Kevin Dineen's first season as an NHL coach started with a lot more questions than answers. It ended with his Florida Panthers winning the Southeast Division and their first postseason appearance in a decade.
Dineen doesn't plan on taking a step back in 2012-13.
When the longtime NHL player was named Florida's coach last summer, Dineen inherited a Panthers' team that had been remade by general manager Dale Tallon. In acquiring 10 new players over the summer, Tallon turned over half the roster of a franchise that had gone an NHL-record 10 straight seasons without making the playoffs.
"We've got a number of real quality prospects. Historically, I've been in organizations with Anaheim and Buffalo where the road to the NHL goes through the American League. I don't think that's an unhealthy thing. I think players go down there and learn how to be professionals and how to grow as players and people." -- Kevin Dineen
"In all honesty, we had a lot of guys that may have been second- or third-tier players on other hockey teams, but they came in and received a more prominent role with us and really relished it," Dineen told NHL.com. "We had talked in the summer about maybe going away for a team-building exercise. Instead of doing that, we changed our gears. We had so many new players coming in we wanted to make sure everybody got acclimated to South Florida. Staying right there was a good decision."
As it turned out, Dineen was remarkably qualified when it came to making all these disparate pieces work well together. After all, he managed a 100-percent roster overhaul as coach of the American Hockey League's Portland Pirates, who in 2008 switched from being the Anaheim Ducks' top minor-league affiliate to the Buffalo Sabres' AHL farm team. Dineen stayed on as Portland's coach, effectively trading Anaheim's entire minor-league roster for Buffalo's.
With far fewer question marks to deal with entering his second season in South Florida, Dineen leads a roster that is mostly intact from the previous season. The team's only real changes this summer were losing defenseman Jason Garrison in free agency and signing defenseman Filip Kuba and forwards Peter Mueller and George Parros. Dineen plans on enjoying that continuity, which means he won't be messing with success.
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"I think right now it's going to be a much easier start for us. Our goals are not different," Dineen said. "I want to have a good, healthy training camp and move forward from there."
For the time being, that means relying on a veteran-heavy squad that might not include too many rookies this coming season. It's an interesting strategy considering the wealth of top prospects currently in the Panthers' system, including Jonathan Huberdeau, the third player chosen in the 2011 NHL Draft.
"We've got a number of real quality prospects. Historically, I've been in organizations with Anaheim and Buffalo where the road to the NHL goes through the American League. I don't think that's an unhealthy thing," Dineen said. "I think players go down there and learn how to be professionals and how to grow as players and people."
After a massive roster overhaul last season led to Florida's first playoff appearance in a decade, Dineen managed to turn a rebuilt roster into the core of a winning team. Considering that successful transformation, one can hardly blame him for sticking with what works.