Camp Tour: Plenty of optimism in Florida, but can Panthers contend in East?

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon is giving us a tour of the team's practice facility in South Florida.

Outside, it's humid and sunny and raining all at the same time; but inside, Tallon is hopping with enthusiasm about his new team and the possibilities of the coming season.

As we move from the weight room, which this morning included a couple of yoga instructors, to the training room to the coaches' offices, we are struck by a similar conversation we had with Tallon not so long ago in Chicago.

We were at the team's practice facility near O'Hare Airport. Back then, the passion was just as strong, the optimism just as keen as Tallon talked about young players like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith.

It would take some time, he said then, but it would work. It did, of course.

It's easy to forget in the wake of the Blackhawks' sudden rise to prominence in the past three years (which yielded a Cup win in 2010) that Tallon's team there had a season-ticket base of about 3,500 after the lockout.

Tallon, forced out of his job as GM before the start of the Hawks' Cup season in 2009-10, has now turned his eye to rebuilding a moribund Florida franchise whose last playoff experience was more than a decade ago in 2000. The franchise has also enjoyed only one season in which it won a playoff round, when the Panthers made a surprise Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1996.

Many, then, see South Florida as a wasteland. Tallon sees ground rich for seeding.

For now, we'll give the guy with the Stanley Cup ring (he got one from the Hawks, as he should have) the benefit of the doubt.

"It's just night and day from last year," Tallon said Thursday morning after the tour ended and the Panthers took the ice.

He searches for the word to describe last season's squad that finished dead last in the Eastern Conference. "Just blah," he said. "No spark."

This summer, though, Tallon was a virtual managing dervish. He reunited some of his old gang from Chicago by acquiring smooth-skating defenseman Brian Campbell, former rookie of the year nominee Kris Versteeg and skilled forward Tomas Kopecky, along with former Chicago first-round draft pick Jack Skille. Tallon also added a core of proven NHL forwards to help out an offense that ranked 27th in goals per game and was dead last on the power play last season, including Tampa Bay playoff scoring hero Sean Bergenheim, the skillful Tomas Fleischmann and speedy Scottie Upshall.

Tallon also repatriated former Florida defensive star Ed Jovanovski and turned the starting goaltending duties over to former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner Jose Theodore.

The skill level, clearly, has been raised, but the GM also insisted the attitude is markedly different.

"They're all happy guys," Tallon said. "They're all quality people. They enjoy playing hockey. You don't see many good teams with bad attitudes. You do see a lot of bad teams with bad attitudes."

At least you knew the fans were there in Chicago. They may have been dormant and angry, but they were there and they came back with a vengeance when the Hawks turned that proverbial corner under Tallon's tutelage.

In South Florida, the path is less clear, although the fan base isn't as bad as many outside the area believe. The Panthers actually ranked 22nd in average attendance last season and the season-ticket base is in the neighborhood of 10,000. That's not to suggest this is Hockeytown South; but, as with so many markets, the key to finding out what this market is capable of is to put a decent product on the ice.

The Panthers have not finished better than third in the Southeast Division since 2000, never mind actually qualifying for the playoffs. The key for the Panthers will be whether this curious collection of players from another place can become something greater than the sum of the parts.

Can Jonathan Huberdeau, the third overall pick in June's draft and a head-turner thus far in his young career in Florida, make the jump from junior hockey to the NHL as a young Kane did?

Can franchise defenseman-in-waiting Erik Gudbranson, the third overall pick in 2010, find his way in what is expected to be his first NHL season?

So many questions. So many possibilities. Did we mention so many questions?

"I wouldn't say it's a challenge. I would say everybody's got to prove themselves and be better," said Kopecky, who signed a rich four-year, $12 million deal this offseason and will be counted on to produce as a top-six winger after playing a smaller role in Detroit and Chicago, both of whom won Cups while Kopecky was part of their rosters.

"Once you start winning, the people are going to come in the stands," Kopecky said. "Hopefully we're going to be seeing that in no time."

The man in charge of making sense of all this is rookie coach Kevin Dineen.

"We have a real mix of depth that we're going to have to depend on," he said.

"There's a lot of options as a coach to slot players into different roles."

Whether it's unnerving or invigorating, the Florida Panthers will soon venture down a different path. Where that path takes them, who knows; but one thing seems certain, that path will be far from where they've been.

"Nobody's expecting much from us and that's fine," Tallon said. "I don't know what to expect, but I do know we're going to be a lot more fun to watch."