When Brian Campbell arrived in Florida last summer, he was more than a little leery about his hockey future.
Campbell had just agreed to waive the no-trade clause in his contract and allow the Chicago Blackhawks to send him to the Florida Panthers in exchange for forward Rostislav Olesz. He'd made the decision based largely on promises by the Panthers' new general manager, Dale Tallon, who had spent years in Chicago.
Tallon had assured the all-star defenceman he planned to build a contender in Sunrise – and he had already shipped out a half-dozen players to clear room for a influx of free agents.
"When I got traded here, yeah, I was skeptical, because there was nobody really on the roster," Campbell said Thursday as the Panthers prepared to face the Winnipeg Jets at the MTS Centre. "Dale said he was going to bring guys in and then you kind of look and you are like, whoa. But he was true to his promise."
Within weeks the Panthers added 11 players, including free agents Ed Jovanovski, Tomas Fleischmann, Scottie Upshall, Sean Bergenheim, Jose Theodore and Marcel Goc. Forward Kris Versteeg also arrived in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers.
It was one of the biggest team makeovers ever in the NHL with only 10 players returning from the previous season. And it wasn't just the on-ice talent. Tallon also recruited former NHLer Kevin Dineen as head coach.
It all could have gone wrong. How would so many new players fit in? How would they react to Dineen, who few of them knew and who had spent six years coaching in the AHL but never in the NHL?
"That was our biggest concern at the start of the year," said Stephen Weiss, who has been with the Panthers for a decade and not made it to the playoffs. "How were we going to jell? What system were we going to play? And how long would it take for us to get to know each other and develop some chemistry?"
Not that long, it turns out.
The team got off to a 13-3-5 start and never looked back. Heading into Thursday, the Panthers led the Southeast Division with 72 points and had a record of 30-20-12. The team has already matched its win and point totals for all of last season. Florida is also one of just two teams to have beaten the Jets twice this season at the MTS Centre.
"It's not an easy task to bring in that number of people on to your team," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "And they have been pretty consistent all year. So it's not like they've run it since Christmas."
Many give much of the credit to Dineen, who spent 19 seasons in the NHL, piling up 355 goals, 405 assists and 2,229 penalty minutes. He was also a captain with the Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes and the old Hartford Whalers.
"Any time you can play for a guy who has played that many games and the style that he played for that long, you know he is going to be a fun guy to play for," Weiss said. "And guys play hard for him."
Dineen played down his contribution, saying the players wanted to turn things around in Florida. He said his main tasks have been offering players feedback and managing the intensity of the season.
"I think you try to put your own template on it, but what you want to do is you also want to play a little bit around the talent that you have," he said. "I think players want to be a part of something and right now we are. We're not just a destination to go down and go put your time in at the rink and get outside and enjoy the many offerings that South Florida has. I think that they are very engaged in what we are trying to do and I think they are proud to put on that jersey."
His players describe Dineen as "fiery" and the coach has been known to slam doors and cut press conferences short after bad games.
"I don't know about that," Dineen said with a smile. "Well, I probably yap a little too much on the bench. I get a little excited, but I think enthusiasm has always been a big part of our game."
Dineen has been a godsend to players like Weiss. He has spent his entire career with Florida and watched the team constantly trade away good players, some of whom went on to win Stanley Cups.
Weiss acknowledged feeling depressed again about the Panthers' hopes a year ago, when Tallon unloaded players to set up his summer plan. But now, in the midst of a playoff push, Weiss couldn't be happier.
"It's no fun coming to the rink with 15 or 20 games left with not much to play for," he said. "So this is fun."