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Southeast Division champion Panthers ready to build off last season's success

Florida coach Kevin Dineen ran a practice during the NHL lockout at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where his daughter plays hockey.

Hannah Dineen's team had a game on Wednesday.

Her father was 1,500 miles away — and is beyond eager for the chance to coach his real team again.

There might not be many teams with more reason for optimism going into this delayed and shortened NHL season than the Panthers, who ended a 12-year playoff drought last spring by winning the Southeast Division and bring back virtually every key part of the team that took eventual Stanley Cup finalist New Jersey to overtime in Game 7 of their first-round series.

"That's part of our identity now," Dineen said. "We were a team that wasn't looked upon as a top-notch team in the league and I think winning our division is something to be proud of and something to build off. We were all looking forward to getting started in September, and even though it's January we're all still looking forward to legitimizing this franchise as a team that you have to play extremely hard against every night to get points."

The NHL's owners and players struck a tentative deal early this week to end the lockout. Owners unanimously ratified the labor deal on Wednesday, and players are expected to vote on Friday and Saturday. If they approve the terms, training camps would likely begin Sunday — with the first games to be played on Jan. 19.

A frenetic 48-game schedule would await, with some Panthers players talking Wednesday about the notion of playing five games in the season's first eight days.

"You guys know how important the start of the season is in an 82-game schedule and that's just going to magnify in a shortened season," Panthers forward Stephen Weiss said. "All the games will be meaningful right off the bat."

The Panthers packed up their temporary locker room at a public rink on Wednesday morning, set to make the short move back to their usual training facility for more workouts starting on Thursday. Teams were still collecting information on Wednesday about when full interaction with players — much was forbidden during the lockout — can resume as normal.

Like most teams, the Panthers have had a core of players working out together for months, wearing practice jerseys with the NHL Players Association logo. In many cases, they arranged the workouts on their own, even doing their own laundry. For example, when Panthers forward Kris Versteeg emerged from the locker room Wednesday, he asked defenseman Ed Jovanovski if he needed him to wash the towel he absent-mindedly left behind.

"Lockout problems," Versteeg said.

Like Dineen, Versteeg did some coaching during the lockout — he was an assistant at the University of Lethbridge, in his hometown in the Canadian province of Alberta.

He saw the game a different way during his coaching stint, which he thinks could help him as a player now.

"It was fun," Versteeg said. "You definitely have to take a different look into how you see the game and how you think about the game, how players react to the way you talk. So it was definitely neat. It's something I might pursue some day."

Fortunately, that may not be anytime soon.

Versteeg was a bit outspoken at times about the lockout, but on Wednesday insisted that he's just thrilled the game is back.

"You run on emotions at times and you're sorry for the way you say the things," Versteeg said. "But in the end, all you want to do is play hockey and get back on the ice."