One of the big stories this past weekend came Friday when the Florida Panthers dismissed coach Kevin Dineen and replaced him with Peter Horachek. I think there were a lot of reasons this move came about, with the obvious one being that for the second straight season the Panthers are struggling. New Panthers owner Vincent Viola, I think to some extent, wants to put his stamp on the team by pushing general manager Dale Tallon to make a change, but it's important to show your fans you won't settle for what's happening on the ice, and that's what this move does.
In addition to that, though, it looks to me like the players had quit listening to Dineen. In recent weeks you started seeing veteran players like Kris Versteeg as healthy scratches. When you have to start doing that as a coach, scratching veterans and guys that are supposed to be your leaders, that tends to tell you there's trouble in the dressing room. This was Dineen's third year in Florida and that third year tends to be when the majority of coaches get fired. They run out of ways to say what they believe in and the players can get tired of hearing you. I think that's what happened with Kevin.
Of course, some things were out of Dineen's control. There were a ton of injuries last season and this season, a number of guys they were counting on are having terrible years and a lot of the young guys haven't progressed as quickly as the team would have hoped. Don't forget, the Panthers also lost Stephen Weiss and Jason Garrison to free agency over the past few years and you can't really replace those guys.
What makes this all so remarkable is that just 18 months ago the Panthers were a double-overtime goal in Game 7 against the New Jersey Devils from advancing to the second round of the playoffs and Dineen was being talked about as coach of the year. Since then it's been a disaster. I think the Panthers thought they were over the hump in the spring of 2012, but now they've fallen back. There are some nice pieces in the system and they've got some great young kids like Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, but they just don't have enough. For a team that's drafted high for a number of years, they shouldn't be in rebuilding mode again, but they are.
WEST COAST BIAS
We spoke with Patrick Sharp the other night and he said the Chicago Blackhawks are looking at the scoreboard every day and they think they're playing great -- and they are -- but they just haven't gained ground on anyone. That's how amazing the Western Conference is this season. There are so many good teams and so many teams that are playing great right now that we're in for an amazing race the rest of this season.
I look at the Western Conference and I see about seven teams with their feet under them that look like surefire playoff teams that could finish anywhere from first to fifth in their division. The Anaheim Ducks are playing great, the St. Louis Blues beat the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night, the Vancouver Canucks are playing great, Chicago is obviously among the conference's elite and then there's the Colorado Avalanche, who haven't cooled off from their amazing start yet. It's just nuts how many good teams there are in the West.
The Pacific Division in particular is remarkable. I don't see any individual team in the Pacific dominating and I think all of the top five teams will make the postseason because I just can't see any of them falling flat on their face if they stay healthy. There's the danger that the Pacific teams could also beat up on each other, but because no team stands out I think they'll get their fair share of points against one another and stay pretty even. I also see the Pacific teams winning a majority of the games against the Central Division and completely cleaning up against the East.
If you want an idea of just how much better the West is than the East, look at the Dallas Stars. The Stars went east last week and won in Detroit and Boston. Then they went back to the West and they just aren't able to be a factor in their division. The West plays faster, more upbeat hockey than the East. The teams there are built for the new rules better than in the East and they have really done a better job of seeing how hockey is evolving.
TROUBLE ON THE ISLAND
If the Western teams can't seem to get other teams out of their way because everyone is playing so well, the Eastern Conference teams, by and large, can't seem to get out of their own way at all. A lot of teams in the East are struggling, and the one that seems to be wasting the biggest opportunity to me is the New York Islanders. The Islanders made the biggest waves in the League this season when they acquired Thomas Vanek from the Buffalo Sabres, but not only does he have one goal for New York, now he's hurt, and the Islanders haven't played any better with him around. You would have thought this move would really give New York a jump, but it hasn't played out that way.
If the Islanders had a good stretch over the past few weeks, they'd be second in the Metropolitan right now with a huge advantage over the rest of the division. With the way the Islanders have played, they've brought themselves back to the pack rather than jumping ahead of it. They've blown a chance to separate themselves and that could really come back to haunt them come April.
Not only have the Islanders been leaving points on the table, but they're losing to teams they have to beat. In the first three games of this trip they lost to division rivals in the Carolina Hurricanes, Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, before falling to the Montreal Canadiens on Sunday. It's still early of course, there's 75 percent of the season to go so the Islanders can get out of this rut and be fine, but at the moment they're really missing a chance to pick up points while other teams are struggling.