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Free Agency Opens Friday: Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers to be Very Busy

Tallon Thanks to a pair of trades with Chicago, the Panthers have already added two new faces to their pared down roster.

Starting at noon Friday, general manager Dale Tallon will add a few more. The Panthers are expected to be a busy bunch when the free agency market opens at the strike of 12.

No other team in the league has as much money under the $64.3 million salary cap as Florida does, a financial flexibility coming from Tallon's salary dump during last season.

At the trade deadline, Tallon not only moved players like Bryan McCabe and Radek Dvorak who were in the final years of their contracts, but he also traded players like Bryan Allen and Dennis Wideman who had term remaining.

Florida lost 16 of its final 20 games after the trade deadline, but those moves were made with Friday in mind. The Panthers swoon also helped them gain the third overall pick at last weekend's draft. Tallon acquired defenseman Brian Campbell and forward Tomas Kopecky since.

“It took a lot of pain last year to get ourselves in this position,'' Tallon said.

As seems to be the Panthers luck, this free agent class isn't particularly strong. Center Brad Richards is the biggest name of the bunch, but with the big money he's going to command, the Panthers aren't expected to land a forward who has 52 goals in the past two seasons with Dallas. Florida may not even make an offer.

“I don't think there's a marquee player out there to tell you the truth,'' Tallon said. “The reality is, there's a lot of good, solid players out there. But there isn't a star or superstar name.''

Well, that's not counting Steven Stamkos, a restricted free agent who may be amenable to signing an offer sheet. The Lightning hold his rights, however, and have seven days to match whatever offer its young star – who has 119 goals in three seasons -- gets from another team.

The Panthers have the money to spend on Stamkos although the price will be high; if Tampa Bay doesn't match an offer sheet Stamkos signs, four future first round picks goes to the Lightning as compensation.

Stamkos Stamkos, who tied Sidney Crosby for the NHL's goal lead on the final game of the 2009-10 season with an empty net goal against the Panthers in Sunrise, is definitely worth the risk. If Florida chooses to pursue the 21-year-old who was the first overall pick in 2008, it won't be alone.

“We'll go after the best players available,'' Tallon said. “We have to keep an eye on the future, and we're not going to block the development of our young kids. We'll look at everything, listen to everyone at noon on the first and do what's best for our future. We just have to be careful what we do.''

So what do the Panthers need? If Tomas Vokoun isn't signed by late Thursday night, Florida will be in need of a goalie to play alongside Scott Clemmensen. Tallon says he is looking for one or two top-end defensemen (former Panthers first round pick Ed Jovanovski is available) as well as a handful of forwards.

Tallon did say that youngsters like defensemen Erik Gudbranson and forwards Jonathan Huberdeau (Florida's pick last Friday) and Quinton Howden will have a chance to make the 2011-12 opening night roster. Florida will be looking at a forward group that includes Erik Cole, Michael Ryder, Scottie Upshall, Sean Bergenheim, Ville Leino and Tomas Fleischmann.

“It's good enough. We're going to get better,'' Tallon said. “We're going to get the best parts we can. I can't manufacture guys. It is what it is and we have to deal with it and do the best we can. .-.-. It's going to take all day and it's not a one day deal. It's going to take time. We're going to make the effort. It's a big weekend for us to get the players we want.''