|Head coach Kevin Dineen had a successful first season in the NHL, leading the Panthers to their first Division championship in franchise history. (Getty Images)
Defenseman Brian Campbell
has been around long enough that his NHL playing career intersected with that of Kevin Dineen.
He’s not alone, though, because 10 of his teammates on this year’s Panthers also had begun their NHL career when Dineen was wrapping up his with a four-game stint with the Columbus Blue Jackets at the beginning of the 2002-03 season.
“He was kind of almost like a five-tool player,” Campbell remembers of his coach. “Could do it all. Could fight, could score, could play well defensively when you needed it, just a complete player.”
A two-time All-Star with 355 career goals and experience in the Olympics and World Cup, there’s no question Dineen was a good player.
After his first year behind an NHL bench, it might be difficult to determine whether Dineen is a “five-tool coach,” whatever that might be, or even a “complete coach.”
It’s pretty safe, however, to say that Dineen is a good coach and that GM Dale Tallon made a great choice when he hired him last June to become the 11th head coach in franchise history.
When the Panthers clinched the Southeast Division title with a 4-1 victory against Carolina on the last night of the regular season, 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 year at the helm (Bruce Boudreau took over the Washington Capitals midway through the 2007-08 season and completed a worst-to-first run).
Dineen deflected praise all season, pointing to the influx of new players and the contributions of his assistants, but his work should not be underestimated.
“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 late in the regular season. “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.”
Dineen actually began drawing compliments from his peers around the league almost from the start of the regular season.
One of those coaches with glowing praise was Phoenix’s Dave Tippett, a former teammate with the Hartford Whalers and on the Canadian national team.
“He’s done a very good job,” Tippett said. “I don’t say that because he’s a good friend of mine. You see how hard their team competes, you see that they have some structure, they’re finding ways to win close games. Those are all the earmarks of a guy that’s doing a good job as a coach. They’ve got a lot of new faces, they’ve got a lot of people that had to bond very quickly and it looks like things are going well for him.
“You knew, even his teams in the minors, they were going to compete hard, they were going to be teams that were well prepared. Kevin was a guy that never left anything in the dressing room. When he went on the ice, it was to play hard and you can see his team, that’s the way they compete.”
Yes, if there was one thing Dineen was known for as a player was his tenacity.
That same determination came in handy this season when the Panthers were hit by a rash of injuries and when the team hit a couple of rough patches.
There were many reasons the Panthers were able to hold off Washington and end the Capitals’ four-year reign as division champs, and resiliency clearly was one of them.
And resiliency starts at the top. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Dineen shined in that department considering he was a three-time finalist for the Masterton Trophy, an award given — among other things — for perseverance.
|Dineen's leadership helped forwards Kris Versteeg and Stephen Weiss to very successful regular seasons as the Cats captured 94 points. (Getty Images) |
“He’s a very intense guy,” said defenseman Ed Jovanovski
, one of those players who played against Dineen. “Sometimes you look at him, you kind of wish he backs off a little bit because he is really involved in the game. But you like seeing that from the leader of the group. He wants to win, loves winning. When you’ve got a coach who does that, it’s got that rub-off effect on guys.
“He’s learning. It’s his first year as a head coach. He’s learning every day, but I think his passion and his emotion for the game is very high.”
Indeed, this has been a learning experience for Dineen, who spent the previous six seasons as head coach of the Portland Pirates of the AHL, the first three as an affiliate for Anaheim and the last three for Buffalo.
Dineen said he continually picked things up during his first season as an NHL head coach, even realizing at one point it would serve him well to draw on his playing experience as well as his coaching days.
“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 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.”
Whatever Dineen relied on, it worked.
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 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.”
That’s a word that comes up a lot of Panthers players are asked about Dineen.
Campbell used the word. Same for center Shawn Matthias
. And it was the first thing that was mentioned by Jovanovski.
Asked to provide an example of Dineen’s passion manifesting itself, Jovanovski replied: “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.”
|With injuries resulting in 340 man games lost during the season, Dineen has had to use a plethora of different players in helping the Cats to the success that they had. (Getty Images) |
Center John Madden
, who joined the Panthers in early January and faced Dineen in the early 2000s during the latter stages of Dineen’s career, says 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.”
Dineen should enjoy the game, having been around it for so long.
Remember, his father Bill played five seasons in the NHL and was a head coach in the WHA and NHL, where he coached Kevin in Philadelphia.
Dineen also has four brothers, all of whom work in hockey and two of whom (Gord and Peter) also played in the NHL.
Kevin had the most illustrious playing career of the Dineen boys, although Gord played 11 seasons and made five playoff appearances.
Kevin Dineen played in parts of 19 seasons, with eight playoff appearances — all but one with the Hartford/Carolina franchise.
As a coach, Dineen came to the Panthers after having coached in the AHL playoffs four of his six seasons in Portland.
During his AHL apprenticeship, Dineen helped develop young stars like Bobby Ryan, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf for Anaheim, and then after Portland became Buffalo’s affiliate, he proceeded to coach 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 at the helm in Anaheim when Dineen began his AHL coaching career. “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.”
For his first year as an NHL head coach, Dineen hardly could have asked for more.
For Dineen, though, it goes beyond the results. Asked to sum up how he’s enjoyed the experience, Dineen replied, “Fabulous. Fabulous. ... I think you judge everything by how you feel when you come to the rink, and I love coming to the rink every day. I think we really enjoy being around each other.”
Tallon expressed the same sentiment when talking about his head coach.
“He’s similar to me in his attitude and approach,” Tallon said. “We’re very comfortable with each other. We’re open and honest and we have great dialogue. It’s just that he’s been through the wars as a player and as a coach in the minors. It just worked for me. I had a good feeling about it. I’m happy that we made the decision.”
You can count Matthias as another one who’s happy with that decision.
“He’s brought in an energy that I haven’t had in my pro career yet,” said the young center. “He’s passionate about the game. He cares. He played the game for a long time and he knows what it takes to come in every night and give your best effort. As a player, you respond to that and respect him for what he’s done in his career. You play hard for those guys.”
It’s pretty safe to say Dineen already has earned a lot of respect for what he’s done as a coach, too.