Dallas Stars\' Radek Dvorak (20), of Czech Republic, looks on as a goal by Loui Eriksson gets past Florida Panthers goalie Jose Theodore (60) in the third period of a preseason NHL hockey game Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011, in Dallas. The Stars won 7-1. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
SUNRISE, Fla. - There are a handful of banners that sway over the ice the Florida Panthers call home. For example, one commemorates the Celine Dion concert that opened the building.
Ones marking great Panthers hockey moments are few and far between.
But after months of sweeping changes, there's hope that better days for the NHL's most downtrodden franchise have arrived.
More than 14 years removed from their last post-season victory, the Panthers and new coach Kevin Dineen have a predictable—but likely warranted—sense of optimism entering the season. General manager Dale Tallon has brought in accomplished players like defenceman Brian Campbell, forward Kris Versteeg, goaltender Jose Theodore and former Panther defenceman Ed Jovanovski, thinking that a new roster mix will change the team's fortunes.
"I just go to work on a daily basis and try to be better every day," Tallon said. "And that's the message to our whole organization. Let's all try and get better every day as people, as players, as scouts, whatever we do, let's do a better job—and if we do that, we'll achieve our goals. We've added to our depth chart at every position and hired some quality people."
Dineen is foremost among those hires.
He spent parts of 19 seasons in the NHL, scoring 355 goals. His father is former NHL player and coach Bill Dineen, and brothers Gord and Peter also played in the league. Kevin Dineen came to the Panthers—who finished last in the Eastern Conference with 72 points last season—after six years coaching the Portland Pirates in the American Hockey League.
"The first time I looked in his eyes, I could see right into his soul," Tallon said. "There was a trust factor. I could see him relaying the right messages to our young guys, the way he looked at me. The way he played, the way he carried himself off the ice, his whole family's reputation, knowing his dad, that's what sold me. The whole package."
The Panthers last made the playoffs in 2000, getting swept in the first round by New Jersey. They haven't been back since, and Dineen is the eighth different coach to stand behind the Florida bench since that drought began.
Florida can only hope eight is enough.
"You see the potential that's there," Dineen said. "The youth, the veterans, the skill that was added this summer, you have a lot of reason for optimism. It makes for a very exciting time. There's 14 other teams in our conference that are doing the exact same thing, talking about their young players and saying, 'OK, we've got good things coming.' Different story line everywhere. The story line here is the potential."
Nowhere is that potential more apparent than at goaltender.
Theodore is a four-time 30-game winner in his NHL career, and he'll be backed up by rookie Jacob Markstrom, the Panthers' second-round draft pick in 2008. Scott Clemmensen, who was expected to be the backup, will miss about a month while recovering from knee surgery, but Dineen said Markstrom earned his shot.
"At the end, it was performance-based," Dineen said.
Said Markstrom, who has been considered one of the league's best goaltending prospects: "For now, it's great news. It's fun. That's why I'm here—to play. ... Hopefully I can stay up here for a while."
Even before the first real puck drops this season, Florida believes it's considerably improved. Adding a veteran defenceman like Campbell—a Stanley Cup winner—will certainly help in front of whomever's in net, and the Panthers think they have a much deeper offence as well. Florida scored only 195 goals a year ago, fourth-worst in the NHL.
"The goal here is to keep the excitement all year," forward David Booth said. "That's going to be the key to our success."