Dale Tallon was a busy man last summer. He fired head coach Peter DeBoer, and brought in the highly-regarded Kevin Dineen. Via trade, he acquired defenseman Brian Campbell and forwards Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky. Seven different unrestricted free agents were added to the team: Tomas Fleischmann, Ed Jovanovski, Scottie Upshall, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Jose Theodore, and Matt Bradley. All together, these additions have taken up more than $32 million in combined cap hit this season.
Have they made a significant difference?
Superficially, the answer is undeniably 'yes.' The Panthers, provided they win one of their last two games, will win the Southeast Division and enter the playoffs this year as the third seed. With two games to play, the team is just one point back of their best season in the post-lockout NHL. Fleischmann leads the team in scoring, Versteeg isn't far behind, and Brian Campbell is the team's most potent defenseman. Theodore has played well as the team's starting goalie. A quick glance at the standings and the team's scoring chart and it's simple to walk away convinced that Dale Tallon was the cure for the team's ailments.
Dig a little deeper, and things become less clear.
Season GF GA GD True GD
2005-06 240 257 -17 -20
2006-07 247 257 -10 -5
2007-08 216 226 -10 -15
2008-09 231 223 +8 +10
2009-10 208 244 -36 -28
2010-11 195 229 -34 -25
2011-12 199 226 -27 -25
True GD = goal differential not including empty net-goals or goals in the shootout
The chart above shows what really matters for any hockey team: goals for and goals against. From season to season, a team's wins and losses may not exactly reflect goal differentialfor example, if a team wins a lot of one-goal games, or sees a lot of time in the shootout and overtime. However, over time, goals for and goals against dictate wins and losses.
Not all goals are equal, though. When a team wins in the shootout, the NHL gives them one extra goal. When a team loses in the shootout, the NHL gives them one extra goal against. Similarly, goals scored on an empty net skew the picture: a team with more wins than losses gets a bump to their goal differential, while the opposite happens for a team with more losses than wins.
Looking at "true" goal differential negates these problems, reducing team performance to the most basic building block: goals for and against when both teams have a goalie in the net prior to the shootout.
This measure suggests that for all of Tallon's activity last summer, what he has actually been able to accomplish is fairly limited. The Panthers were a minus-28 team when he took over. They are a minus-25 team this season. Three goals is an awfully shallow return for the amount of money that the team spent on free agents and via trade.
More than that, Tallon's summer of spending is going to cost the team over the long haul.
Especially egregious is the Ed Jovanovski contract. Jovanovski, once one of the NHL's best combinations of offense and aggression on the blue line, was coming off some difficult years in Phoenix. He'd picked up just 14 points in a 50-game campaign in 2009-10, and at 35 years of age there was reason to fear that his best days were in the past. Tallon gave him term (four years) and an annual cap hit of $4.125 million. Because the contract came into effect after Jovanovski's 35th birthday, it's also subject to the 35+ clauses in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. If something goes wrong, the Panthers can demote Jovanovski to the minors, but they'll still be on the hook for his money against the cap.
Then there's Brian Campbell. Campbell is an undeniably gifted offensive defenseman, and he's responded to a great opportunity in Florida with 53 points so far this season. Unfortunately, he's also under contract for north of $7 million until 2015-16. Unlike many other big-money deals, Campbell's has no reduction in salary in later years, which means that the Panthers will pay full price if they decided they'd like to buy him out in the summer of 2015.
Most of the other contracts are less risky. Tomas Fleischmann has had significant injury troubles over his NHL career, but he's undeniably talented and so his four-year, $4.5 million contract is a justifiable dare. Other contracts are more of the 'death from 1,000 cuts' variety, such as these four:
Player Career-best Term Cap Hit
Scottie Upshall 34 points 4 yrs $3.5 million
Tomas Kopecky 42 points 4 yrs $3.0 million
Sean Bergenheim 29 points 4 yrs $2.75 million
Marcel Goc 30 points 3 yrs $1.7 million
In many ways, it's fortunate for Panthers fans that the dice have tumbled out the way they have. The team's goal differential strongly suggests that the club's improved fortunes are not going to last over the long term. The potential exists for many of these contracts to provide the team with more long-term pain than long-term gain.
Eventually, the team's record is going to reflect its goal differential. Unless substantial improvements are made, that's going to be a very bad thing for the Panthers.
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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