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Puck Daddy chats with Panthers coach Kevin Dineen about free-agent windfall, chemistry challenges and Hartford Whalers

New coach Kevin Dineen was expecting the Florida Panthers to add some players in the offseason. Admittedly, he didn't expect the combination of trades and free-agent signings that brought about a dozen new faces to the Panthers' roster, many of them high-profile names.

He said the guy who hired him, GM Dale Tallon, began clearing salary cap space last season; and that, in the end, it comes down to how each player can help the team.

"You can't just do it to do it," said Dineen.

It's Dineen's first NHL job, after a 19-year playing career with stops in Hartford and Philadelphia as well as his six years as head coach of the AHL Portland Pirates. And with the money the team spent in the offseason, the expectations are on Dineen to turn this franchise's fortunes around.

We spoke with him on Thursday about the Panthers' offseason; the chemistry challenges new players present; his coaching style; his goaltending; what he learned from being rejected from other gigs; and three questions that speak to our obsession with the Hartford Whalers, and probably yours as well.

Enjoy.

Q. What was July 1 like for you? Are you and Tallon in constant contact or was your phone blowing up with "and now I signed this guy" texts?

DINEEN: Dale and I probably talked about four times, but I was getting updates. Anything that had to do with players that I made be familiar with, they were reaching out to me. I'm obviously very comfortable with the staff that was involved.

You sit there and you talk about potential, and where the organization is going. And then all of a sudden, within a day, you're talking about actual people. Instead of what we think we can be, it's what we actually are.

At what point did you start figuring out line combinations?

Oh boy … that's been going on a lot this week.

I was playing a lot with it early on. I guess you can say I'm fortunate to have a decent amount of people around the League who can give me feedback. Someone like [Chicago Blackhawks Coach] Joel Quenneville could talk to me about three of our players. Or Dave Tippett in Phoenix had a couple of our players. Or Dean Evason in Washington that had two of our players.

That circle of confidants out there made me feel more comfortable, having actually coached this players before.

Are they brutally honest about what to expect?

It's like anything: You get the real positive feedback, and you get the constructive criticism as well. It ain't all flowers and roses, for sure.

This is your first NHL coaching gig, and you're taking on a team where the chemistry is going to be tough to figure with so many new players. Is it on you to facilitate that chemistry or does it ultimately fall on the players to figure it out?

The advantage I have is that we have six exhibition games and five of them are in South Florida. After the Dallas game, we have eight days between our last exhibition game and opening night. That stretch of time is going to be extremely valuable.

I'm extremely excited about it. I've got a strong staff in Gord Murphy and Craig Ramsay. We're trying to create a quality atmosphere so players want to be here.

My pet theory on this is that it's like an incoming freshman class. Like there's going to be chemistry based on the fact that there are so many new faces entering at the same time, in a "we're all in this together" kind of way.

I agree with you on that. It's very unique. But in saying that, I look at Mike Weaver(notes) and Stephen Weiss(notes) and David Booth(notes) and Scotty Clemmensen as having a big presence on this team. Before you can move forward, you have to look a little bit at your history. We've had some quality guys that were here in the past.

In talking to Dale Tallon at the draft about the acquisition of Brian Campbell(notes), he said that it was partially done because he wants this team to play an up-tempo, offensive aggressive game. Does that fit with your coaching style?

Yes, it does.

When you're coaching in the AHL, you usually have to mirror your parent team's system. Well, you know, when I'm working with the Anaheim Ducks and they have Chris Pronger(notes) and Scott Niedermayer(notes) at the points, sometimes that's not always easy to do.

Over the last couple of years, the Buffalo Sabres scouts have done a really good job of drafting speed and skill. Coaching the players that I did, that was the kind of up-tempo game that we had.

I'm not stating exactly how we're playing. You can get pigeonholed into saying things like "we're going to be a high-pressure team." But we have high-end speed, and we're going to take advantage of that.

Puck Daddy chats with Panthers coach Kevin Dineen about free-agent windfall, chemistry challenges and Hartford WhalersOne of the guys who doesn't exactly have those wheels is Ed Jovanovski(notes). He's a veteran player; how do you see his role next year? As a mentor?

Eddie Jovanovski is going to be an extremely important part of our team, having a guy with his veteran presence. He's going to help. It's not always going to be through his play. Eddie was here for a while, and he's going to be able to help players get acclimated.

He also understands players around the league, and is going to be able to share that with young players. Management and player development people can talk to [a young player] a lot, but when the guy in the stall next to you has that experience, you can't put a price tag on it.

You mentioned Clemmensen before; how are you feeling about your goaltending with Clemmensen and Jose Theodore(notes)?

I'm excited about it. It's a veteran presence in net. When you look at what Timmy Thomas did last year for the Boston Bruins, I think it opened a lot of eyes. Jose is a competitive guy. So is Scotty. Both are ready to get it going this year.

Jose was part of that free agent class, and there's no question the Panthers have dramatically increased their payroll between the time you were hired and today. Does that affect expectations for you, or that are placed on you?

Let's be clear here: We're not competing with Tampa Bay's payroll. Or Washington's or the Rangers' payroll. Those are always handy excuses to use. For us, it's a dollar figure. That's all it is. When I get into that locker room, I'm not looking at a payroll — I'm looking at the players that we have.

Let's go back to you getting this gig. You've been up for NHL jobs before, as a finalist for the Columbus Blue Jackets opening in recent years; is there anything you learned having gone through this process that you think put you over the top for this job?

When you go through that … you know, you go about your business, you come in, you do your work.  A lot of times, I respect what the players do and kind of lean towards talking about the players a lot. I think what that process does is that it makes you have to verbalize how you run your business. I think that's what it did for me: Made me able to verbalize how we did things in Portland; and how I worked with Brian Burke and Bob Murray in Anaheim and with Darcy Regier in Buffalo.

It's almost like developing a sales pitch.

Yeah, and that's the problem. You sit there and it gets into a little bit of self-promotion. I don't know if that's a strength of mine. I like to think it's not one of my strengths, actually.

We just had Irish Mickey Ward here [at development camp] speaking to the players. It's incredible to here about how when you're a boxer, you're all alone in the ring. But when you're part of a hockey organization, you've got to understand there are lots of pieces of the puzzle.

Our readers will revolt if I don't ask a few questions about the Whalers. First: Is "Brass Bonanza" your ringtone?

[Laughs] "Brass Bonanza" is not my ringtone, but when they put me six feet under they might throw "The Brass Bonanza" in there. It's the one song I'm most associated with.

We've been told you scored the last goal in Whalers' history. Where is that puck, sir?

It's sitting on a mantle in Lake George, NY.

We got the Winnipeg Jets back; do you ever envision a day when we might see the NHL return to Hartford?

There's some incredible memories in Hartford, that's for sure. And there are a large group of people who want Mr. Bettman to know they're ready to support a team. But as you know, there's a lot of work to be done before a team can be put back there. It starts with infrastructure, and I think that's an advantage that Winnipeg had with that beautiful rink.

[A return to Hartford] would be incredible to see, and I think they have the right person in Howard Baldwin working for it.

Finally, I wanted to talk about rivalry. You played for Hartford and Philly, so you know how great rivalries stoke fan passions. The Panthers have never really had that, even against the Tampa Bay Lightning. Have you thought about that at all in coming to this market, knowing that selling tickets is going to be part of the equation?

When you played in the 1980s and 1990s, you knew that when Hartford and Boston played it was going to be an absolute war.

When someone's right across the wetlands [like the Lightning], there's certainly a rivalry. Give them credit — they've done a heck of a job. It starts at the top. There's good buzz over there. But we'd like to clip them a little bit next year.

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