Published July 14, 2011
As the general manager of the Florida Panthers, Dale Tallon has spent the offseason doing the type of shopping reserved for someone who received an unlimited gift card at a home design store. With about a dozen new players added to the roster in the span of a month, Tallon has purchased all the supplies necessary for the Panthers to create a comfortable living space.
That makes first-year coach Kevin Dineen the interior decorator, the one with the challenge of getting all of Tallon's new pieces to work together before the Panthers play their first regular-season game, Oct. 8 at the New York Islanders.
Dineen spent the past six seasons coaching the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League before being hired by the Panthers on June 1. About six weeks into the new job, the hardest part has been getting in touch with so many new players and running up his cell phone bill.
"I waited to get in the office to call the Euros because I don't think that falls under my phone plan," Dineen joked before getting serious about what it's going to take to bring all these new players together in such a short period of time.
"It is a challenge. I don't think you can underestimate that," he said. "Chemistry plays a role in everything you do in our business. I like the idea that we play six exhibition games and five of them are in Southern Florida, and after our last exhibition game we have eight days before we start the regular season. I think that's going to be a real important time period for us. Once we get the core of our lineup together, that'll be a time we start setting some team goals and that comes from both the coaching staff and the players. I look at that being an important window for getting us all on the same page."
To review, Tallon added forwards Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Matt Bradley and Ryan Carter; defensemen Ed Jovanovski and Brian Campbell; and goaltender Jose Theodore during the offseason.
Dineen said he was part of the discussions with Tallon about who the team would target in the free-agent market July 1, but as someone who has focused solely on the AHL since 2005, he had no trouble deferring to the front office and scouting department when it came to signing NHL talent.
His new focus is on the task of making a team out of so many individuals who haven't played together, something that was part of the job description while coaching in Portland.
"In my six years there, there's probably about 70 percent change in your lineup year to year," Dineen said. "That's just the nature of the game. There's players coming up from junior, first-year pros, there's guys who have played in the NHL that are trying to re-establish themselves at that level. So I think you get used to that in the American league. You have to get everybody on the same page, and that's what's really exciting for me, to have that nice window of time to spend some time together as a group before we start the regular season."
Dineen, who scored 355 goals in 19 NHL seasons, said the players he's been able to reach by phone haven't had any worries about being part of a rebuilding franchise that hasn't made the postseason since 2000 and is coming off a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference. He said there's a sense of excitement among the new players to get to training camp Sept. 16 and start fresh.
Despite the long odds facing the Panthers this season, Dineen said the team's goal is the same as everyone else's at this time of year.
"We certainly have a picture of the Cup, and that's the ultimate goal," Dineen said. "For me, I don't think of myself as a long-range planner like that. I'm looking more to starting training camp and building up to our first game in Long Island. You take it a step at a time, and it's really important this franchise gets off to a good start. There's a lot of new faces, but you can see there's a lot of quality players returning in (Stephen) Weiss, (David) Booth, (Mike) Weaver, (Dmitry) Kulikov. There's some real quality players and people there that will certainly help our new players and, in all honesty, myself in this transition."
At this point, Dineen is looking at his roster and envisioning how it will shape up for that first game against the Islanders. Dineen knows his team lacks a superstar or a game-breaker, but he's expecting depth to be a major asset for his team as he draws up line combinations and defense pairings.
"I'm sitting in my office and I've got a board here and it's kind of fun when you start jotting down possible combinations and seeing where players may end up," Dineen said. "That's nothing I want to get committed to in July. We'll get into camp and we'll start putting some people together and finding the right chemistry that's going to give them a chance to go out there and play to what their strengths are.
"I know we have some great team speed. When you have that speed, that's something you try to take advantage of. With the ability to move the puck to get going and create offense off the rush, I look at that as being one of our strengths."
Another strength is the young prospects the team boasts, all of whom have been on display during the team's development camp this week. Defenseman Erik Gudbranson (first round, 2010), forward Jonathan Huberdeau (first round, 2011) and goaltender Jacob Markstrom (second round, 2008) are three recent draft picks with a chance at cracking the opening-night roster, Dineen said.
With 14 forwards under contract, the 6-foot-1, 171-pound Huberdeau, the third pick of last month's draft, could be facing another season at the junior level to grow and develop. The Panthers also have veteran goaltenders Theodore and Scott Clemmensen signed, so the 21-year-old Markstrom, who had knee surgery in March, likely will begin the season in the AHL.
At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, the 19-year-old Gudbranson, the third pick of the 2010 draft, probably has the best chance to make the club, assuming he and the team come to terms on a contract. By all accounts, Gudbranson played well enough to make the Panthers out of training camp last season, but instead spent all of 2010-11 with the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL.
"In Buffalo when I was there and associated with them, they were very neutral on Tyler Myers in training camp, whether he was going to stay there or go back to junior," Dineen said. "I think really it's a performance-based thing. Tyler just kept playing well and kept playing better.
"(Gudbranson) is a guy with tremendous upside. We're excited about him as a player. I also know that to step into the League as a defenseman is always something where the learning curve is a little bit longer. A forward can get away with a few more mistakes. Erik is a guy we're very excited about."
It's also comforting for Dineen to know that with veterans Campbell and Jovanovski on the roster, there won't be a need for Gudbranson to take on too much responsibility in his first NHL season.
"When young players get surrounded by those veterans, not only are they good players, but they're quality people," Dineen said. "They're able to share those past experiences with those players. I think that's certainly going to be a real asset for me."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo