When this season began many people picked the Florida Panthers to miss the post season for what would be the 11th consecutive season. Most pundits felt that even with the new players acquired by general manager Dale Tallon that this hockey club would finish anywhere from 11th to 15th in the conference. As for myself I predicted an 8th place finish in the conference, without any concern for trying to win the division which I felt that Washington had a clear path to. My how things have changed in a few months. Not only are the Florida Panthers in third place in the conference, they are also in first place in the Southeast division.
The season isn’t over as there are still 21 games for the Panthers to play, and anything can happen, but should they end up finally conquering their long suffering playoff drought, I thought it would be a good time to take a look at five reasons why it will happen.
# 5 New Attititude: When Dale Tallon cleaned house and fired head coach Peter DeBoer at the end of last season, he was making a statement that he wanted a fresh start. Dale has all but rid the organization of most anything that had either Jacques Martin or DeBoer’s fingerprints on it, and that’s a good thing. The players that Dale either traded for or signed as free agents have brought a sense of character, work eithic, and commaraderie that hasn’t been seen in the dressing room here in South Florida for years. Many analysts like Craig Button pointed to team chemistry as being a major issue. I can tell you in all honesty that this is the best group of players that I have seen together in this organization in a very long time.
#4 Brian Campbell: Soupy as he is affectionately called was the very first move that Dale made at the NHL Draft in 2011 as part of the overhaul. Convincing the smooth skating, puck moving defenceman to waive his no trade clause and leave Chicago where he won a Stanley Cup in 2010 to come here was a stroke of genius. Getting the Hawks to take on the albatross contract of Rostislav Olesz as part of the trade was a shrewd move as well. Olesz is in the minors making a tad over $3 million dollars, and with all the injuries that have hit the Hawks at various times, appears stuck. One of the first things that Campbell said after training camp began was that it was “unacceptable to not make the playoffs”.
#3 Trading for Kris Versteeg and signing Tomas Flesichmann. Both players have had a major impact on the performance of this hockey team. Both players for the first time in their careers have had the opportunity to get first line minutes on a regular basis and have been the catalyst for the quick start while meshing with center Stephen Weiss. Probably the best linemates that Weiss has ever had, the trio dubbed the FlashMob Line here, has been nothing short of exciting and fun to watch. When these three are clicking, there are as good as you’re going to get. They’ve slipped a bit recently which is to be expected in an 82 game season, but they will get it back together. It is because of their early success however that the Panthers find themselves where they are today.
#2 Jose Theodore: Who knew he could be this good? Who knew he still had the ability to be a number one goaltender and carry a team? I think Theodore knew and so did Dale Tallon. For all the fans who felt that the loss of Tomas Vokoun would hurt the Panthers immensely, I think you can rest assured that your worries were an over reaction. Theodore who had a terrible (or stinky) preseason, has responded to the challenge of being the top dog in a city that is used to having solid goaltending. In 37 games Theodore has 16 wins a modest 2.39 goals against average and a .920 save percentage. Numbers that for the most part are similar to Vokoun’s in some respects, Theodore has proven on most nights the ability to carry the load. He missed about five weeks with a knee injury, but has come back stronger and more consistent than when the season first started. Give him credit for proving you wrong. He can do the job.
#1 Kevin Dineen: Dale Tallon has his imprint all over this team without a doubt, and while you might want him installed here as the number one reason for Florida’s success, I think you know the remarkable job that he’s done without me doing that. Hiring Kevin Dineen as the coach to stir the drink and figure out the line combinations, and defensive parings has proved to be the most intelligent thing Dale’s done. Dineen a former player (like Tallon) has taken the knowledge that he’s learned by playing for 20 years at the NHL level, and coaching in the minors for six years, is proving to be just another perfect piece to the blueprint. His handling of rookie defenceman Erik Gudbranson by bringing him along slowly is starting to pay dividends as the youngster is getting better and better as the season moves along. Dineen is smart at motivating, he holds his players accountable, and has emotions that he shows which filter down to his team. There may have been other coaches who had more NHL coaching experience who may have been a more appropriate choice early on. But right now, Dale’s best move this season was his first. Hiring Kevin Dineen.
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