Scapegoat or fired for cause?

Last week, the Florida Panthers, in an all-too-typical response to a poor start (10 points in their first 16 games), fired their head coach, Kevin Dineen, as well as two of his assistants. In their place, Peter Horachek, who had been coaching the organization’s AHL team in San Antonio, was named interim coach, and former Panthers players Brian Skrudland and John Madden were also promoted from other roles in the organization to serve as assistants.

The profession of NHL head coach can be a very tenuous one. As with all professional sports, the “What have you done for me lately?” mentality is pervasive. While the same holds true for players, they are usually signed to contracts of much higher value, with more guaranteed cash on them. Coaches, on the other hand, are easily replaceable (at least on the bottom line). Although the question of how much NHL coaches matter has not been studied in as much detail as their brethren in baseball and football, we do know of some areas where the head coach has a direct effect: namely, player usage. While the head coach rarely has much say in terms of which players he has available to him, he should have a free hand in how they are employed: who plays on the power play and the penalty kill, when to rotate goalies, and which players to ice in a critical defensive zone faceoff, to name a few.

In order to decide whether or not Dineen earned his dismissal last week, we first need to look at how he used his players, and whether there were decisions he should have made differently.

Zone starts

Most coaches show their line of thinking by the players they ice when trapped in their own zone, compared to those who take the faceoffs in the opposing end. While the majority tend to give their top offensive line between 55-60% of their non-neutral, even strength faceoffs in the offensive end, and only 40-45% for their checking units, Dineen was slightly more extreme.

Dineen’s forward deployment, 2011-12 through 2013-14
Year Rank Player Highest OZ % Player Lowest OZ%
2011-12 1 Wojtek Wolski 58.8 Jerred Smithson 36.6
2 Tomas Fleischmann 58.1 Marcel Goc 38.2
3 Stephen Weiss 55.6 John Madden 43.0
2012-13 1 Drew Shore 63.1 Jack Skille 48.0
2 Jonathan Huberdeau 62.9 Tomas Kopecky 50.0
3 Peter Mueller 61.2 Shawn Matthias 50.2
2013-14 1 Brad Boyes 62.6 Jesse Winchester 36.6
2 Aleksander Barkov 61.4 Marcel Goc 38.6
3 Jonathan Huberdeau 59.6 Shawn Matthias 39.2
Forwards only, minimum 30 games played for 2011-12 and 2012-13

The numbers are not quite as extreme as those seen in Vancouver under Alain Vigneault, but we can definitely see that Dineen was trying to give his better players the most advantageous ice time, while reserving the more challenging assignments for skaters with a more defensive bent.

Similarly, with special teams usage, there was nothing egregious about how Dineen utilized the talent he had available to him. While the power play has been atrocious thus far, more of the blame can be placed at the feet and sticks of players like Jonathan Huberdeau, Kris Versteeg, and Dmitry Kulikov for not contributing in spite of ample opportunity to do so, as well as a history of power play production.

The penalty kill has been among the dregs of the league throughout the Dineen era, although it must also be stated that the Panthers never had true shutdown players at their disposal. In as much as kind words might be spoken about Mike Weaver and Ed Jovanovski, both are in their mid-thirties, and the latter has yet to play this year, as he continues in his rehabilitation from offseason hip surgery. As a wise man once said, you can’t make chicken soup out of chicken…stuff.

In summary, while the supporting cast has changed over the past three seasons, very little about the way Dineen deployed players changed from 2011-12, when the Panthers made the playoffs for the first time since 1999-2000. Dineen was certainly not misusing the players he had. He went to lengths greater than most coaches to deploy his talent to the maximum possible advantage.

Roster usage

To get to the heart of Florida’s current malaise, we have to look at the roster. While the abbreviated 2012-13 season was poor, the Panthers only significant departure was that of their long-time face of the franchise, Stephen Weiss, who signed as an unrestricted free agent with Detroit. Prior to training camp, the only noteworthy addition was expected to be the 18-year-old selected with the second overall pick of last summer’s draft, Aleksander Barkov.

General manager Dale Tallon took advantage of the buyer’s market for NHL talent squeezed out by the reduced salary cap, inking Brad Boyes, Tom Gilbert, Ryan Whitney, and most notably Tim Thomas, for a combined $5.3 million in the days leading up to the season opener. While these were all good gambles, only the first two have been paying off thus far, with Boyes adding some offense from the third line, and Gilbert holding his own on the first defensive pairing. Whitney, on the other hand, has been a massive disappointment, and has already passed through waivers on his way down to the AHL, while Tim Thomas has been a new data point suggesting that it is exceedingly difficult for a goaltender to return to full strength after a full year away from not only the NHL, but from hockey in general. His .915 even strength save percentage has been below average, and GVT had him as contributing below replacement level prior to his return from an early season groin injury. As poor as Thomas has been, his performance has actually dwarfed that of his rivals to the net, as both Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom have been putrid. We cannot even blame team defense for the struggles in net, as the Panthers are actually 13th in shots allowed per game, but only 28th in goals against.

Although we can criticize Dineen for youngsters like Erik Gudbranson, Huberdeau, and Kulikov not showing marked growth in their games under his watch, the roster as a whole is ill equipped to compete for a playoff spot in today’s NHL.

Roster makeup

The simple truth of the lack of success achieved by the Florida Panthers, in this year as well as nearly every other year since we first grew to fear Y2K, is due almost solely to the talent assembled on its various rosters. As stated above, head coaches rarely have any say in the makeup of their rosters, and Kevin Dineen was no exception. The man who was charged with assembling the roster in Sunrise was none other than the man who dropped the axe on Dineen’s career, Dale Tallon. That man has already gained a reputation for prospect hoarding, having put together much of the core of the current Chicago Blackhawks dynasty with superstars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane both having been drafted under his watch. Of course, if we are to credit him for building a part of that roster, we must also debit him for the reason he was removed from his position just before the Hawks won that first title in 2009-10. Needing to send a few pending restricted free agents qualifying offers by a deadline in order to avoid their being converted to unrestricted free agents, Tallon sent in the offers late. To avoid a stink with the NHLPA, and to maintain his men, including the likes of Dave Bolland and Kris Versteeg, Tallon extended offers for more term and more cash than he had intended, more than those players were worth given what should have been their leverage at the time.

Similarly, in Florida, Tallon took over a roster that was rather barren, both in terms of present day talent as well as future stars, and began to stockpile prospects through relentless draft pick accumulation. In addition to current Panthers roster members Huberdeau, Gudbranson, and Barkov, Nick Bjugstad was also drafted by Tallon, and Panther fans may also get to see fellow Tallon draftees Quinton Howden, Alex Petrovic, and Vincent Trocheck later this season. Unfortunately, as instrumental as having talented players under entry-level contracts is to winning in a salary cap league, they need to be buttressed by useful veterans to truly compete. In this regard, Tallon has failed, the lucky division title of 2010-11 notwithstanding. The players he has put together for this season were projected by Hockey Prospectus’ VUKOTA system to be the worst in the NHL, with only two players expected to top 10.0 GVT (Huberdeau and Tomas Fleischmann), and only three (the aforementioned two, plus Boyes) expected to even exceed 40 points.

With new ownership in place in the person of Vincent Viola, Tallon finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being a relic of an older organizational hierarchy. By shifting the blame for the team’s poor present state to the on-ice coaching staff, he has simply diverted some of the attention away from his own subpar performance as a team builder. As for Dineen, I would point out the success of the man he originally replaced, Peter DeBoer. After Tallon let DeBoer go, the New Jersey Devils picked him up, and he subsequently led them to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season in Newark.

Verdict

Kevin Dineen and his two deposed assistants were scapegoated by Florida Panthers management. Should the Panthers fail to dramatically improve under interim coach Peter Horachek, expect GM Dale Tallon to have his job come under far more scrutiny in the very near future.

Ryan Wagman is a long-time author of Hockey Prospectus including his Zamboni Tracks transactions column, a contributor to several HP annuals, contributor to ESPN Insider, and long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs supporter.

Wagman

Follow Ryan on Twitter at @RAWagman.

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