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Coaching change just the start for Panthers

by Alain Poupart

After firing coach Kevin Dineen and assistant coaches Gord Murphy and Craig Ramsay on Friday, Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said there will be more changes coming for the organization.

The Panthers named Peter Horachek, who coached the team's American Hockey League affiliate in San Antonio, as interim coach. Director of player development Brian Skrudland and professional scout John Madden were added to the staff as assistant coaches.

"It's easier to fire a coach than to fire 23 players," Tallon said in a conference call. "But we're on the phone constantly and we're going to make changes as we go. We want people that want to be Panthers, and if they don't want to be we'll accommodate them. Right now I'm dissatisfied with the effort from most of the guys and we need to be better."

Dineen was informed of his dismissal early Friday morning, hours after the Panthers' 4-1 loss to the Boston Bruins at TD Garden. The loss extended the Panthers' winless skid to seven games (0-3-4) and dropped them to seventh in the Atlantic Division at 3-9-4.

It marks the fifth time in franchise history, but the first since 2003-04, that the Panthers have made an in-season coaching change.

In two-plus seasons Dineen compiled a 58-62-28 record. In 2011-12, his first season, he guided Florida to its first playoff appearance in 12 years when the team captured the Southeast Division title. But the Panthers finished with the fewest points in the NHL last season, and this season have won just one of their past 11 games (1-6-4).

"Our better players have to start playing better or we will get better players," Tallon said. "Kevin, Gord and Craig worked very hard but for some reason it seems the message was not getting through. We're all responsible for this record and this marks the first change as we begin to turn this franchise around and become a winning organization."

In a letter to fans posted on the team's website, owner Vincent Viola wrote that he expects the Panthers to compete for a playoff spot this season.

"With 66 games remaining this season our expectations remain the same. We expect a team that plays hard, that sacrifices for each other, that gives everything they have for our fans and supporters, and a team that wins hockey games.

"By the end of this season we expect to be competing for a place in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and we expect to have taken a significant step toward achieving the goals and objectives we have set for this franchise. That is what our fans want, that is what they deserve, and we will not rest until we deliver on those expectations."

Tallon said Dineen has been offered the opportunity to stay with the organization in another role.

When asked whether the loss at Boston on Thursday was the final straw, Tallon said, "It was one of many. We're 3-9-4. It's not acceptable.

"I've been stewing on it for a long time. It's never easy. We don't make rash decisions. We made decisions, we assess the future of the franchise and where we're at currently, and with many discussions with our ownership group and our hockey operations group we came to the decision and decided this was the best course of action."

The Panthers are one of five teams in the NHL averaging two goals or fewer this season, and their goals-against average of 3.38 is last in the Eastern Conference and third-worst in the League.

Tallon said he has been trying to consummate trades in order to improve the roster and the leadership on the team.

"We're trying extremely hard every day, numerous phone calls with numerous teams," Tallon said. "Hopefully something will hit in the near future."

Horachek is in his first season with the Panthers organization after spending the previous nine as an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators. His team in San Antonio was 4-6-0-1.

"Peter is a bright hockey mind who brings to our club a wealth of coaching knowledge," Tallon said. "He is a focused, determined and demanding coach who has experienced great success at all levels of competition. Both Brian and John are proven winners who won multiple Stanley Cups and are individuals that our players know very well. With these additions, we are confident that we have a staff that will work tirelessly to bring continued success to our organization."

Tallon said he was hoping the coaching change could provide a spark for the Panthers. He also denied the notion that Horachek became a coach-in-waiting after being hired to work with the organization's blue-chip prospects in San Antonio.

"That wasn't the reason he was brought in," Tallon said. "He was brought in to develop our young players and bring success to our farm team.

"Obviously if he does well he'll stay. We'll evaluate after the season. We need to get back into the hunt here. I'm not giving up by any means. We need to do everything we can to get into the playoff hunt without jeopardizing our future as well."

Perhaps it's telling that arguably the Panthers' most effective player this season has been 30-year-old forward Jesse Winchester, who is tied for third on the team with seven points. He spent last season in Finland and his four goals this season ties his previous NHL single-season high.

Meanwhile, veterans like Kris Versteeg and Brad Boyes, who leads the Panthers with five goals, have been healthy scratches.

Although they haven't been crushed by injuries the way they were last season, the Panthers have played all season without captain Ed Jovanovski, and goalie Tim Thomas has missed 10 games because of lower-body injuries.

Tallon is hoping the coaching change also can create a better environment for some of the team's highly touted prospects, such as Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov.

"We want them to be in a winning environment and be led by veteran players that really have strong leadership ability and have great work ethic," Tallon said. "I'm not seeing that right now from our so-called better players."

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