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Plenty of surprises surround Panthers' fast start

Wednesday, 11.23.2011 / 10:33 PM / NHL Insider

By Alain Poupart - NHL.com Correspondent

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Plenty of surprises surround Panthers' fast start
Dale Tallon was confident he had taken a positive step in rebuilding Florida  but the fast start by his team has been a pleasant surprise.
SUNRISE, Fla. -- Not even Dale Tallon could see this coming.

No question, the Florida Panthers general manager was confident he had taken a positive step in his rebuilding project this summer by adding almost a dozen new veterans to his roster.

But having his team near the top of the standings at the quarter mark of the regular season? That’s been a pleasant surprise.


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There was no doubt Florida had improved its talent level after finishing the 2010-11 season last in the Eastern Conference. But even under the most optimistic projection, it figured to take a while before the team came together with all the new players -- the roster features 13 newcomers, including veterans Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson, who arrived this October in a trade with Vancouver for David Booth, and 2010 first-round pick Erik Gudbranson.

Tallon credits not only the players, but first-year head coach Kevin Dineen and his assistants -- Gord Murphy, Craig Ramsay and Robb Tallas.

"You never know when you put that many new faces together, new coaching staff, all of that," Tallon said Tuesday after a practice at the BankAtlantic Center. "But it's a credit to Kevin and Craig and Gord and Robb Tallas and the players, all their effort, to get this together as quickly as possible.

"Yeah, better than expectations, obviously. We're very happy where we're at, but certainly not satisfied."

After Wednesday night's 2-1 victory against the New York Rangers, the Panthers are 12-6-3, their best 21-game start since 1996-97. That season they made the playoffs for a second consecutive year. Florida made the playoffs again in 1999-2000, but hasn't been back to the postseason since.

For longtime Panthers center Stephen Weiss, how this season would play out was a great unknown because of all the new faces.

"I don't really know if anyone had any expectations coming in," Weiss said. "With all the new guys, we were just going to take it one day, one practice and one game at a time and just try to get better as a group and see where we are. We're not looking to start any parties yet. We've got a look of work ahead of us. We're certainly happy with the way we started, but this is just the tip of the iceberg for us. We've got to keep pushing."

Dineen believes the foundation for the fast start was built in training camp. Unlike years past, when camp featured a team-building trip, the Panthers kept their practices in South Florida this time.

"As soon as training camp started, we could feel there was something special," said goalie Jose Theodore, another of the many first-year Panthers. "We saw right away that all the players were all here to change the Panthers’ tradition and we all had the same goal. We could tell from the start of training camp that the players really wanted to make a difference, especially the new players.

Added Dineen: "I think our setup in training camp was really good, having our guys here in South Florida. Our guys made a commitment. They got in here early and found places to live and got all the logistics out of the way, and when they got together and started on the hockey front, they all realized that finding a little chemistry was important."

Of course, chemistry only goes so far. It's not the only reason the Panthers have been winning games.

Perhaps the biggest reason has been the performance of their top line -- Weiss, Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann. When Dineen was looking for line combinations in training camp and the preseason, he hit the jackpot with this one.

Weiss, Versteeg and Fleischmann all rank among the top 20 point-getters in the League. When Versteeg had two goals in Monday's 4-3 victory against New Jersey, it gave him 25 points -- the most ever for a Panthers player in the first 20 games of a season.

The Panthers also have gotten great offensive production from their defensemen. Jason Garrison leads all NHL defensemen with eight goals, which is one more than his first three seasons combined. Brian Campbell and Dmitry Kulikov, meanwhile, both rank among the League leaders in assists by defensemen.

Then there's the goaltending. The decision to sign Theodore as a free agent instead of doing whatever it would take to keep Tomas Vokoun was considered dubious by many, but Theodore has been every bit as good as Vokoun was in recent years.

Asked for the one thing that stands out above the rest to explain his team's success, Dineen replied: "Goaltending, solid defensive play and a diversified offensive attack. That's not one thing, that's three things. As a coach, those things are all pretty important."

Veteran defenseman Mike Weaver, in his second season with the Panthers, points to Dineen and Tallon as two big factors in the Panthers' success.

"Kevin has done a great job," Weaver said. "He's a coach that everyone enjoys playing for. Same with our GM. We enjoy playing for our GM as well. It's a whole new attitude here."

This kind of start only brightens the long-term prospects for Tallon and the Panthers, who have one of the best collections of blue-chip prospects in the league -- Florida was ranked No. 1 in Hockey's Future organization rankings.

For Tallon, though, the blueprint hasn't changed. It's about building the team for long-term success. And the future certainly looks bright.

The present is just a lot more enjoyable than many -- including himself -- would have thought.
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