise course of action. In fact, goalies taken in the seventh round have had a recent advantage over goalies taken in the first round in terms of career peaks.
In any case lot of people were asking when Bobrovsky was signed, “Does it really make sense to commit to this goalie for 7 years when they have Knight in the system as well?” That’s a fair question to be asked, but consider this: Bobrovsky was entering his age-31 when the contract was signed. When goalies decline, they decline fast; just look at the graph above for at least some proof on that. Another fact of life in today’s NHL is that consistent elite goaltending is a myth on an individual basis. No goaltender has put up a GSAx total that ranks top-5 in the NHL for three consecutive seasons since 2015, when Henrik Lundqvist completed his third such campaign. Even this could be inconclusive, though, as NHL stat trackers at Madison Square Garden has a history of overestimating shot distance that still has not been fixed when it was first uncovered by freelance stat trackers over a decade ago.
Sergei Bobrovsky had a great peak in Columbus, but the Panthers still owe him $60M over the next six seasons - that’s right, until he’s 37. This team needs great goaltending, but goalies are impossible to predict and no NHL goalie has performed at a top-tier level for more than 2 consecutive seasons in half a decade. Whether or not the contract works out for the Panthers depends on Bobrovsky performing at an elite level on a consistent basis, which is extremely unlikely at this point. He may not continue to be as bad as he was this year (23rd percentile in GSAx), but the writing was on the wall from the time he entered free agency.
None of us have any idea how Spencer Knight is going to pan out, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that Dale Tallon committed two of the cardinal sins of hockey management: He took a goalie in the first round in a draft where there were many other highly-touted prospects still available (Thomas Harley, Nick Robertson, Connor McMichael, I could go on), and he signed a goalie on the wrong side of 30 to an expensive long-term contract in free agency. To make matters worse, he did both of these things in the same year. Nobody would have looked at how Bobrovsky performed in 2018-19 and expected him to take such a downturn a season after, but red flags were flying around this development as it took place, for good reason too.
This crosses into a subplot, of sorts, of Tallon’s time with Florida. The long-term performance of a goalie is impossible to predict, but his brutal asset management of netminders started long before the Bobrovsky fiasco. You could argue that it started all the way back in 2014, when he traded for Roberto Luongo, who came up with the Panthers in the early part of his career. Luongo was 35 years old at the time, and going to Vancouver in this trade was a young, up-and-coming Jacob Markstrom, who has since become one of the better starters in the league for the Canucks. The deal just made no fundamental sense at the time, considering Markstrom was in his mid-20s, and he was quite literally getting better year after year.
Some team is probably going to make the mistake of paying Markstrom a ton of money in free agency this fall over a multi-year span, but it’s fair to say that his best years should have been spent in Florida, and Panthers fans have Tallon to thank for that.
James Reimer is another goalie who Tallon and Co. could never get the best out of. Florida signed him to a 5-year (yikes), $17M contract in July 2016, and he turned in a few seasons that weren’t any better than his starting days in Toronto before bottoming out in 2018-19. The Panthers wanted out of the final two years of this contract before trading him to Carolina last offseason, before he promptly turned in one of the best seasons by a non-starter in 2019-20 (3.3 Standings Points Above Replacement). Again, goalies are not possible to predict, but Tallon has a rough history of making some high-risk, low-reward decisions with netminders. I’d like to think of Markstrom and Reimer’s good performance outside of Sunrise as some bad karma going Tallon’s way.
The Florida Panthers Have a Player Development Problem
This is an issue the organization has had for years now, and it isn’t all Tallon’s fault, but it involves personnel that he has the authority to get rid of and replace.
Henrik Borgstrom and Aleksi Heponiemi are two Finnish prospects that were making some serious headlines years ago. Borgstrom was taken in the first round in 2016 after a promising year in Finland’s U20 circuit before putting up two seasons at well over a point-per-game pace with the University of Denver. Prospects who can score at a high clip in post-secondary United States leagues are setting a great trajectory for themselves, so in 2018-19, Florida brought him to the big club. He spent 50 games there and didn’t have a spectacular year, but he did spend some time in the AHL beforehand, where he kept up his high scoring rate from university hockey. Then, this past season, Borgstrom suddenly stopped developing. No one knew why. He spent just 4 games with the Panthers before getting demoted back to AHL Springfield, and floundering there. He was left off their training camp roster as the league announced its return to play, and he’s rumoured to be headed back to Finland for 2020-21.
Heponiemi was a 4th-round selection in 2017, except unlike Borgstrom, he came to Canada in his draft year. He had a good season with WHL Swift Current, but he really took off in 2017-18, putting up an astonishing 90 assists in a single season with the Broncos. When Florida didn’t sign him to an entry-level deal, he went back to Finland to play in the SM-Liiga, the highest level of hockey there is in the country. Scoring 48 points in 50 games there as a 20-year-old, Heponiemi was suddenly on track to become a top-6 forward in the NHL. His progression was outstanding, and the Panthers understandably signed him a year ago so he could play at the pro level in North America for the first time.
It went horribly. Often a healthy scratch in the AHL, Heponiemi recorded just 3 goals in 49 games in Springfield. What happened? Why did these two players just not pan out? They’re still in their early 20s, it’s not like there’s zero possibility of an NHL career for either of them, but it makes you think. Take a look at these graphs from the aforementioned Dylan Griffing for some more context:
The Panthers had two solid forwards in the making here. The future doesn’t look so bright, all of a sudden. They’ve never really had this issue for North American prospects, so what about Grigori Denisenko, their uber-hyped Russian winger? What if this happens to him too? It’s all speculation at this point, but if he doesn’t pan out, it’ll be safe to conclude that Tallon wasn’t the only problem with this Panthers brass. The pipeline has some serious holes in it. For their sake, I hope they can fix that.
This Panthers team was supposed to be going somewhere by now. They missed the playoffs by a single point in 2017-18. After a disappointing setback the year after, adding a top-tier goalie was supposed to put them over the top the year after. It hasn’t happened. Even with the 24-team playoff, they bowed out rather unceremoniously to the Islanders in the qualifying round. What comes next for this squad? They have the top pieces to build around. They have two very good defensemen on their blue line. Ultimately, whether it’s fair or not, most of this falls on Dale Tallon. They tried hiring a coach with an excellent resume in Joel Quenneville, but he didn’t have a very high impact on the skater group from an offensive (+1.1% offense coaching impact) or defensive standpoint (-1.5% defense coaching impact, this is above average) in 2019-20, according to HockeyViz.
You’d think a team who has been given continuous advantageous opportunities to add some pieces that would greatly benefit them in the long run would have more than 1 division title and 0 playoff advances to show for it, but that hasn’t been the case. Dale Tallon’s tenure with the Panthers as GM is riddled with too many cases of investing too much money into high-risk, low-reward situations, poorly-timed trades, and disastrous management of goaltenders, which has seemingly been the one area that has needed fixing for years with this franchise. There were still some questionable decisions made by Tallon during the 2019-20 season (the Vincent Trochek trade, specifically) that may or may not stand the test of time, but did not look like they would benefit the Panthers in the short term. This team needs someone at the helm who will make better use of their financial flexibility and not make significant moves when there are significant red flags attached. The Panthers are better off without Dale Tallon as their general manager, and while they have not yet named a full-time replacement, whoever fills the role is going to have some pressing needs to take care of.