Saturday, January 28, 2012

Leadership is praised for Florida Panthers’ turnaround

By George Richards of The Miami Herald

NHL observers at the All-Star Game credited GM Dale Tallon and coach Kevin Dineen for the Panthers’ strong showing this season.

OTTAWA -- Picked to finish near the bottom of the Eastern Conference before the season started by most experts, the Panthers are not only in the hunt for a playoff spot, but also a division championship as well.

The Panthers went into the All-Star break with 55 points — tied with Washington for the Southeast Division lead and seventh overall in the conference. There are 34 games left. Surprised?

“I am not surprised at all,’’ said Pierre McGuire of NBC Sports. “Breaking down what [GM] Dale Tallon had done by bringing in a veteran presence and stability in goal with Jose Theodore, I’m not surprised with what Florida has done. I am a little surprised at where Washington is right now.

“[Coach] Kevin Dineen has made a huge difference, as has [assistants] Craig Ramsay and Gord Murphy. And of course, Dale Tallon, as well. That team was crying out for leadership and direction. Look at what it has done for them.’’

When the All-Star break ends, the Panthers could be in make-or-break mode as All-Star defenseman Brian Campbell put it on Friday. Florida opens with four divisional opponents — including two against Washington. The Capitals visit Sunrise in the first game after the break on Wednesday.

Defenseman Dennis Wideman was part of the Panthers’ salary purge at the trade deadline last February, being sent to the Capitals. An All-Star selection this season, Wideman knows it could be Florida keeping Washington from its fifth consecutive division title.

“They signed a lot of good players in the offseason, so when things started, I looked at them as a contender, a playoff team,’’ Wideman said. “... We have a lot of games down the stretch against the Panthers. These four point games are getting to be important.’’

Both Dave Strader and Kevin Weekes have history with the Panthers organization and have paid attention to what Florida has done this season. Strader, Florida’s TV voice from 2005-07, credits Tallon’s sweeping changes as the reason for the early success.

“I honestly thought Florida would be the surprise team in the Eastern Conference,’’ said Strader, now with NBC. “It was such a terrific makeover of the roster, although you never know how a team will gel. But they have. I watch as many of their games as I can, and it’s great to see how the market has embraced what the team has done.’’

Weekes, Florida’s backup goalie in 1997-98 after being an original draft pick in 1993, gave credit to Dineen and Tallon for changing not only a losing atmosphere but also bringing the fun back into the locker room. The Panthers, led by newcomers Kris Versteeg and Campbell, are a much looser bunch than in years past.

“I like that Dale Tallon thinks outside of the box, so he didn’t just take players based on predisposed notions,’’ said Weekes, who works for the NHL Network. “... And I played against Kevin Dineen and think he has a great approach to the game, and it has rubbed off. They are in position to succeed now.

“It’s very upbeat in Florida right now. Guys love coming to the rink, but know they have to work. It’s still a game. You have to work, but it should be fun being an NHL player. I think you see that with the Panthers now.’’

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