FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

Former Hartford Whalers captain and iconic right wing Kevin Dineen finally got where many thought he should have been a few years ago on Wednesday.

Dineen, one of the grittiest and hard-working players in hockey history, was named coach of the Florida Panthers, who haven’t reached the NHL playoffs for a record 10 consecutive years.

Dineen replaced Pete DeBoer, fired on April 10, a day after the Panthers missed the postseason for the third time under his direction. Dineen was promoted from the AHL’s Portland Pirates, whom he led to a 266-155-59 record, two Atlantic Division titles and five playoff berths in six seasons. The Pirates twice reached the Eastern Conference finals before losing in Game 7. They eliminated the Connecticut Whale in six games in the first round this year before losing to the Eastern Conference champion Binghamton Senators in the second round.

The Panthers hope Dineen’s success with younger players will carry over to the NHL, but he will have his work cut out for him as Florida’s 72 points last season were the worst in the Eastern Conference and third fewest in the NHL. But while the Panthers won only eight of 33 games after the All-Star break, general manager Dale Tallon stockpiled draft picks and prospects by trading veterans such as former Rangers forwards Radek Dvorak and Yale grad Chris Higgins, Michael Frolik, Cory Stillman, Dennis Wideman and Bryan McCabe, who is in the Stanley Cup finals with the Boston Bruins.

With only 11 players under contract and more than $41 million available under the salary cap, the Panthers are still just beginning the rebuilding project that Tallon began when hired a year ago.

“I would say there is a lot of unknown within this franchise,” the 47-year-old Dineen told reporters during a news conference at the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, Fla. “(But) we have the opportunity here. For me, it’s a belief and a trust I the people you get involved with.”

Tallon had no qualms with hiring a new NHL coach for the second straight time.

“I like to think outside the box and take risks … this is not a risk,” Tallon said. “I’m really charged up that Kevin has accepted the challenge to come here and help us win a Stanley Cup.”

Dineen has been considered one of the hottest minor-league coaching candidates for several years and finally got his chance Wednesday when he became the Panthers’ 11th coach.

“I thought he was going to leave last year,” said Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier, whose Sabres are the Pirates’ parent team. “You get a sense when somebody is ready. For me, Kevin was ready a year ago, and now he’s even more ready.”

Dineen’s promotion two years after he was a finalist for the Columbus Blue Jackets job also didn’t surprise Pirates CEO and managing owner Brian Petrovek.

“I knew it was only a matter of time before somebody in the NHL figured out Kevin should be coaching in the NHL,” Petrovek told the Portland Press Herald. “I knew Kevin had been talking to the Panthers, but I didn’t know the talks had progressed to this point. His body of work speaks for itself.”

Dineen spent his first two seasons after retirement working with former Panthers coach Doug MacLean in Columbus, then moved to Portland, first with the Anaheim Ducks (2005-08) and then Buffalo (2008-11). He has coached the last three AHL Rookies of the Year.

Pirates assistant coach Eric Weinrich, a Maine native and former Whalers defenseman, is likely a candidate to succeed Dineen, though Petrovek said it was premature to speculate on a successor.

“This day belongs to (Dineen),” Petrovek said. “I’m sure we’ll learn in the next few days who the new coach of the Pirates will be.”

Weinrich, who played three seasons at the University of Maine, has one year left on his contract with the Sabres.

Dineen didn’t play with Weinrich during an 18-year NHL career with the Whalers, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes, Ottawa Senators and Blue Jackets. The Whalers’ third-round pick in 1982 is one of only five players to score more than 350 goals (355) and have more than 2,000 penalty minutes (2,229). He also had 405 assists in 1,188 regular-season games, with his best season being with the Whalers in 1988-89, when he had 45 goals and 44 assists in 79 games.

Dineen was named AHL Coach of the Year in his first season after leading the Pirates to the Eastern Conference finals. On Jan. 6, 2006, he had his Whalers No. 11 retired to the XL Center rafters along with the No. 10 of Ron Francis, the only Hockey Hall of Famer in franchise history, and the No. 5 of Ulf Samuelsson, a former assistant with the Wolf Pack and Coyotes before being named coach of Modo of the Swedish Elite League last week.

Off the ice, Dineen is a spokesperson for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America. He is the son of former Whalers coach and scout Bill Dineen and brother of former NHL players Gord and Peter. His older brothers, Shawn and Jerry, were minor league players. Shawn is now a scout for the Nashville Predators, and Jerry is the video coach for the Rangers.

Dineen didn’t announce his assistants but indicated he will strongly consider Gord Murphy, whom he worked with in Columbus and is under contract for one more year.

“We talked to a lot of people about our opening, and the minute I met Kevin, I knew he was the guy,” Tallon said. “You look into his eyes, you can see the passion, you can see the caring, compassion, integrity, class, dignity, all those things that we want our players to be like. This is the right man for the job. I’m excited about our future now.”

Whalers fans know all about those qualities in Dineen, the John Wayne of the NHL franchise who still has countless fans in the area that will now be Panthers supporters in hopes of seeing he and his new team come to the XL Center someday soon.

SHANAHAN NAMED NHL DISCIPLINARIAN

Dineen wasn’t the only former Whalers captain and standout to move into a difficult position Wednesday.

Brendan Shanahan, who played the last three seasons of a 20-year Hall of Fame career with the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils, was named the NHL’s chief disciplinarian, succeeding former Rangers coach Colin Campbell. He held the position of handing out the NHL’s supplemental discipline, mostly suspensions and fines for dangerous play, for 13 years.

“It’s a job that needs fresh eyes, a fresh look,” Campbell said. “After 13 years of this, it’s an all-encompassing job. You want to do the right thing for the players, for the game.”

Campbell will continue as a senior vice president and director of hockey operations, but he won’t remain a lightning rod for angry general managers and coaches who believe the league has it out of their players.

Campbell and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said they had been planning the change since March, adding the move had nothing to do with criticism of Campbell and his son, Gregory, who plays for the Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins and began the Stanley Cup finals Wednesday night against the Vancouver Canucks. Campbell had already been excused from making any rulings during the series, just as he was any time the Bruins were involved in a decision by the league.

“I know this is one aspect of Colie’s job that he hates,” Bettman said. “It can be one of the most thankless tasks in the game. … What a thankless job it is. After 13 years, at some point, you deserve to have your sentence commuted.”

Shanahan, who moved into the league offices in 2009, will take over Campbell’s job of administering fines and suspensions for dangerous play and also oversee a league department dedicated to improving player safety and developing new rules.

Campbell said he thinks Shanahan will benefit from being only two years into retirement, giving him an added measure of respect among current players.

“I think history will show that Colie has been a great innovator for the game of hockey, and we owe him a great deal of thanks,” said Shanahan, who faced supplemental discipline from Campbell during his playing days. “I think him for the chance to have a positive impact on the game of hockey.”

Campbell immediately cracked, “He won’t be thanking me next year.”

MALHOTRA NOT IN CANUCKS LINEUP BUT STILL A FACTOR

The potential feel-good story of the Stanley Cup finals was put on hold Wednesday as Canucks center Manny Malhotra didn’t practice for the second straight day and wasn’t in the lineup for a 1-0 victory over the Bruins in Game 1.

The former Wolf Pack and Rangers forward hasn’t played since he sustained a severe injury to his left eye when hit by a deflected puck in a game against the Colorado Avalanche on April 12. He made a surprise return to practice on May 12 and was cleared to play on Saturday but wasn’t quite ready to complete a miraculous recovery from what was nearly a career-ending injury.

If Malhotra, the Rangers’ first-round pick (seventh overall) in 1998, returns, it would provide a huge emotional lift to the Canucks, who also would be helped by his strong defensive play and work on face-offs, where he was No. 2 in the NHL this season at 61.7 percent. But he was still a factor as linemate Raffi Torres, who started his pro career with the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, beat Tim Thomas (33 saves) for the only goal with just 18.5 seconds left.

The same hard-hitting Torres whose two controversial late-season hits led to a key sit-down with Malhotra. Torres, 29, was suspended four games for a nasty headshot on Edmonton Oilers rookie Jordan Eberle. After Torres sat out the final two games of the regular season and the first two in the playoffs, he returned and got in trouble again with a questionable hit on Chicago Blackhawks
defenseman Brent Seabrook behind the net in the first round.

Torres received a two-minute penalty, but some believed he should have been suspended again. Torres wondered if he had to re-evaluate his game, and that when Malhotra took center stage despite his injury.

“Manny has been nothing but a positive influence on me throughout the season and throughout the course of the players,” Torres told reporters after Game 1. “He’s just one of those guys that said, ‘Hey, Raffi, just go out there and relax. At the end of the day, your game is a meat-and-potato type of game. Don’t try to do anything out of your element. Just go out and play hockey, which is north-south, getting pucks, feet moving.’ He kind of puts that into my head every day.

“After every period, I just go in (the dressing room) and say, ‘What’s up, what do you think?’ Just a couple words of wisdom from a guy that knows what he’s talking about.”

Malhotra and Torres also played together in 2008-09 with the Blue Jackets, but they weren’t reunited until late last August when Torres, an unrestricted free agent, finally got an offer. Wednesday night, the Canucks’ No. 13 took a cross-ice pass from Jannik Hansen and beat the clock while on an effective third line that also included Maxim Lapierre, who replaced Malhotra.

“It was a long summer,” said Torres, the lone Canucks player with Stanley Cup finals experience. “Obviously the phone wasn’t ringing off the hook too much. But everything happens for a reason. I’ve tried everything in my power to put it behind me. Had some great support along the way. Just in a very fortunate situation right now. For a chance to reach our ultimate goal, which is winning the Stanley Cup, it’s been quite a ride.

“(Our line) feels like we’ve been gaining confidence throughout the whole (playoffs). I thought Jannik and Lappy had a hell of a third period to go along with a pretty solid game. For us, it’s pretty simple hockey, getting pucks deep, trying to work their ‘D.’ Our confidence is pretty high right now. But we know, like (Ryan) Kesler said it’s just one game, we got to carry that into Game 2 (on Saturday night).”

But in Game 1, Torres, a first-round pick (fifth overall) of the New York Islanders, was a Stanley Cup hero along with Roberto Luongo (36 saves) after befriending a former No. 1 pick of the archrival Rangers. As former Wolf Pack coach John Paddock likes to say, “That’s hockey.”

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