« OnFrozenFilm: Florida Panthers Defenseman Brian Campbell | Main | OnFrozenPond: Florida Panthers Defenseman Ed Jovanovski »

A Warm Greeting: Meet the New Florida Panthers

Panthermeet1 My apologies for the stoppage in videos today; my laptop has been an absolute wreck. Stuff is on its way now, I promise.

Anyway, onto this morning's press conference. Nice time. It was good to get to meet some of the new players on the team as well as reacquaint myself with some I have previously met.

Here's my story on the event:

The Florida Panthers unveiled many members of their new-look team on Friday morning, introducing nine new players acquired over the past two weeks at a press conference at BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise.

It wasn’t as dramatic or flashy as the celebration the Heat around this time a year ago. But based on the comments from the new players, the Panthers are just as ready to start this coming season as their basketball counterparts were last July.

“The one thing that kept coming up was ‘you’re really going to love this guy’,’’ assistant general manager Mike Santos. “All I want to say to the fans in South Florida is, you’re going to love these guys.’’

Of Florida’s newest players, only center Marcel Goc and winger Sean Bergenheim were missing. The nine players, wearing their new custom red home jerseys, joined general manager Dale Tallon and Santos on a large stage on the arena’s suite level. The players then moved to the 100 level to speak with the large amount of media members in the team’s Den of Honor.

Ed Jovanovski spent over an hour conducting interviews with his old Panthers jersey on display a few feet away. Jovanovski was the first overall pick of the 1994 draft by the Panthers and played here from 1995-99. The 35-year-old defenseman signed a four-year deal with the team just after the free agency period opened on July 1.

“You ask yourself where the time has gone,’’ said Jovanovski, who will once again wear No. 55. “It was tough when I left. The trade was unexpected, had to move across the country to a team that struggled a bit that first year. But it doesn't feel like it wasn't that long ago.’’

Panthermeet2 Jovanovski was obviously the most popular player at Friday’s function, although Kris Versteeg had those in attendance laughing when he joked about being traded from Philadelphia. “Based on my track record, you should expect anything to happen. But with Dale, I knew if I was going anywhere, it would be here.’’

Versteeg played for the Blackhawks when Tallon was Chicago’s general manager, telling a story of Tallon telling the last place team they soon would be holding a Stanley Cup parade “down Michigan Avenue. I thought the guy was nuts.’’ The Blackhawks did win the Cup, only Tallon had already left for Florida by then. Versteeg made sure he kept his word and shared in the celebration.

Tallon says he had not had a drink in 16 years before “I fell off the wagon with him.’’ Tallon joined Versteeg as well as a number of other Blackhawks including Campbell to swig Jack Daniels from the silver chalice following the parade Tallon predicted would come.

“I don’t know what it was, but it was pretty bad,’’ Tallon said with a grin. “But we’ll do it again.’’

Make no doubt, Tallon’s goal is not just to get the Panthers back in the playoffs – Florida has missed the postseason an NHL record 10 straight seasons – but to get to the highest level. Last February, Tallon tore apart the Panthers roster with this summer in mind. Going into last month’s draft, the Panthers had around $20 million committed to the 2011-12 season, almost $30 million under the league-mandated salary cap floor.

After Tallon’s spending spree, the Panthers payroll is over $50 million.

“This has really exceeded expectations. We thought if we got three or four guys, we would be happy on that first day,’’ Tallon said. “Things just kept flowing. It turned into quite a few days for us. We made a lot of hard decisions in February. But we had a plan and we're sticking to it. We made room, made ourselves flexible so we could do this.’’

Tallon got things rolling at the draft, making a late night trade to acquire defenseman Brian Campbell from Chicago in exchange for the disappointing Rostislav Olesz. Tallon then picked up forward Tomas Kopecky in another trade with the Blackhawks before the free agent frenzy began.
“I like it. I've known Dale for a couple of years now. This is going to be special,’’ said Kopecky, who flew in from Slovakia for Friday’s event. He’ll return to Europe on Sunday. “When he wants to do something, nothing is going to stop him. I knew he was going to change things around and I wanted to be part of it. This is good for Florida. This is going to be a good place to play.''

On July 1, the Panthers signed four players – including Jovanovski, goalie Jose Theodore  and winger Scottie Upshall – just a few hours in. By the end of the day, Florida had signed eight new players. The following day, Matt Bradley came over from division rival Washington.

Tallon’s work over the past few weeks is unprecedented in franchise history and rarely have professional teams turned over such a large chunk of their organization in such a short period of time. Some have compared it to the job Heat president Pat Riley did to clear cap space in order to tie up Miami’s Big 3. The Panthers may not have a super star like Dwyane Wade or LeBron James, but there’s no doubt the Panthers are better now than they were before Tallon came to town in May of last year.

One member of the media even asked what Tallon thought of being compared to Riley.

“Well, I don’t have his taste in clothes,’’ Tallon joked. “That’s an honor. I’ve admired him for many years. He’s a champion and that’s what we want to be. We want to be champions. That’s the goal. That’s why these players came here. They know we’re committed and want to win. And we’re going to have fun doing it.’’