By Bill Whitehead
Those who have ridden down the elevator with the press and Florida team executives after a game know this: You can generally tell whether or not the Cats won by general manager Dale Tallon's demeanor. No sports executive is as easy to read as Tallon -- irritable in defeat, cheery and observational in victory. Simply, Tallon wears his heart on his sleeve.
This past offseason, he put other body parts on the line, too, which is why he is the most deserving nominee for General Manger of the Year.
Adding 15 different players to last year's vestige of a hockey team was a bold move by the former Chicago GM. While the organization was making a crimson-themed renaissance with marketing morsels like "Believe Red" and "REDvolution," the 61-year-old Tallon was seeing blue -- his blueprint for changing the culture of losing hockey in South Florida.
First, he fired coach Pete DeBoer the morning after the season ended and grabbed Kevin Dineen from the AHL ranks. Then in a real no-brainer he drafted scoring sensation Jonathan Huberdeau. He followed up those solid moves by convincing ex-Blackhawks Brian Campbell and Tomas Kopecky to come to Sunrise, along with ditching Rostislav Olesz's dreadful contract, kept the ball rolling.
Kris Versteeg went from Chicago to Toronto to Philadelphia to Florida in a calendar year while Tomas Fleischmann was a medical risk. Yet the pair teamed with Stephen Weiss to form the league's best top line for the season's first third. Tallon had faith in Jose Theodore, dubbed "Three or More" by the critics, who regained his old form and was stellar from the opening game, a 2-0 shutout at the Islanders. Sean Bergenheim, who was deemed overrated by some media, scored a career-high 17 goals in just 62 games. John Madden, Mikael Samuelsson, Marco Sturm, Wojtek Wolski and Jared Smithson all proved to be good additions as the Panthers made their playoff push.
Just as important were the deals Tallon didn't make. When the names Alex Semin, Mike Cammalleri and Rick Nash came up at different points of the season, Tallon stood pat. Instead of dealing away vital parts of the team's future for short-term success, he decided not to be a major mover.
Not every move worked to perfection, but Tallon sent a clear message: He had a plan in place that he wasn't going to deviate from, and anyone who didn't pull his weight (see fan favorite David Booth) was expendable.
"We've come a long ways but still have a ways to go," Tallon assessed in his exit interview. "We're probably a little ahead of schedule. We got the playoffs and won our division. The blueprint's still in place, but we've had a modicum of success. We have a lot of positives moving forward. We've come a long way in a short period of time."
Florida was 22 points better in the standings than last year and topped the Southeast Division for nearly 130 days despite being picked 14th or 15th in the Eastern Conference by most media. Then it earned its first playoff spot in 12 years the Thursday before the season ended. The club finally won the division for the first time in franchise history two days later. The Cats then forced New Jersey to win Games 6 and 7 in overtime to squeak out a quarterfinal Stanley Cup playoffs series win, the last contest being played in front of a raucous crowd at BankAtlantic Center. And in seven weeks at Pittsburgh's Consul Energy Center, Florida will have seats toward the back of the draft rather than down front with the rest of those selecting early.
Those are Exhibits A, B, C, D and E in the case for Dale Tallon being GM of the Year.Photo Credit: Getty Images