After a torrid start to the season which saw the Cats sit near the top of the Eastern Conference, Florida Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen had to feel better about his first season behind an NHL bench. Coming into the 2011-2012 season, the Panthers were picked by many to finish near the bottom of the conference, mostly due to a hodgepodge lineup that was hastily (and expensively) assembled during the previous offseason through free agency and trades by second-year GM Dale Tallon. Yet despite the projections and scuttlebutt, the Panthers shined through the early months, and continued to play well enough to earn the club its first division title in team history, and the first playoff appearance in over a decade.
That's quite a feat for a head coach in his first year with a new team, let alone his first year in the NHL. Dineen's style meshed with the players, helped bring the team together and created an atmosphere of credibility, intensity and fun. Credit has to be given to assistants Gord Murphy and Craig Ramsay as well; their contributions on special teams and overall were invaluable. Although the penalty kill suffered statistically, the powerplay was vastly improved and was a difference maker the entire season for Florida.
After a disappointing end to the postseason for the Cats, Dineen and his team entered the summer ready to regroup, prepare for another playoff push and hopefully contend for the Stanley Cup. There's an influx of talent on the horizon, and despite the loss of top defenseman Jason Garrison, the Panthers roster looks deeper than its been in a very long time.
So what can we expect from Dino's Panthers next season?
The name of the game last year was speed. The Panthers possessed a lineup replete with players who could move the puck up the ice and transition quickly, and we should expect to see more of the same. Against teams who do not counter the transition game well, Florida will continue to exploit any holes they can find. Dineen has instilled a very up-tempo offensive game into the lineup, which was a stark contrast to his predecessor in Florida, Peter DeBoer. To be fair, DeBoer never had the talent that Dineen has had during his time in Florida, but it's great to see Dineen utilizing the guys in his lineup based on the skillsets they possess. With upcoming phenom Jonathan Huberdeau being a virtual lock to play left wing with the Cats next season, Florida will have another weapon in the transition game and a proven playmaker to hopefully turn more of those rushes up ice into goals.
Florida struggled last season in the goal-scoring department, and they had significant trouble with teams that not only stifled their transition game but managed to apply a healthy dose of forechecking as well. That was no more evident than in the playoff series against the New Jersey Devils, where the constant stifling forecheck of the Devils kept the Panther defenseman running around in their own zone, constantly under pressure and unable to break out to kickstart the transition game. The Cats never seemed to have a good answer to teams who could prevent their speed from taking over the game, and Florida didn't really have the lineup to play a complete forechecking game. Dineen and his staff are going to have to find a way to approach the dump-and-chase forecheck style more effectively next season or the Cats are going to continue to struggle against those teams. With the loss of Garrison, and the acquisition of talented-yet-fragile Peter Mueller, the Panthers didn't seem to address this issue with offseason moves.
Above all else, Dineen's biggest issue to address with the team this offseason is a killer instinct. The Panthers had a league-leading 18 overtime losses last year, many of them coming in the shootout. Folks who watched the games remember countless heartbreaking losses in overtime, with tons of missed opportunities abound. The coaching staff has to ensure that the 18 points left on the table from those losses aren't going to happen next season. Had the Panthers won just a third of those games, they would have finished with 100 points and a very comfortable divisional lead over rival Washington. They would've marched into the playoffs and not slumped in, as so many pundits pointed out. Shootouts are clearly a sore point, but if the Cats could win the game in the first OT frame, the shootout's less of an issue.
Dineen's AHL pedigree during his time in Portland, while coaching the Pirates to six consecutive winning seasons, speaks volumes to his ability to develop younger players, and many guys who played under Dineen in Portland ended up having commendable NHL careers. It's no coincidence that the Panthers, who have the top-ranked prospect pool in the NHL, hired a coach known to have success developing youth. Dineen will be called upon not only to manage the long-time veterans on the Panthers but to smoothly integrate the many talented prospects Florida has coming through the pipeline. Dineen managed to do so with blue chip defensive prospect Erik Gudbranson last season and will be given the opportunity to introduce Huberdeau and fellow rookies Quinton Howden, Drew Shore and Colby Robak to the big league next season. If Dineen can get these kids playing to their potential after the mid-point of the season, the Panthers will have some serious depth to speak of.
Without a doubt, the Panthers exceeded the expectations of everyone last season, including Tallon and Dineen. However, for an organization that has been preaching a "blueprint" and a "winning culture", the bar is now set, and Dineen's going to have a tough time finding a way to not only repeat last season's successes, but improving upon them. In regards to personell moves over the summer, the Panthers were much more reserved than most of their division rivals, and it will be up to Dineen, Murphy and Ramsay to turn last year's overachievers into a squad that is a consistent threat to win games every night. With the talent coming up from juniors and the AHL, the Panthers have depth unlike anything fans have seen in nearly a decade. It's up to the coaches to turn that depth into a perennial contender for the division crown.