Ladies and Gentleman, I think it's great that you show a keen interest in our organization. By being here tonight you show us that you really care about our organization, you really care about hockey, you are a strong supporter and it's nice to see that you take the time to come here and hopefully have some questions. Hopefully we will give you some direction and give you my philosophy or my plan for the next three to five years with this organization.
With this said, I'd like to go back to when the Florida Panthers joined the NHL because I think it's important to go back in history. When you look at this organization, I think you have to look back at how they were founded and I'm sure most of you remember that this is an organization, this was a team that had some success in the early years. I think we could all learn from the process of building that club in the early years.
I remember the first draft of the Florida Panthers. It was the draft that was held in Quebec City. Back then I was a member of the Quebec Nordiques. It is interesting to note that when it came time to draft – I'm not talking about the amateur draft, but the NHL draft of players that belonged to other organizations – each team was able to protect so many players and had to make a number of players available. This organization, which at the time was led by Bill Torrey, had a coach I have much respect for and was really a mentor to me. I had the pleasure to work with Roger Neilson for several years in Ottawa. He was one of my assistants.
What I have learned from Roger and what I have learned from my conversation with Bill Torrey and I think Bobby Clarke was the first General Manager of this organization, is that their draft was built on drafting players with character and drafting players who were leaders. I think that five or six players that they drafted were captains of other organizations. I know Brian Skrudland had been a captain in Calgary. Mike Hough who I had the pleasure to coach in Quebec, was our captain in Quebec for years.
They drafted players that had a good understanding of the game. They drafted players who were committed, not only on the ice, but also off the ice. What was really interesting about the start of the Panthers was that their philosophy was to develop a team that wasn't going to be individuals. It was going to be players who understand the team concept. They knew that they didn't have superstars, but they had a collection of individuals who believed in their ability. They had a collection of people who were hard-working, committed, and quickly achieved some success. It was the third year of their franchise that they lost in the Finals to Colorado.
Then, after four or five years of the franchise you had a change in philosophy. I think maybe that change was driven by a lack of attendance, moving into this beautiful new building. They felt that they needed to have a star to draw people. Consequently, I think it was the start of the mid-life of this organization. They acquired Pavel Bure and then there was no longer the team concept that was an application, but there was catering to star players.
Then you had some change at the ownership level. You had some change in the management. You had some change in the culture. Consequently, with all those changes, you had constant changes in direction. Different managers came in and they wanted a certain style of players. They changed coaches and they changed managers, so you didn't have any consistency or a plan. So I think it's important to go back to that because personally, I am not associated with the past.
I joined this organization three years ago as you might remember. My first year was the year of the lockout. Last year was officially my first year as the Head Coach of the team. Now tonight I am talking to you not only as a coach, but probably more importantly, as a General Manager. My responsibility to this organization is explained to you as what my vision is for the Florida Panthers and what are my expectations are for our hockey club. Well, the expectations are that we are going to compete every night. We may not win every night, but we are going to play hard. When you look at the statistics this year, the number of games we have lost, I think its 14 by one goal and four more because of empty net goals. So eighteen of our twenty losses have been by one goal, so to me that shows that we have been in most games.
Part of our responsibility as a team is to provide good entertainment for the fans. You as a fan pay premium dollars to be entertained. I know that you want your team to win every night but I also know that you are knowledgeable enough to recognize when the players are working hard and when the players show dedication. Whether they win or lose, you'll be happy if they win, but if they have given their best effort, I know that you can accept losing a game.
Part of my responsibility as a coach is that I want to offer you the fan, an exciting brand of hockey. I believe that we play a pressure game. I like to develop our players into not strictly a dump and chase team. I think we have players that have some imagination, that have some skill. As a coach, I have always been a proponent of allowing creativity in the game and I know sometimes it's difficult. I know when I started in Ottawa, the media said that I was a defensive-minded coach.
For my first five years in Ottawa, we didn't score a lot of goals because we didn't have the talent to score goals. My last four years we were one of the highest scoring teams in the league. I didn't change my philosophy. We had better talent. With better talent, you get more goal production. I believe that when you have the puck you are on offense and when you don't have the puck you're on defense. If you play strong defense you are going to create for yourself more scoring opportunities. When you look every year, teams that win the Stanley Cup are teams that play well away from the puck.
Probably the greatest example of that is the Pittsburgh Penguins, when they had Mario Lemieux and all those stars such as Jaromir Jagr. Definitely during the regular season, those individuals weren't committed night after night to playing good defense. But I saw it first hand in the playoffs, the back checking of a Mario Lemieux and a Jaromir Jagr. That's what you need to be successful and what you need to win a Stanley Cup.
As for expectations, yes we expect to win every game. When we don't win, we're accountable. We usually have post-game meetings the next morning. What we do and what is my responsibility as a coach is to try to improve and make our team better. A lot of times those meetings, especially when you are not winning, they are not fun. We go after the game, myself and my video coaches, and take three to three and a half hours to analyze the game. We sort out the clips so we can show the players. We try to have a balance of positive and negative but it's really important to go through that to become a better player.
As you know in the NHL because of the number of games you play, it's not like football where you have one game a week and you have five days to prepare. We play tomorrow night and then we play the next night in Carolina. We don't have a lot of time to prepare in between games. We don't have a lot of practice time in the National Hockey League. That's why you have to use the classroom and use video to make sure there is improvement in your players.
I think it's important for you to know what is an ideal Florida player for me as a manager of this organization. I believe, not only because it's a new NHL, that you need to be able to skate well. You need to have speed and you need to have quickness in this league. Second, you need to have skills. That's why it's so important when we draft those young players at the age of eighteen. Often, without maturity, they need time to develop. As a prime example, you just need to look at our team. The second leading scorer on our hockey club, Nathan Horton, is twenty-one years old. If you have kids, most twenty-one year olds are in college or in the universities, enjoying life, partying, not really knowing about responsibility or accountability. Maybe once a semester when exams come they have to bear down. But because Nathan Horton is twenty-one years old and plays in the National Hockey League, has been here for three years and makes a good salary, there are high expectations on him. That doesn't change his maturity level. He's a twenty-one year old kid and that is why you have to work with him on a daily basis. Those are facts of life.
For me, to be an ideal player for the Panthers, you need to have hockey sense. That is probably the toughest area to teach. You can improve your speed. You can improve your strength. You can improve your skill. If you don't have hockey sense, it's very difficult to improve. What I mean by hockey sense is that hockey is different than a lot of sports. It's reaction. It happens quickly on you. It's not like football when you call a play in the huddle; you go out and run the play. In hockey, a lot of times, the puck travels very quickly. You've got to understand the fore checking system. You've got to understand defensive goal coverage. You've got to understand neutral zone play.
So certain players are great at that, other players struggle. They bring other dimensions. But to me it's really important to have players who have good hockey sense. And the last point that I emphasize with our scouts is character. What does character mean? Well to me character is an individual that understands that he has to work hard everyday to get better. To me character is an individual who is willing to take a hit to make a play: an individual who is willing to dish a hit to help his teammate. Character is an individual who is willing to do anything to win, for the cause of his team. It's an individual willing to put the team ahead of himself, although because of our system players that get the most points usually are the ones that get rewarded the most when it comes to negotiating time.
But when you look at winners, probably the greatest example in sports is Steve Yzerman. He started his career with great numbers, over 100 points in a season, whereas the Detroit Red Wings, they were struggling. When Steve Yzerman started his career he was surrounded by several veteran players on the hockey team that were survivors. They weren't good people, they were people trying to survive. And the only way the Red Wings turned their program around is that they moved out. They got rid of those people, they built around people with character and they allowed young players to develop.
And then it took several years for Steve Yzerman to understand that he can be a better player for the organization, for the team, if he didn't score 100 points but became responsible at both ends of the ice. Understood that he didn't have to play twenty-five minutes a night for him to have success, for the team to have success. Those elements make maturity. So for you, I think it's important to understand that in the future what we're looking for, what we are drafting as ideal for the players, are people that can skate, people that have quickness, people that have skill, people that have character, and people that have some hockey sense.
What are our short-term goals for our organization? Well, probably a priority for me in the near future will be to hire myself an assistant general manager. Why? Because there are many responsibilities as a general manager. We need someone that can help me with overseeing amateur scouting, which is really crucial for the development of a franchise. It's the one way to acquire assets year after year. When you are talking about amateur scouting, that means pounding the payment, seeing hundreds of games a year. It means evaluating people, not only their hockey skills, but what kind of people they are. Because what we want in our organization is we want quality people. We want people that are willing to pay the price to get better. We want people that are going to make hockey a priority.
I need an individual that's going to help me out with pro scouting. As you know players are becoming free agents at an earlier age. So it's really important to identify those free agents, identify what kind of players they are, what kind of individuals they are, and design a strategy to acquire those players. I need somebody to help with minor league affiliates and hockey operations, somebody that understands the CBA.
We need to continue the development of our core players. When you look at our hockey club right now, we have people, like Olli Jokinen our captain, that's in the prime of his career. We have some young players that have made some great progress. I look at Stephen Weiss
this year. He's been injured but has really progressed from a standpoint that I really believe that he now understands what it takes to be a professional player. Last year he suffered a wrist injury and missed half the season, but I believe the half season that he missed will be really beneficial for his career and this organization. Because he learned about training off ice, he was a kid that didn't understand or that didn't buy in, as far as working out. Being in the kind of physical condition that you need to compete. He hasn't arrived yet, he still has a lot of work to do, but he's made tremendous progress. He still needs to get stronger, to improve on his shot, but I really believe that he is going in the right direction.
Nate Horton, as I spoke about earlier, is definitely frustrating for a coach sometimes. Because you look at him, you see the potential, but when I look at him I also see a Cam Neely that was drafted by an organization, the Vancouver Canucks, then traded to the Boston Bruins where he flourished for many years, was an impact player with that organization. I believe sometimes you have to give time to people to reach their potential.
Rostislav Olesz, a young kid from the Czech Republic, last year had to learn a new language, learn a new culture and learn about the league. But I believe he is a very good individual. It took maybe a week this year when I assigned him to Rochester, our American League team, which was probably a shock. When I told him he had to go down, this kid was crying. I really believe that it was a great experience for him. It gave him the opportunity to maybe ride the bus and help him learn that it's not a given that you play in the National Hockey League. You need to appreciate it. And you need to push yourself to be better. Sometimes life gets too easy. I really believe it was a worthwhile experience and since he's been back, I feel he's played very well with our hockey club.
Jay Bouwmeester is another one of our young prospects that I think we've been making some great progress with. I believe Jay's experience with the Canadian Olympic team last year was very important in developing his confidence in his play. From that point on, I think he's become a player that's contributing offensively, and has become more rounded. But still very young, defense is a very difficult position to play. But I believe that it is going in the right direction and I believe that this young defenseman is someone we want to build our franchise around.
Mike Van Ryn is another young individual. So where we are, I think when you look at our hockey club, we've made some progress. When you look at our play at home since last Christmas, I think we've improved our performance. Last year I think was the first year the club was above .500 since the 1999-2000 season. Yes, we were disappointed that we didn't make the playoffs. Yes, we were probably mad that we didn't make the playoffs. And you have a right. To me that shows the kind of character you are as individuals, but I believe that we are going in the right direction.
In the 2006 calendar year, I think we have a 23-13-5 record at home. Yes, there was a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of positive at the end of the season last year, however we are disappointed with our start this year. Because I really believed that we would start where we finished off. Why didn't we? I could only look at certain reasons. One I think is injuries have been a factor. When I looked at our roster in the offseason, I looked at a line of Joe Nieuwendyk, Todd Bertuzzi, Ville Peltonen. Well those three individuals have hardly played. As you know Bertuzzi suffered a back injury and had surgery. Nieuwendyk, because of continuous back problems had to retire. Peltonen missed the first month of the season. So that was a lot of production. Another factor, we had several new players; and maybe that takes time for adjustment. But I was disappointed and I can feel how you feel that we didn't start where we finished last year.
I think it's important for you to know what my long-term goals are for this organization. I'll promise you that there's not going to be any quick fix. I really believe that the National Hockey League is getting to be very close to the National Football League. Because of the salary cap, I don't think you're going to see a lot of major trades during the season any more. You're going to see trades in the offseason; then you're going to see teams signing their free agents, build their team, then some slow movement.
I believe it takes time to build a winning franchise. When you look at teams that have been successful, that have had some stability and some continuity in their program. I know in the past this organization has dumped some players at the trading deadline – you will no longer see that. Actually last year, at the trading deadline, I think a lot of people were surprised we signed Olli Jokinen and at the same time we kept our whole roster together. We acquired some players because we felt that we would have a good chance of making the playoffs.
The draft will continue to play a vital role in the growth of our franchise. And, signing of free agents is also crucial. One thing you need to understand with free agents is that in a lot of cases you may have to overpay players. I think I can give you a good example; we would have loved to have certain players join our organization. I think one that you are probably familiar with is Ed Jovanovski
. We made an effort, but as an organization we have to make decisions. Another organization was willing to pay him the amount he got; we felt it was too much. So I think those are decisions you have to make as an organization.
I think it's important for you to know as well about our development of players. I can say we have two affiliations. Our major affiliation, Rochester Americans, I think is an excellent affiliation. We share that affiliation with the Buffalo Sabres. We have twelve players; they're in first place, they are having a lot of success. And I think it's important for our players to be in a winning environment. Our younger players have an excellent coach in Randy Cunneyworth. They're in an organization that's in the hockey market. They're in an organization that is well located for minor leagues. They bus to most of their games and have a lot of practice time. They have good facilities and when you look at the number of young players that we've brought up this year that helped us, I think that's a positive sign.
As well, we have an affiliation with the Everblades, with some of the kids maybe that are not quite ready for the American League. That team is in first place as well having some success and our players are playing a major role in it. With that said of the players this year that we had to call up and really helped us with some games. When you look at what we have in the minors, we've got two young goaltenders, we got a goaltender that played in the National Hockey League last year. Craig Anderson, playing in Rochester, one of the better goaltenders in the American league. The youngster out of juniors, David Shantz, playing with the Everblades. On defense, we got a couple of young defensemen that are making some progress. Forwards, we have two young players who played in the World Junior Championship. Our first round pick from last year, Michael Frolik, with the Czech team, Kenndal McArdle with the Canadian team.
Overall, if I look at this year, we've lost over 100 man games due to injury. Bertuzzi, Peltonen, Weiss, Roberts, Kolnik and with the retirement of Nieuwendyk, we still remain at five points out of the playoff spot. In our last eleven games we're 5-2-4, and we picked up points in nine of our last 11 games. Three of our 44 games this season have been decided by two goals or less. And as I said, eighteen of our losses have been by one goal. I believe for another strong late season surge like last year's 28-16-7 mark over the last 51 games and the return of Bertuzzi at some point in February, we will be well positioned for the playoffs. We are nine points out of fifth place, so I believe we control our own fate.
Obviously our ownership has increased our payroll by ten to eleven million this year. By signing people like Jokinen, long term deals with Salei and Van Ryn and re-signing a lot of our players, our younger players that were here last year. Now you as fans are really important to our organization. You look at other sports, teams experience changes. We just have to look in our own backyard with the Dolphins changing their coach; the Heat losing Pat Riley to a leave of absence and the Marlins losing their manager. I think that we can say that we have some stability in our organization. That we have a plan and that we are going in the right direction.
I know that last year in the second half; you made a difference in our play. Our crowds increased, your enthusiasm, your excitement, your support means a lot to our players. Our team really feels that energy. And again, we're counting on you. To finish, what I'd like to leave you with is that I'm optimistic; I believe that we will make the playoffs. I can only say that in my first year in Ottawa, we made the playoffs in the last game of the season. We had to beat Buffalo 1-0 to get into the playoffs. And I believe that this team will get into the playoffs this year. I feel that we are getting better, that we are improving in a lot of areas and we get back healthy, I really believe that we will be in the playoffs. Thank you.