Dale Tallon: Things get worse before they get better

Jonathan Willis
June 17 2012 01:20PM

Dale Tallon was named general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks on June 21, 2005. His first year featured a spending spree that landed free agents Nikolai Khabibulin, Adrian Aucoin, Martin Lapointe and Jaroslav Spacek (Khabibulin’s four-year pact made him the highest-paid goalie in the NHL). Trent Yawney was hired as the team’s new head coach.

That team was supposed to take a big step forward. Instead, they finished 28th in the NHL. That summer, they drafted Jonathan Toews third overall. Four summers later, the Blackhawks celebrated their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.

It’s easy to forget now just how bad Tallon’s summer of spending in 2005 was. Leaving aside Yawney (he survived the debacle of 2005-06 but was canned midway through the following season), here’s how the four big free agent signings turned out:

Player Term Cap Hit 2011-12 Outcome
Nikolai Khabibulin 4 6.75 11.13 Recorded a 0.904 SV% over four years with the team (prompting the signing of Cristobal Huet)
Adrian Aucoin 4 4.00 6.60 Had two injury-filled years, was dealt to Calgary with a 7th rd. pick for Andrei Zyuzin and Steve Marr
Martin Lapointe 3 2.40 3.96 Recorded 31 and 24 points over 82-game seasons, had 7 points in Year 3 before being dealt (for a 6th rd. pick)
Jaroslav Spacek 1 2.25 3.71 Played 45 games before being dealt to Edmonton for Tony Salmelainen

The “2011-12” column is the equivalent cap hit in 2011-12 dollars to their cap hits against the 2005-06 salary ceiling.

Spacek was dealt in that first season (he had easily the best first year of the group) and all that Tallon managed to get for him was Tony Salmalainen, a 5’9” forward who would score six goals in 57 games for Chicago. Spacek would play a key role on the Edmonton Oilers, helping them reach the Stanley Cup Finals as a top four defenseman.

Adrian Aucoin missed a bunch of time over two years and was dealt for almost nothing to Calgary – an AHL/ECHL defender in Marr and a guy with 32 games left in his NHL career in Zyuzin. Lapointe was dealt at the deadline the same year, bringing back a sixth round pick.

Only Khabibulin played all four seasons. He was awful for two and mediocre for one, prompting the ‘Hawks to sign Cristobal Huet as a replacement. He had his first good regular season splitting time with the latter, but struggled in the playoffs (he allowed 10 goals in 2-1/2 games against Detroit in the third round before leaving with injury and finished the post-season with a 0.898 SV%).

Those four players alone took up 40% of the cap space Chicago had to sign their whole team in that first year. All four were disasters in the Windy City.

That didn’t stop the Chicago Blackhawks from going on to win the Stanley Cup, largely with the core assembled under Tallon’s watch – Tallon himself having replace in the top hockey operations job by Stan Bowman. Chicago is still a legitimate contender today, although the team has struggled with the salary cap implications of Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane coming off their entry-level contracts – they’ve basically been bleeding salary ever since.

The management of a Stanley Cup team doesn’t need to be perfect. They just need to be good enough to get the team into a position where they have a good shot at winning it all. That should be a comforting thought to Oilers fans, who have seen the team wander in the wilderness since 2006. The club’s original architect, Kevin Lowe, is now the president of hockey operations; the general manager since 2008, Steve Tambellini, just received a contract extension. The team’s newest hockey operations hire, Craig MacTavish, spent years coaching the club.

Dale Tallon’s first moves as Blackhawks general manager were awful; he was undeniably part of the problem before he was part of the solution. Yet he still managed to do the bulk of the heavy lifting in transforming the Blackhawks from also-ran to powerhouse. Oilers fans just have to hope their team’s management is equally capable of turning things around.

This week by Jonathan Willis

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Jonathan Willis is a freelance writer. He currently works for Oilers Nation, the Edmonton Journal and Bleacher Report. He's co-written three books and worked for myriad websites, including Grantland, ESPN, The Score, and Hockey Prospectus. He was previously the founder and managing editor of Copper & Blue.
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#51 John Chambers
June 18 2012, 09:08AM
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@ Oil Kings 'n' pretty things

Err, leaving Couturier and taking Schifele may not exactly pan out. It's still too early to say conclusively, but that might be a big swing and miss for Chevy.

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#52 Oil Kings 'n' Pretty Things
June 18 2012, 09:11AM
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That's a little more indicative of the organization's scouting department, wouldn't you say?

Any GM that can get a 2nd and a 3rd from Chicago for Johnny Freaking Oduya deserves a look, in my opinion.

Edit: And for the record, they took him because Hawerchuk "saw him good". If the Oilers were 6th or 7th in this draft and they took Reinhart instead of, say, Dumba, would you be choked?

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#53 The Soup Fascist
June 18 2012, 09:30AM
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@ John Chambers

Very accurate. Couturier may well be a miss for many of the teams that "overthought" the process and let him slide. As well documented, he was #1 so long, people started to pick out the faults and missed what was right in front of them. The old "can't see the forest for the trees" syndrome. (Are you listening ST?) Couturier may never be a top 10 scorer but he will contribute in many ways, especially when things get tough.

Scheifele basically rocketed up the rankings due to an especially good World Juniors, which likely over-inflated his value somewhat. Hopefully he has a long and productive NHL career, but I am guessing the Jets braintrust would like a mulligan.

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#54 I am the Liquor
June 18 2012, 10:18AM
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Walter Sobchak wrote:

So is your argument for Tallon in FLA, worst goal diff of any playoff team. Play in the weakest division. He's building a cap floor team. My point was in Chicago, he butchered the team he built into a one trick pony.If he's such a freaking great GM then why did he get fired?

He took a lottery team to the playoffs in one season.

In fact he has taken a lottery team to the playoffs in two different organizations.

If he was a drug he would be approved by the FDA by now.

Tambellini would still be killing rats in some leaky basement.

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#55 DSF
June 18 2012, 11:01AM
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andrewmk20 wrote:

Pretty sure he meant the Hawks team has had a long history of somewhat poor results with only 1 title win not that Tallon has been there for that long. Also there is no denying he's made good moves during his tenure, but has also made some very bad ones. I'm pretty sure Willis is just giving perspective on how a cup win can wash away the ineptitude of a GM and just leave him bullet proof from criticism, at least for a while anyway.

Tambellini, despite all the complaints Oilers fans aim at him, has also done good and bad. Although his success has been almost completely on the amateur development and procurement level while he's been unable to have the same success at the pro level.

Not sure how much credit he should get for creating a farm system that every other team in the league has had for decades.

Should Burke get a huge amount of credit for the Marlies being successful?

Maybe a little.

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#56 dawgbone
June 18 2012, 11:37AM
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@The Soup Fascist

That's how I saw it too.

He was everything that every team covets in a #1 C. He could score, was great at both ends and was a very good penalty killer.

But he's big and he didn't run people over and his skating made him look like he was sort of just gliding around the ice.

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#57 DSF
June 18 2012, 11:42AM
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50 in 39 wrote:

Well DSF, to follow your own logic of a Stanley Cup as the ultimate goal and that achievement trumping everything else, (Which I do actually agree with by the way)then I would say that the Oiler's are on a better track for that goal. They might or probably won't do it given the odds but I am giving them better odds than Florida. Despite the young talent that Florida has (you missed the most important player in Markstrom), they are much more likely locked into a mediocre existence rather than true contention for a Stanley Cup.

I never said that I don't like what Tallon has done in Florida, just that his actions have not made them a Stanley Cup contender as you had suggested. I also never compared Tallon to Tambellini. Don't confuse yourself with your Tambellini/Oilers hatred.

Why are you assuming the Panthers are "much more likely locked into a mediocre existence"?

Sounds to me like you can't conceive of a team that's been putrid for 20 years changing their fortunes.

Important to note than in the last 20 years both the Oilers and Panthers have reached the final cup series once each.

And please explain why the "Oilers are on a better track for that goal".

Tallon has:

1) a better team right now

2) a better prospect pool

3) more cap space

4) a bigger brain

The only limiting factor I can see is Florida management giving Tallon an internal budget but ownership there has given him the green light so far and just extended his contract.

Good teams are balanced teams and, while the Oilers most certainly have some very nice high end forwards, Tallon has created a team with balance and solid players in ALL positions.

Goal: Theodore (veteran presence) Markstrom (elite prospect)

Would you swap the Oiler goaltending straight across?

Defense: Campbell Garrison Weaver Kulikov Gudbranson Jovonovski Ellerby Robak

Would you swap the Oilers' D for that group?

The Oilers most certainly, as stated, have a better top three forward group but there's not a huge gap in production between Eberle, Hall and Hopkins and Fleischmann, Weiss and Versteeg and Florida also has a great group of veteran forwards to back them up.

When you look at prospects, you have to remember than, when Tallon started taking out the garbage, he also amassed a bushel basket of draft picks. He had three first round picks last season and while Hopkins MAY be better than Huberdeau, (one source of mine still thinks Huberdeau will be the best player in that draft) Tallon also drafted:

Nick Bjugstad LW 6'4" 210 (25G 42P in 40GP U Minn)

Quinton Howden C 6'2" 190 (30G 65P in 52GP WHL)

John McFarland RW 6'2" 202 (24G 50P in 50GP OHL)

Alex Petrovic D 6'4" 210 (12G 48P in 68GP WHL)

That's one freaking draft!

He followed that up with the Huberdeau draft at #3 overall.

So, Markstrom and the group above is the Panthers prospect pool.

Would you trade an Oilers' prospect pool led by a Swedish defenseman who can't puck the puck in the ocean for that group?

The Panthers are already in the top half of the league in GA/G and I'm sure as Kulikov, Gudbranson, Ellerby and Robak mature, that will improve.

They lack goal scoring (27th in the league) and I'm sure Tallon is aware of it and will address it.

Should be interesting to watch.

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#58 melancholyculkin
June 18 2012, 12:02PM
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A lot of results-based thinking going on in here.

The 2011-12 Florida Panthers were a 50% Fenwick close team, which is a plus.

Their real goal differential - i.e. removing shootout "goals" and empty net - was minus 33, which ranks 13th in the eastern conference. Not a plus.

Their clear victory record was 14-19. Good for 12th in the eastern conference. Remember, a teams record in one goal games is not a repeatable skill.

The Panthers ranked 26th by Forbes' franchise valuations this year. Consider me skeptical that committing 112.3 million dollars in salary in overpays to free agents is a good plan for an organization losing money.

Tallon certainly got good results this season, but his process stunk and the underlying numbers suggest the Panthers are heading for a fall next year.

Anyways, it's perfectly reasonable to think that Tambellini is a bumbling idiot and 5 year rebuilds are stupid while also thinking that Dale Tallon is a lucky bumbling idiot.

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#59 DSF
June 18 2012, 01:17PM
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@melancholyculkin

"Remember, a teams record in one goal games is not a repeatable skill."

Thing is... a teams record in one goal games doesn't translate from one season to the next AT ALL.

Given that an average NHL team will make 3-5 personnel changes every off season, generally to improve the areas in which they were deficient, trying to predict something as specious as "clear victory record' from one season to the next is akin to cracking walnuts with a chain saw.

Not sure where you came up with your "overpays to free agents" fantasy number but the job of a GM is to get results while operating under a cap.

Tallon's Panthers finished the season well under the cap even when adding a couple of players in Wolski and Madden on expiring contracts at the trade deadline.

Bottom line is, the Panthers currently have $30 million in free cap space with 16 players under contract while the Oilers have $27 million with 16 payers under contract.

That the Panthers finished last season with 20 more points in the standings than the Oilers, while spending less money would seem to almost any intelligent individual that Tallon is doing a better job.

Of course, that would be "results based thinking" which of course is forbidden for many Oiler fans.

In most any industry, "results based thinking" is what drives the bus.

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#60 The Soup Fascist
June 18 2012, 01:33PM
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The Panthers cap space is a red herring, no? Unless you have some knowledge that they have decided to spend to the ceiling vs spending to the floor.

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#61 DSF
June 18 2012, 01:55PM
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@The Soup Fascist

You don't need to spend to the cap ceiling to build a winning hockey team but you do need to have flexibility especially at the trade deadline.

What the flexibility does is allows an astute GM to acquire the pieces needed to win.

The Panthers spent $55 million last season...well above the floor.

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#62 dawgbone
June 18 2012, 02:13PM
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@DSF

That does of course assume that the Panthers record last season was actually a reflection of the team he built or it was an abberation.

They are awfully similar to the 07-08 Oilers... only the Panthers got to play in a pretty weak division.

They had the worst goal differential of any playoff team in the last 13 years... if that doesn't say aberration, I don't know what does.

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#63 RexLibris
June 18 2012, 02:37PM
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I wouldn't pass judgement on Tallon's time in Florida just yet. Give him another two years and if he can improve the team, year over year, then he deserves some of the credit. Let's not forget, much of the talent that the Panthers have developing right now was acquired before Tallon came to town.

He capitalized on a deep free agent market last summer and used his ridiculous cap space (he was nearly $20 million beneath the cap floor at one point, if I recall correctly) to hire and trade for nearly every underperforming complementary player he could lay his hands on.

Tomas Fleischmann, Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Marcel Goc and Jose Theodore are not players around whom one builds a team. But they did admirably in a weak division and the fans there deserved some good news.

It should also be noted that Tallon took a team rocketing back up to go out in the first round of the playoffs against the eventual Stanley Cup contenders.

That is success to some, but not enough for my liking.

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#64 DSF
June 18 2012, 06:49PM
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dawgbone wrote:

@DSF

That does of course assume that the Panthers record last season was actually a reflection of the team he built or it was an abberation.

They are awfully similar to the 07-08 Oilers... only the Panthers got to play in a pretty weak division.

They had the worst goal differential of any playoff team in the last 13 years... if that doesn't say aberration, I don't know what does.

What on earth would make you think Tallon will sit on his thumbs and do nothing in the offseason to address goal scoring?

Not only does he have Huberdeau likely ready, he has a ton of cap space, a ton of prospects for trade and a long history of making bold moves.

To repeat:

He has an elite goaltending prospect in Markstrom who appears to be ready for the NHL.

He has three huge young stud defensemen in Kulikov (21), Gudbranson (20) Ellerby (23) who I think you can count on getting better.

He has Huberdeau, Howden, Bjugstad and Robak bubbling under. These are NOT low end prospects like Pitlick, Lander and Chorney.

They are in no way similar to the 07/08 Oilers who didn't have ONE top pairing defenseman (Florida arguably has 3 and that doesn't even include Kulikov or Gudbranson) nor do they have a couple of palookas in net.

They need to add some scoring.

With $30 million in cap space and a ton of prospects to dangle...I'm confident Tallon can get it done.

Watch.

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#65 DSF
June 18 2012, 06:50PM
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RexLibris wrote:

I wouldn't pass judgement on Tallon's time in Florida just yet. Give him another two years and if he can improve the team, year over year, then he deserves some of the credit. Let's not forget, much of the talent that the Panthers have developing right now was acquired before Tallon came to town.

He capitalized on a deep free agent market last summer and used his ridiculous cap space (he was nearly $20 million beneath the cap floor at one point, if I recall correctly) to hire and trade for nearly every underperforming complementary player he could lay his hands on.

Tomas Fleischmann, Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Marcel Goc and Jose Theodore are not players around whom one builds a team. But they did admirably in a weak division and the fans there deserved some good news.

It should also be noted that Tallon took a team rocketing back up to go out in the first round of the playoffs against the eventual Stanley Cup contenders.

That is success to some, but not enough for my liking.

What talent was acquired before Tallon came to town?

Be specific.

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#66 dawgbone
June 18 2012, 08:14PM
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@DSF

I never said anything about goal scoring. There's a lot more to improving your GD than just scoring more goals.

And you can have as many young defencemen as you want, but it doesn't mean they'll all grow up in a nice linear line year after year.

I'm willing to bet serious money that Tallon can't spend to the cap, at least not right now, so having $30 mil in cap space isn't all that useful.

Not only that, but if he's bought into the fact that he's created a legitimate team (which I don't think he has), then he's not going to make as many moves as he'll need to make.

Oilers did the same thing coming out of 07-08... they bought into their hype and all their kids. Turned out poorly, which is what happens when you run into kids.

And dude, I don't care if Howden and company are better than Pitlick and company. I never compared them, nor did I bring up anything about the Oilers depth (or lack thereof).

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