Only eight games remain in the Florida Panthers up and down season, and with the likelihood of playoffs quite high despite two recent forgettable games, some concerns have been raised about the direction the team is trending. Whether you look at a shootout loss to the 29th place Edmonton Oilers as a glass half empty or half full, there are a few facets of the Panthers recent play that don't bode well for an imminent playoff series. Many of these shortcomings are falling square on the shoulders of a rookie coach; something that can be expected since after all a rookie is a rookie whether a forward, defenseman or coach. But at some point, one has to wonder if those shortcomings can be fixed before the Panthers find themselves down three games in a series or worse; on the outside looking in.On Friday night, the usual slow, monotonous pace of the Panthers got me thinking. There have been some signs shown by the Panthers over the last ten games(as well as most of the season, but they've cropped up again in recent games) that simply aren't painting a pretty picture for the remainder of the season and the playoffs. Before, when the Panthers would go through a tough stretch it would be due to a combination of bad efforts; usually the forwards wouldn't skate well, the defense couldn't recover and the goaltender would have an off night. Lately, this hasn't been the case. Jose Theodore has played spectacularly and the now injury free defense is back on track, but the forwards can barely muster two goals a night, if even. It boils down to more than just running into a hot goalie, because unless the Panthers face Toronto, they can't score.
So lets look at the changes seen to the Panthers over the last few games. Four players have returned from the IR, Marco Sturm, Scottie Upshall, Dmitry Kulikov and Kris Versteeg. This prompted some changes to the lineup, most notably ousting Jerred Smithson, Mike Santorelli and Krys Barch from the lineup as well as two questionable scratches out of the blue as Shawn Matthias and Wojtek Wolski sat against Carolina. As of last night, both players would find themselves back on the third line while Kris Versteeg shimmied onto the first and Upshall was banished to the fourth. All is well, right? Well, in fact these moves are what may be causing problems for the Panthers offense.
See when scoring was a problem earlier in the season, you really couldn't fault Kevin Dineen for throwing together a different lineup each game since injuries had made it so impossible to build chemistry among the lines. However, as of late the Panthers lineup is completely healthy save Matt Bradley and Jack Skille, two guys who bring their own flare to the lineup but neither are deemed integral parts. So with a mostly healthy lineup, you could argue that even without Skille and Bradley the Panthers have the best depth they've had all season and thus the best scoring threat.
Well, unfortunately this is where Dineen is making rookie mistakes. After player post-game interviews earlier in the season, a recurring phrase kept popping up among the players, something along the lines of "it's hard to build chemistry when you have a different lineup each night". Well, when injuries were a problem it was an unavoidable occurrence to have to switch up the lines frequently, but with plenty of players sitting in the pressbox each night it's no longer a necessary move to rearrange the fourth line for each new game. And yet, Dineen hasn't been able to stick with the same scratches for more than a few days and thus changes the complexion of the lower lines each game. Dineen has made a point to run with the same goaltender as much as possible to get him in a rhythm, and yet won't do the same for his lower lines. At some point, a veteran coach will insert the best guys in the lineup as playoffs near and let them gel. Some guys are going to fight their way on to that fourth line like John Madden did, others will lose their spot as Santorelli did. If changes need to be made, make them. If not, leave it alone.
What makes Dineen's tactics so confusing is the fact that he wouldn't break up the line of Tomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Versteeg even if someone was holding a gun to his head. Early in the season this line was the best in the NHL and kept the Panthers in games when they couldn't get secondary scoring. Late in the season, it's been the exact opposite; Florida relies on secondary scoring to come through because the top line simply can't create enough scoring chances. When Versteeg missed several games to injury, many thought the Panthers were shot until he returned. However, since returning Dineen has had all three players back on a line and wouldn't you know it; the offense goes dry and the team takes a step back.
It's all speculation at this point, but I get the feeling Dineen and Dale Tallon aren't on the same page when it comes to Scottie Upshall and Wojtek Wolski. These are two guys Dineen hasn't had much experience with since most of Upshall's season has been lost to injury and Wolski was brought over in a trade. Wolski has a history of performing well late in the season and became a force for the Panthers for all of ten games before Dineen started cutting his ice time. Upshall? Well Scottie's seen his best days sitting on the third line for the entire season. Back before his hernia surgery, this was acceptable because the top line was producing well and Dineen was trying hard to build secondary scoring with Tomas Kopecky and Marcel Goc behind Flash-Weiss-Versteeg. However now that the top line is washed up and the Panthers forwards as a whole look terrible, there is absolutely no reason not to at least bump Upshall to the third line where he can get some notable ice-time with quality players. Whether you think he's overpaid or not, Tallon didn't sign Upshall to play with John Madden and Krys Barch. And Tallon didn't trade for Wolski so Dineen could bench him during a scoring streak. When scoring is so abysmal, Dineen doesn't have the lee-way to make examples out of his players, even if they're not performing up to par.
So take these points as you will, but remember that before we grab pitchforks and torches; Kevin Dineen is still a rookie coach and these criticisms fall under the umbrella of rookie mistakes. As the offseason draws near, Dineen will have a full season under his belt and time to reflect upon what needs to happen for his lineup to recapture the dynamic drive fans saw early in the season. This is where the beauty of Tallon's four year contract come in; instead of having massive turnover like last year, the core will still be intact and Dineen won't have to start from scratch again. Flash won't be leaving Florida for greener pastures and Upshall has a chance to redeem himself after a lost season. The bright side of all of this is that Dineen doesn't have to make the same mistakes again to learn from, and coasting to the finish line is enough for his team to make the playoffs. No one's marching in the streets calling for Dineen's head, but there are small changes that need to be made to improve his lineup on the eve of the playoffs.