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Panthers problems go much, much deeper than coaching staff

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Ask any coach in professional sports and he’ll tell you that fairness is not part of the equation when it comes to his chosen employment. He’ll also tell you if you want job security, go work at the post office. Just don’t expect the paycheck to have the same number of digits before the decimal point.

And that, in a nutshell, explains the Kevin Dineen firing in Florida today. For some reason, GM Dale Tallon figured over the summer it would be a good idea to extend a contract offer to every NHL senior citizen who was looking for work. The Panthers are 29th in payroll because they don’t have near the revenues to justify spending much over the lower limit of the salary cap and their key players are underachieving.

Kevin Dineen, a good coach who two years ago led the Panthers to the playoffs for the first time in a decade, paid the price. He could not have been surprised. The Panthers have lost seven in a row and firing the coach is convenient and easy. If he needed a lesson in that, all he had to do was ask his father, Bill, who will go into the American League’s Hall of Fame this year after winning two Calder Cups, to go along with his two WHA championships. The senior Dineen got and lost his only NHL coaching job in the span of about 18 months with the Philadelphia Flyers.

The reality is that Scotty Bowman with Punch Imlach and Dick Irvin as his assistants would have trouble coaxing better results out of the this group. Tallon can’t realistically expect he’ll get better results from Peter Horachek, Brian Skrudland and John Madden (the former hockey player, not the football coach) than he got from Dineen, Craig Ramsay and Gord Murphy. Ramsay alone is one of the best assistants in the game and has a unique talent for teaching young players the defensive side of the game. Horachek is a former assistant coach with the Nashville Predators and Skrudland had a stint as an assistant in Calgary, but none has spent a single game behind a bench as a head coach in the NHL.

Tallon has assembled a poor roster in Florida, proving the magic touch he showed in helping to build the Chicago Blackhawks into a Stanley Cup winner have not transferred to the Sun Belt. The problem is that when you’re bringing in the likes of Scott Gomez, Ryan Whitney and Tom Gilbert, it means your organizational depth is lacking. But what it also means is that you’re not really serious about making your team a contender. As it turns out, letting Stephen Weiss walk so he could sign with the Detroit Red Wings for $5 million a year was not a terribly bad idea. But replacing him with Gomez? Seriously? That’s how you’re making your team better?

Scottie Upshall has played 66 games over parts of three seasons with the Panthers and he has scored exactly eight goals. Dineen couldn’t possibly be the reason why Tomas Kopecky has zero points in 16 games and is minus-5. Surely veterans such as Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell and Shawn Matthias have to own responsibility for their own play and the fact they’ve spectacularly underachieved.

But as Tallon said, it’s easier to fire a coach than 23 players. It’s also easier than making the GM accountable for his moves. Tallon is four years into his tenure with the Panthers and they’ve not gotten better. They’ve gotten worse.

The Panthers are currently outspending one team in the NHL at the moment and are about $3 million over the salary floor. Tallon remarked that new owner Vinny Viola “demands excellence at every level of the organization.” If that’s the case, then he’d better be prepared to play with the big boys of the NHL and pay for it. Tallon went on to say that, “our better players have to start playing better or we will get better players.”

It shouldn’t be this difficult to get better players to come to south Florida. The weather there today is 83 degrees and it’s sunny outside. As a state, Florida is very generous when it comes to paying taxes. But if the Panthers don’t either bolster the ranks of their organization with better young players and draft picks or start spending money or taking on salary to fill holes in their roster, they’ll continue spinning their wheels, firing coaches and languishing near the bottom of the NHL.

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