SUNRISE, Fla. -- Now that the Florida Panthers are back in the playoffs, general manager Dale Tallon should get ready to start receiving some well-deserved kudos for the way he reshaped the team's roster last summer with an influx of veterans, most of whom performed up to expectations, and often beyond.
But there was another decision Tallon made a month before all those moves that was just as important, if not more, and he obviously hit the mark when he hired Kevin Dineen to be the team's new coach.
The Panthers' ability to earn a spot in the playoffs this season, let alone win the Southeast Division, came as a surprise to many observers. The reason expectations were so low wasn't the personnel, but rather the belief that it would take some time for all the new parts to mesh.
That's where Dineen came in.
"It's a very difficult task to come in and have 10, 12 new players, new bodies, and try to get everybody on the same page," first-year Winnipeg coach Claude Noel said before his team faced the Panthers on Tuesday. "I think Kevin Dineen has done a really good job here, and his staff, getting everybody going. They suffered through injuries like everyone else, but they've been able to have a really successful season. They've been consistent. They've got some bright young players and bringing in some older guys, but it's all worked out well."
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When he introduced his new coach at a press conference last June, Tallon said he knew Dineen "was the guy" as soon as he began talking to him.
Dineen's first season behind the bench in Florida only has reinforced Tallon's faith.
"I think that we all anticipated that he would do a great job," Tallon said. "He had a history as a player and as a coach in the minors. It's not easy the first year, but he's handled it with a lot of class and he's working really hard. He's been fun. It's been fun to be around him. It's been enjoyable to go to work.
"I like his passion, and his compassion, as well. He really cares. He really cares about his players and he really cares about the details and getting the guys prepared. And his hard work, as well."
Passion is a word that comes up a lot when Panthers players are asked about Dineen.
Asked to provide an example of Dineen's passion, Jovanovski said: "Just watch the bench during the game. This guy, he's always engaged in what's going on. In certain situations when you have a good scoring chance, you'll hear him from the bench, 'Bear down.' Stuff like that. He really cares for the guys and wants the guys to do well. But there's a button to press when things need to be addressed and he can switch that pretty good."
Veteran center John Madden, who joined the Panthers in early January, played against Dineen in the early 2000s, during the latter stages of Dineen's career.
He said Dineen hasn't changed much going from the ice to behind the bench.
"He was very intense," Madden said. "The same intensity he had when he was a player is the same intensity he has on the bench. And the passion he has for the game is the same as when he was a player. He really enjoys the game."
Looking back, Dineen clearly had the credentials to become a successful NHL coach.
Dineen had a long, successful career as an NHL player, where his grit and determination allowed him to maximize his talents. Part of that career was spent with the Philadelphia Flyers at a time when the coach was his father, Bill, so coaching was in his genes.
And Dineen joined the Panthers after getting some coaching experience of his own in six seasons at the helm of the Portland Pirates of the American Hockey League.
For the first three years Portland was the AHL affiliate for Anaheim, and Dineen helped develop current NHL stars Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf. Portland then became Buffalo's affiliate, and Dineen coached the last three winners of the AHL Rookie of the Year award -- Nathan Gerbe, Tyler Ennis and Luke Adam.
"The success that he's had as a minor-league coach has given him experience," said Toronto coach Randy Carlyle, who was the coach in Anaheim when Dineen was with Portland. "He's coached for two different organizations, he has a storied hockey family background. He's been a sponge. He's learned a lot. You can see the way his teams are prepared. There's no stone unturned in the preparation for their hockey club and they're proving that to the hockey world in their play."
A two-time NHL All-Star and three-time Masterton Trophy finalist in 19 seasons as a player, Dineen says he's drawn on both his playing and coaching experience this season.
"When I first got into coaching, I was reading a ton, I was talking to a lot of other coaches, I was trying to look at it through a very specific eye," Dineen said. "After I had gotten the job for a couple of months, I was like, shame on me, I'm not relying on my experiences as a player, as well. There's a balance there. There's things that you go through that players are experiencing right now that I've been through.
"Maybe that's not the way I thought at the time, but I've been the 45-goal scorer, but I've also been the guy that's playing 7-8 minutes a night and is doing whatever he can to stay in the lineup and contribute. I guess there's a little bit of balance on both sides that you can draw from those experiences, but certainly coaching in the American League is like going to college. You're learning every day and you're dealing with relationships, whether that's players, referees, management, whatever it is. I think you get a depth of experience that helps you."
Dineen's experience as an NHL player has served him well in his relationship with his players.
From that standpoint, Dineen has earned higher marks for his ability to relate to his players than his predecessor in Florida, current New Jersey coach Pete DeBoer.
"He (Dineen) called me this summer a couple of weeks after he got the job," said Matthias. "We had a nice, long talk. When I came to (training) camp, he talked to me. It was very different from how other coaches here in the past have been. To see him on the ice the first day, too, it was intense, but it was fair and hard-working. Just from Day 1, all the players kind of responded to him. We all kind of bought into the system very quickly."
For his first season as an NHL coach, Dineen hardly could have asked for more.
When the Panthers clinched the Southeast Division title with a 4-1 victory against Carolina on Saturday, Dineen joined Mike Keenan (with the Rangers in 1993-94) and Ken Hitchcock (Dallas, 1996-97) as the only NHL coaches to turn a last-place team into a division winner in his first season as coach (Bruce Boudreau took over the Washington Capitals midway through the 2007-08 season and completed a worst-to-first run).
For Dineen, though, it goes beyond the results. Asked to sum up how he's enjoyed the experience, he explained that the relationships with his players and coaches have made for a positive experience whenever everybody is at the rink.
But it's the beginning of Dineen's answer that said it all: "Fabulous. Fabulous."