Worst to first, and not even a nomination. That’s what the Florida Panthers, Kevin Dineen, and his fans must come to grips with. Florida came in dead last in the eastern conference last season, went through an offseason that saw a virtual complete overhaul of the roster, stuck a rookie head coach behind the bench, and went out and won their first division title in franchise history, staying atop the division for 128 consecutive days. Well done, pat on the back, too bad.
Up front, it must be said that the three nominees for the Jack Adams award for coach of the year are certainly deserving. Ken Hitchcock should win the award going away for taking a 6-7-0 St. Louis Blues team and going 43-15-11 to claim 2nd place in the western conference. Paul MacLean’s Ottawa Senators were predicted to finish right next to Florida in the bottom of the standings, instead finishing 8th. John Tortorella had his team in contention for the Presidents Trophy until the last week of the season. All three are worthy. There are even other coaches that warrant consideration, like Nashville’s Barry Trotz. Kevin Dineen is just more worthy.
The Panthers improved twenty two points in just one season. Twenty two! In comparison, MacLean and Ottawa improved 18 points. Tortorella and the Rangers 16. But what MacLean and Tortorella had in their favor was consistency in the locker room, with leaders like Daniel Alfredsson and Ryan Callahan. In Florida, Dineen took over a completely new team, with a mish mash of castaways from other teams’ scrap heaps, and yet the Panthers lost 14 fewer games than they did just one season ago. Of the 20 players on the playoff roster that Kevin Dineen put on the ice, 15 of them weren’t with the team last season. Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell, Jason Garrison, Sean Bergenheim, and Shawn Matthias all had career years in terms of goals or points. Jose Theodore, shunned to backup duties the prior two seasons, was brought in to be the starter in Florida and turned in a shockingly solid season. Kevin Dineen has to be given recognition for taking a new locker room, void of any semblance of chemistry, and instantly getting results. The new look Panthers posted a 7-3-3 record in November, and continued to win throughout the season amidst a mountain of obstacles.
The new faces of the Panthers weren’t just limited to those acquired through offseason signings and in-season trades. For a good portion of the schedule, Florida was decimated by injuries. For a couple of weeks in the heart of the season, the Panthers were without seven of their starting forwards. Two full lines and a sub. Leaning heavily on their AHL affiliate, Florida continued to hold onto first place. Sean Bergenheim, Ed Jovanovski, Jack Skille, Marco Sturm, and Scottie Upshall all missed substantial time during the season. At various times of the season, four of Florida’s six defenseman combined for fewer than one full NHL season. Rookie defensemen Erik Gudbranson, Keaton Ellerby, Tyson Stratchan, Nolan Yonkman and Colby Robak all spent time with the big club. Kris Versteeg missed 9 games late in the season, and he was only the team’s leading scorer at the time of his injury. But the Panthers kept rolling. Whether it was bringing up inexperienced rookies and getting results with AHLers like Michael Repik, Bracken Kearns, or Bill Thomas, or bringing in more new faces midseason like Jerred Smithson, John Madden, or Wojtek Wolski, Dineen kept the team moving forward. Excuses weren’t an option. The Panthers stayed in first for 128 straight days.
Now I don’t want to diminish the seasons the three nominees had. So I’ll only diminish one of them. Kevin Dineen is more deserving than John Tortorella. Sure, “Torts” won the conference, and did so convincingly. But would you rather have Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik or Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleischmann? The Panthers top line, at their peak, would have been, at best, a decent 2nd line on the Rangers. Would you rather have Vezina favorite Henrik Lundqvist or former Minnesota backup Jose Theodore in net? In a perfect example of how the rosters compare, the Panthers actually traded with the Rangers this season, acquiring Wojtek Wolski because New York couldn’t find a spot for him in their lineup. Wolski came in and immediately made in impact, scoring in his first game with Florida and bouncing between the 2nd and 3rd lines, averaging about 15 minutes of ice time. Finally, as of late March (which was the most recent graphic I was able to find since the NHL doesn’t seem to keep this as an official stat), through about 70 games played, the Panthers had 309 man-games lost to injury. The Rangers just 199. So which coach do you think had the tougher job winning his division?
Kevin Hitchcock should win the Jack Adams Award. Kevin Dineen should have been nominated. He took a team that hadn’t made the playoffs in 12 years and had never won a division title and erased both of those records. He took an overhauled roster with no legitimate top line star and created chemistry day one. He kept the often overlooked and ignored Florida Panthers in first place for 128 days, despite a roster that was rarely consistent due to injuries. His team finished 2 points ahead of nominee Paul MacLean’s squad. Kevin Dineen was snubbed.