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A Plan Firmly In Place

Sunday, 08.26.2007 / 4:28 PM / News
Florida Panthers
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A Plan Firmly In Place
By Dave Joseph for

Olli Jokinen was first.

Forward Nathan Horton and Defenseman Bryan Allen
Then Mike Van Ryn, Ruslan Salei, Bryan Allen and Nathan Horton.

Then came Tomas Vokoun. Now add Stephen Weiss.

While this may seem merely a list of Panthers, it represents the fulfillment of a philosophy shaped more than six years ago; a philosophy to build through the Entry Draft and with players who will wear the Panther jersey for years rather than months.

Rewind: Shortly after purchasing the Panthers in July of 2001, owner Alan Cohen tells the (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel he wants to build through the draft with players who will remain with the Panthers for “seven to 10 years.”

At the time, Cohen’s plan seemed far off. The Panthers were coming off a 22-win season. There was no talent in the minors and few draft picks on the team.

Fast forward: Weiss signs a six-year deal August 23 and joins Horton and Allen as the third player this summer to sign an extension for at least five years. They join Jokinen, Van Ryn, Brett McLean, Salei and Vokoun as players with contracts for at least three more seasons.

In the words of the Grateful Dead, sometimes it seemed like a “long, strange trip.” But the Panthers’ patience is clearly beginning to yield rewards.

In the past two years, the Panthers have signed nearly all their core players to new contracts worth more than $140 million. They have solid prospects in the minors with Michael Frolik, Kenndal McArdle and Keaton Ellerby, and they’ve hired additional scouts, including special consultant and future NHL Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk.

Panthers GM and coach Jacques Martin and Panthers captain Olli Jokinen
“We had a plan to build through the draft,” Cohen said. “It takes patience, especially when you start off behind the eight ball. But it’s the only way to create an elite organization. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen overnight and that’s why some teams loose patience with this approach. But we’re there now, and with Jacques’ approach and his steady hand we should be a contender for a long, long time.

“It’s also great for our fans and the community to have these players stay on the team and, hopefully, for some to have their numbers retired here. I want to make sure that fans are able to buy jerseys and know they can put their favorite players name on the back and feel comfortable. Most importantly, it’s about being elite and that’s the way to do it.”

Cohen had faith that Martin was the man to help build on his philosophy after their first meeting. Like Cohen, Martin believed the way to build a team was drafting, developing and keeping players.

“I couldn’t have been happier to hear that, and I knew Jacques was the man I had to hire, particularly since he had so much success with the same formula in Ottawa” Cohen said. “A plan is great, but without Jacques…who knows if the plan would have been executed properly. Probably not. I couldn’t be happier or more on the same page. It’s been great.”

Martin, hired as coach in March of 2004 and named general manager in September of 2006, said he had a responsibility these past two years to the Panthers and their fans.

“Our responsibility was to get key players under contract,” he said. “But it really goes back to signing Olli (Jokinen) two years ago. When you look at what’s been done with Horton and Weiss and Allen and Vokoun, when you look at the commitment of ownership and the money being spent, I think it sends a strong message to our fans.”

While management moved forward to lock up the talent on its roster, it also looked toward free agency to fill holes on the team. They acquired Vokoun a day before the Entry Draft. Then, on the first day of free agency, the Panthers signed forwards McLean, Richard Zednik and Radek Dvorak.

2007 Panthers First Round Pick Keaton Ellerby and Panthers GM and coach Jacques Martin
“We brought in some additional players to help and also to buy some time with some of our younger players,” Martin said. “We have kids like Frolik and (Michael) Repik and (Keaton) Ellerby. They’re high picks we feel are going to play for us soon.”

Drafts picks that are now the face of the franchise. It’s a refreshing change.

Consider the drafts from 1997-2000: The Panthers selected 36 players during those four years. Incredibly, only one player remains with the organization.

Now consider the drafts from 2001-04: Weiss, Horton, Jay Bouwmeester and Rostislav Olesz were all first round picks. Other selections that have played with the Panthers and remain in the organization include David Booth, Gregory Campbell, Anthony Stewart, Rob Globke and Kamil Kreps.

The Panthers were already building their depth through the drafts when Martin arrived. But in the past year, Martin brought in assistant general manager Randy Sexton and realigned the scouting staff.

Scott Luce, director of scouting the past six seasons, had divided his time previously between amateur and professional scouting. Luce will focus more on amateur scouting while Bill O’Flagherty, hired this summer, will focus on pro scouting.

Add to the mix Nieuwendyk, who retired in December after two seasons with the Panthers. Nieuwendyk is a “wealth of knowledge” about the game of hockey, Martin said. He’ll spend time with some of the Panthers’ youngsters in Rochester, N.Y., with the club’s American Hockey League affiliate.

“Not only have we added to the player side,” Martin said. “But we’ve made good progress with our management.”

When Horton signed a six-year deal earlier this summer, he said, “I wanted to stay here and be part of this team.” Weiss, Allen and Jokinen have reiterated that statement.

“This is where I want to be,” Weiss said.

“Everything is here and ready,” Jokinen added.

And a plan firmly in place.

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