The 2011-2012 Florida Panthers season suddenly ended last week. While no one enjoys watching their team be knocked out of the playoffs, Panther fans, despite the feeling of emptiness, are grateful that throughout all the doubters, their hockey team was able to manage to not only make the playoffs but also win their division. Normally when someone’s favorite team is knocked out of the playoffs, that person deals with rage and anger like no one has ever witnessed. However there is a different feel here in South Florida. The fans are proud of the fact that the Panthers were able to do the things they’ve done in the previous season. With the promising season over, fans learned a few things. Here are my thoughts on the Panthers season and what the fans learned from the months October through April.
1: Kevin Dineen is a great coach.
From the minute he was hired by the Panthers, head coach Kevin Dineen had to deal with not only the pressure of being a first year NHL coach, but also being the new head coach of a Florida Panthers team that would start the season with 11 new players. Throughout his coaching career for the Portland Pirates, which is the AHL affiliate for the then Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, it wasn’t questioned that one day Dineen would be a great coach. The question was when will he get his opportunity which was heavily deserved. The day came on May 31st, 2011 when he was hired by the Panthers as their new head coach. Despite the fact that Dineen earned his opportunity to coach in the NHL, he was forced to take scrutiny from the media and analysts throughout the country. Because of the fact that he was a first year coach on a team that completely remade their roster in the offseason, there was plenty of doubt going through everyone’s mind outside of the Panthers organization and fans. With the Panthers being unsuccessful for the most part of the previous decade, Dineen came into an organization that saw coaches come and go, which also helped feed the doubt that Dineen would actually be a successful coach. As the doubt continued to grow, Dineen’s confidence as a coach also grew. As a first year coach in the pro’s Dineen proved to not only himself but also everyone who told him he couldn’t do it, that he can in fact do it at a high level. The Panthers success began early, as the team jumped out and took an early lead in the division. During the season, analysts and experts alike were just waiting to see the Panthers fall apart again and fail. With everyone watching the Panthers, the pressure was on. The Panthers and Dineen didn’t seem to mind though, as the team continued to play at a high level. As the season went on and suddenly came to a close, the Panthers were still on top of their division, while also securing their first spot in the playoffs in 12 years. With the season coming to a close, the Panthers needed just one more win to secure their first division title, and they were able to do just that. Not only did the Panthers have a winning season under a first year head coach, but they also won their very first division title. Panther fans are finally excited to have a head coach who brought something to the city and the team. With the coach of the year nominations recently being released, Dineen’s name was not on the list of finalists, however despite the snub, Panthers fans know that in their minds Dineen is coach of the year.
2: The team has a lot of heart.
If you look at the list of teams that blew up their roster, added all new players and coaches, and then went on to be division champions, you would have a very short list. In the previous offseason, the Panthers took a team that was used to disappointment after disappointment and “blew them up.” General Manager Dale Tallon went out and signed the players that were unwanted anywhere else. Players like former Hart Trophy winner Jose Theodore and former Cup Winners Kris Versteeg and Tomas Kopecky, while the young inexperienced players on the team such as Erik Gudbranson and Dmitri Kulikov were given plenty of ice time. The Panthers not only had new players and coaches, but they also had something they haven’t had in a while, an identity. The new physical and aggressiveness that the Panthers displayed in this past season is something we haven’t seen in a long time. With the additions of Ed Jovanovski and up and coming defender Erik Gudbranson, the team began to show the physicality that they lacked in previous seasons. Not only did these two players show toughness, but players like Kris Versteeg and Scottie Upshall also displayed toughness as they did whatever it took to win night in and night out. With the teams new found identity, the team was playing better than ever and they showed it by their ability to maintain their hold atop of the Southeast Division. As the team continued to play at a high level the players confidence continued to soar as they were able to continue to win games and put on a show for the fans. With the confidence growing in the team, they continued to put together victories. At the beginning of the season no one really expected the Panthers to come out and make noise like they did, however, the team made up of unwanted veterans and unproven rookies went on to knock off the Washington Capitals as top dogs of their division, capturing their first ever division title.
3: The potential for this team is through the roof.
The Florida Panthers are a team that it is made up of veterans and youngsters. This variation of age is exactly what the team needs. Throughout the season, Coach Kevin Dineen has put together line formations that will help the younger players like Gudbranson, Kulikov,and Shawn Matthias learn from the players with great NHL experience. With Gudbranson on the same line as veteran Ed Jovanovski and Dmitri Kulikov learning from the tough Mike Weaver, the Panthers were molding their defencemen of the future, while Shawn Matthias learned from forward Jerred Smithson. With the experienced players helping out the younger guys, the Panthers were getting ready for the future. The experience that the young guys were able to accumulate throughout the season was astonishing. We the fans saw Erik Gudbranson, Dmitri Kulikov, and Shawn Matthias grow up before our very own eyes. The progress that these players made throughout the season showed during the playoffs, as they looked like they were veterans.
With only five players set to become unrestricted free agents, the team will be seeing most of the team return. Not only will the majority of the team return, but the team, now having a full year together under their belt, they have the chance to come back even better next year. That’s up to them however. Just because the team won the division this year, doesn’t mean anything is guaranteed next year. They must come back next year with the same mentality they had this year. With the amount of veterans on this team, you have to think that they will indeed be ready next. Like I said in the title for this section, the potential for this team is indeed through the roof, and with the veterans knowing that their time is running out, that they will have a great offseason and they will also push the younger guys to get better. If they can have a great offseason and preseason, they can bring their momentum along with them into the 2012-2013 season.
Not only have we learned these things, but we’ve also learned more. We also learned that Jason Garrison is slowly developing into a great two-way defender as he was able to set Panther records for most goals scored by a defencemen. We also learned that Brian Campbell is not only one of the best players on the Panthers, but he has also developed into a premier player in the league. With Campbell being nominated for the Lady Byng Trophy and Dale Tallon being nominated for GM of the year, these two men both showed that they are as serious as anyone when it comes to winning.
Despite an early elimination in the playoffs, those are some things that fans can dwell on. Coming into the 2012-2013 season the Panthers are going to have a lot of things to look forward to. For starters, the raising of the Division Championship banner in the beginning of the season. The fans and players are hoping that next year will be just as great for the franchise. With all the players returning next year and with the youngsters with a lot of gained experience, the team will be coming into next season with added pressure as they most likely be the favorites in the division.
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Topics: Brian Campbell, Dmitri Kulikov, Ed Jovanovski, Erik Gudbranson, Florida Panthers, Jason Garrison, Jerred Smithson, Jose Theodore, Kevin Dineen, Kris Versteeg, Lady Byng Trophy, Mighty Ducks Of Anaheim, Mike Weaver, Portland Pirates, Scottie Upshall, Shawn Matthias, Tomas Kopecky