FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1BY: Bruce Berlet

With general manager Dale Tallon having added 11 new players to the Florida Panthers’ roster in less than a month, first-year coach Kevin Dineen has plenty of familiarizing and strategizing to do before the season opener Oct. 8 on Long Island.

Dineen, the former Hartford Whalers icon and captain who coached the AHL’s Portland Pirates the past six seasons before being hired June 1, said his major challenge in his first six weeks on the job has been getting in touch with so many new players and running his cell phone bill.

“I waited to get in the office to call the Euros because I don’t think that falls under my phone plan,” Dineen joked to Dave Lozo of nhl.com.

But Dineen got serious about what it’s going to take to bring all these new players together prior to his NHL coaching debut against the New York Islanders.

“It is a challenge. I don’t think you can underestimate that,” Dineen said. “Chemistry plays a role in everything you do in our business. I like the idea that we play six exhibition games and five of them are in Southern Florida, and after our last exhibition game we have eight days before we start the regular season. I think that’s going to be a real important time period for us.

“Once we get the core of our lineup together, that’ll be a time we start setting some team goals and that comes from both the coaching staff and the players. I look at that being an important window for getting us all on the same page.”

The newcomers that Dineen will be dealing with are goalie Jose Theodore, defensemen Ed Jovanoski and Brian Campbell and forwards Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Matt Bradley and Ryan Carter.

Dineen said he talked with Tallon about who the team would target in the free-agent market starting July 1, but as someone who has focused solely on the AHL since 2005, he had no trouble deferring to the front office and scouting department when it came to signing NHL talent. His focus now is making a team out of so many individuals who haven’t played together, something that was a large part of the job description while coaching the Pirates.

“In my six years there, there’s probably about 70 percent change in your lineup year to year,” Dineen said. “That’s just the nature of the game. There’s players coming up from junior, first-year pros, there’s guys who have played in the NHL that are trying to re-establish themselves at that level. So I think you get used to that in the American League. You have to get everybody on the same page, and that’s what’s really exciting for me, to have that nice window of time to spend some time together as a group before we start the regular season.”

Dineen, one of only six NHL players to score at least 350 goals (355) and have 2,000 penalty minutes (2,229), said the players he has been able to reach haven’t had any worries about being part of a rebuilding franchise that hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2000 and is coming off a last-place finish in the Eastern Conference. He said there’s a sense of excitement among the new players to get to training camp Sept. 16 and start fresh towards the goal of every NHL team.

“We certainly have a picture of the (Stanley) Cup, and that’s the ultimate goal,” Dineen said. “For me, I don’t think of myself as a long-range planner like that. I’m looking more to starting training camp and building up to our first game in Long Island. You take it a step at a time, and it’s really important this franchise gets off to a good start.

“There’s a lot of new faces, but you can see there’s a lot of quality players returning in (Stephen) Weiss, (David) Booth, (Mike) Weaver, (Dmitry) Kulikov. There’s some real quality players and people that will certainly help our new players and, in all honesty, myself in this transition.”

Dineen is currently checking his roster and envisioning how it will shape up for that opener against the Islanders. He knows his team lacks a superstar or a game-breaker, but he’s expecting depth to be a major asset as he draws up line combinations and defense pairings.

“I’m sitting in my office and I’ve got a board here and it’s kind of fun when you start jotting down possible combinations and seeing where players may end up,” Dineen said. “That’s nothing I want to get committed to in July. We’ll get into camp and we’ll start putting some people together and finding the right chemistry that’s going to give them a chance to go out there and play to what their strengths are.

“I know we have some great team speed. When you have that speed, that’s something you try to take advantage of. With the ability to move the puck to get going and create offense off the rush, I look at that as being one of our strengths.”

Another strength is young prospects such as defenseman Erik Gudbrason (first round, 2010), forward Jonathan Huberdeau (first round, 2011) and goalie Jacob Markstrom (second round, 2008) whom Dineen said could be on the opening-night roster.

With 14 forwards under contract, the 6-foot-1, 171-pound Huberdeau, the third pick in the June draft, could face another season at the junior level to grow and develop. The Panthers also have veteran goaltenders Theodore and Scott Clemmensen signed, so the 21-year-old Markstrom, who had knee surgery in March, likely will begin the season in the AHL with the San Antonio Rampage.

At 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, the 19-year-old Gudbranson, the third pick of the 2010 draft who signed a three-year, entry-level contract Friday, probably has the best chance to make the team, assuming he and Panthers agree on a contract. Gudbranson reportedly played well enough to make the Panthers out of training camp last fall but instead spent all of the season with the Kingston Frontenacs of the OHL.

That could change with a new coach like Dineen, who saw first-hand how the Buffalo Sabres handled things with then-19-year-old defenseman Tyler Myers in 2009. But with veterans such as Campbell and Jovanovski on the roster, there won’t be a need for Gudbranson to take on too much responsibility in his first NHL season.

“When young players get surrounded by those veterans, not only are they good players, but they’re quality people,” Dineen said. “They’re able to share those past experiences with those players. I think that’s certainly going to be a real asset for me.”

TIPPPETT TO COACH IN DEVELOPMENTAL CAMP

Another former Whalers forward, Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, and Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma will be in charge when the 2011 NHL Research Development and Orientation Camp is held Aug. 17-18 at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence in Etobicoke, Ont.

Tippett and Bylsma, the last two winners of the Jack Adams Award as the NHL Coach of the Year will be handling the top players from the 2012 Entry Draft class.

“The National Hockey League is coming off another thrilling season that reinforced our view that our game is thriving on the ice,” said NHL senior vice president of player safety and hockey operations Brendan Shanahan, a future Hall of Famer after a stellar career that included stints with the Whalers and Rangers. “However, we remain committed to observing trends, studying our game regularly and testing new ideas to ensure it keeps getting better. The camp provides a perfect environment to do those things while introducing many of our top prospects to pro hockey.”

The camp also provides NHL talent evaluators their first look at some of the best players available for the 2012 draft. Last year’s camp, the first of its kind, showcased eventual top picks Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Gabriel Landeskog and Huberdeau.

“While our inaugural research, development and orientation camp was a great success, we expect to make this year’s event even better,” Shanahan said. “We again will assemble a remarkable percentage of the top talents eligible for the upcoming NHL Draft. And this year, we’re providing them with the guidance of two of our league’s outstanding current coaches, Dan Bylsma and Dave Tippett.”

Bylsma won the 2011 Jack Adams Award for leading the Penguins to the fourth-most points in the Eastern Conference despite playing most of the second half of the season without All-Star centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Tippett won the award in 2010 for guiding the Coyotes into the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.

Players who will be attending the rules that will be tested will be released in the near future.

SHANNON PAYS BACK FOR EARLY DIRECTION

When Darien native Ryan Shannon won the Stanley Cup with Anaheim in 2007, he wanted to do something a little different with his day with pro hockey’s Holy Grail by paying tribute to a man who helped get his hockey career started. That would be Obie Harrington-Howes, who first coached Shannon when he was five years old. Harrington-Howes suffered a spinal cord injury in a freak accident 14 years ago at Jones Beach on Long Island and has been in a motorized wheelchair since.

In the summer of 2007, Shannon brought the Cup to his hometown rink., where fans could take pictures with it and meet Shannon for a suggested donation to the Obie Harrington-Howes Foundation, which aids Connecticut residents with similar injuries and challenges.

“I remember that day so well,” Harrington-Howes told Emily Kaplan of NHL.com. “Ryan was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and was out for so long. And there’s not a lot of body fat on this young man. He was chilled to the bone because he was out there for three or four hours. But it was so touching, so amazing what he was doing. I was so touched.”

Shannon said “it was a no-brainer for me. I just wanted to help out in any way I could.”

Afterward, Shannon told Harrington-Howes he wanted to make it an annual event, and they have with the help of local players, community leaders and a few NHL stars. They reconvened Wednesday night at the Terry Conners Ice Rink in Stamford for the third annual Big Assist charity hockey game. Among the featured NHL stars were Hall of Famer Glenn Anderson, Martin St. Louis, who lives in Greenwich, Jonathan Quick, Matt Moulson, James Van Riemsdyk and Max Pacioretty, the Montreal Canadiens speedy wing who said he felt “weird” in his “competitive” return more than four months after sustaining a severe concussion and fractured vertebrae when checked head-first into a stanchion by Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara in a game March 8.

The event benefits the Obie Harrington-Howes Foundation, which has handed out more than $2 million to help improve the quality of life for people with spinal cord injuries and diseases. It was founded after Harrington-Howes, a hockey and lacrosse coach in Darien, was paralyzed in the swimming accident 14 years ago. The silent auction this featured autographed jerseys, sticks and pucks from players such as Crosby, New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and Washington Capitals wing Alex Ovechkin. Crosby has resumed on-ice workouts for the first time since April after sustaining a serious concussion in a collision with the Capitals’ David Steckel during the 2011 Winter Classic on Jan. 1 and missed the final 41 regular-season games and the playoffs.

More than 1,000 people showed up Wednesday night, and organizers said the amount of money raised exceeded the 2010 total.

“Hockey players understand that it takes a village, and there’s a lot of sacrifices that go along with the communities and families,” Shannon said. “Obie was a part of that group for me, so now it’s just fitting that all the NHL players are able to come back and give to his foundation.”

The mood at the rink was spirited, with the players obliging all autograph requests, mostly from youngsters. The game resembled an All-Star Game with no hitting but plenty of scoring and laughs. The final was 10-9, and featured a few funny moments such as when the public-address announcer incorrectly credited Moulson’s goal to St. Louis because the linemates with Pacioretty were both wearing the same No. 26 jersey.

“When you get a chance to get involved with a charity like this, with people you play against or train with or all from the same area, you support one another,” St. Louis said.

Harrington-Howes said after the first Big Assist event, St. Louis came up to him and said, “I know we can do this better.”

“It’s that kind of thinking that this event, the neighborhood expects it,” Harrington-Howes said. “It really is a unique event for this area. And really, I’m so humbled by it all. How can I thank Martin St. Louis and Ryan Shannon for what they do?”

RANGERS RE-SIGN BOYLE, SIGN THURESSON

The expected became reality late Thursday night when center Brian Boyle signed a three-year, $5.1 million contract with the Rangers, averting a salary arbitration hearing on July 25.

The Rangers also signed forward Andreas Thuresson to a one-year, two-way contract for $632,500 at the NHL level and $105,000 in the AHL. Thuresson was acquired from Nashville on July 2 for forward Brodie Dupont, who signed a one-year, two-way contract ($550,000 NHL/$80,000 AHL) with the Predators last Friday.

Boyle, who earned $525,000 last season after being acquired for third-round pick in 2010, had given every indication that he would be staying on Broadway when he and Rangers/Connecticut Whale wing Mats Zuccarello worked out with power skating instructor Barb Underwood after prospects camp workouts and scrimmages two weeks ago. The Los Angeles Kings’ first-round pick (26th overall) in 2003 then appeared at the Rangers Summer Youth Hockey Camp, which also was at the Madison Square Garden training center in Greenburgh, N.Y.

“I am really looking forward to the upcoming season,” Boyle told BlueshirtsUnited.com. “I am dedicated to working even harder this off-season to make myself better, and I have started my workouts with Barb Underhill already.”

The 6-foot-7, 245-pound Boyle had career highs in goals (21), assists (14), points (35), games (82), power-play goals (four) and shots (218) and was an effective penalty killer in a breakout 2010-11 season, though he had only three goals in final 31 games before leading the Rangers with 25 shots in five games in a first-round playoff loss to the Washington Capitals. Boyle, 26, had only 12 goals and four assists in 107 games with the Kings and Rangers over his first three seasons, when he also had 41 goals and 42 assists in 114 AHL games with the Manchester Monarchs after switching from defense to forward during four years at Boston College.

Boyle, a native of Hingham, Mass., joined former Wolf Pack defenseman Michael Sauer and center Artem Anisimov as qualified restricted free agents to re-sign with the Rangers. Former Wolf Pack forwards Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan are still scheduled for salary arbitration on Thursday and July 28.

GOALIE JOHNSON RETURNING TO RANGERS / WHALE

Goalie Chad Johnson told Howlings that he is working out a contract with the Rangers and expects to be back with the NHL team or in Hartford with the Whale.

The Rangers qualified Johnson, 25, who was 16-19-3 with a 2.72 goals-against average, .901 save percentage and two shutouts with the Whale last season before being called up by the Rangers on March 2 to back up Lundqvist after Martin Biron sustained a season-ending broken collarbone when hit by a shot in practice. Johnson allowed two goals on 11 shots in one period of relief in a 6-2 loss to the Islanders on March 31.

Johnson is 40-37-5 in two seasons with the Wolf Pack/Whale and 1-2-1 with the Rangers since being acquired from the Pittsburgh Penguins for a fifth-round pick in the 2009 draft on June 27, 2009. He was a fifth-round pick of the Penguins in 2006 while playing at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. … The New Jersey Devils signed former Wolf Pack forward Chad Wiseman and forward Vladimir Zharkov and acquired a fifth-round pick in 2012 from the Calgary Flames for left wing/enforcer Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond. Wiseman had 16 goals and 28 assists in 48 games with the Albany Devils last season, while Zharkov split time between Albany and New Jersey, where he had two goals and two assists in 38 games. Leblond took an ill-advised instigation penalty in the final five minutes of New Jersey’s second game last season, earning an automatic one-game suspension when the team was already at minimum roster because of the salary cap. He was promptly waived, sent to Albany and never returned to the NHL.

HURRICANES RE-SIGN FORMER WOLF PACK DEFENSEMAN

The Carolina Hurricanes re-signed former Wolf Pack and Rangers defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti and forward Chris Durno to one-year, two-way contracts on Friday.

Sanguinetti will earn $600,000 at the NHL level and $62,500 with the Charlotte Checkers this season.

“Bobby played well in Charlotte last year despite missing more than half of the season with a difficult injury,” said Hurricances director of hockey operations Ron Francis, the former Whalers player in the Hockey Hall of Fame. “He worked hard to come back and to be able to contribute to contribute to the team late in the season. We look forward to his continued progress in his career.”

Sanguinetti, 23, had three goals and 12 assists in 31 regular-season games with the Checkers last season. A native of Trenton, N.J., he missed 47 consecutive games from mid-November through mid-March after suffering a hip injury in the Checkers’ Nov. 19 game against Adirondack. But the 6-3, 190-pound Sanguinetti finished fourth among Checkers’ defensemen in scoring, with six of his points coming on the power play. He had one goal and five assists and was plus-3 in 12 regular-season games after returning from injury and added two assists in 10 playoff games.

A first-round pick (21st overall) of the Rangers in 2006, Sanguinetti was acquired by Carolina via trade with the Rangers on June 25, 2010. He has 18 goals and 63 assists in 181 AHL regular-season games with Hartford and Charlotte. He made his NHL debut with the Rangers on Nov. 27, 2009 and has played in five NHL regular-season games with the Rangers.

Durno signed for $525,000 at the NHL level and $105,000 in the AHL, with a guarantee of at least $140,000 if he spends most of the season with the Checkers.

“Chris is a big, strong guy that will provide more depth up front,” Francis said. “He has good hands and will bring leadership and veteran experience to our organization.”

Durno had 19 goals and 17 assists in 73 games last season as captain of the Norfolk Admirals. He has 108 goals and 103 assists in 366 AHL games with Milwaukee, Norfolk, Portland, San Antonio and Lake Erie. Durno, who helped Milwaukee win the Western Conference championship in 2005-06, also has four goals and four assists in 42 NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche.

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