Greg Cote: Florida Panthers’ endless rebuilding is finally over

So many professional coaches ensconce themselves in their own little world, with blinders on for their team, their sport. Jimmy Johnson, for example, once was challenged in the middle of a football season to name the two teams playing right then in the World Series, and could not. (Seemed rather proud of that, in fact, as I recall.)

Kevin Dineen is different.

The Florida Panthers’ second-year coach looks around to see where he wants his club to be headed.

“I look at the level of stability Pat Riley brought to the Heat,” he told us the other day. “Or in San Antonio, with the Spurs, or in New England, with the Patriots. You take examples from other sports. In our sport, Detroit has had that incredible stability.”

Such a magic word: Stability. And so elusive — at least as it related to the NHL’s southernmost outpost doing business in suburban Sunrise. Here, it seemed the skating had always been on thin ice for so, so long.

Before last year’s break-through playoff season, the Panthers had cycled through seven different head coaches and seven different general managers in a stultifying 10-season playoff drought. The entirety of the 2000s was, for this franchise, a lost decade, a hiccupping parade of starts, stops, re-starts and so on marked by mismanagement and seemingly no blueprint, no plan.

Then Dale Tallon arrived as GM in 2010, hired Dineen as coach a year later, and everything has changed as the club begins its 19th season Saturday night in the home rink vs. the Carolina Hurricanes.

Now, the endless re-re-rebuilding is over.

Now, for the first time in more than a decade, “We are building on success,” as Dineen put it.

The Panthers on Saturday will raise to the rafters the first division-championship banner in franchise history. At last there is a solid foundation set, a visible path back to the club’s first Stanley Cup Finals appearance since 1996.

This franchise at long last has momentum, but now must make sure the four-month lockout that truncated this season to a 48-game schedule merely delayed that momentum, didn’t crush it.

See, the Panthers have started something. That’s all. They have our attention. Now what will they do with it?

Sense of the area

Once again, Dineen, 49, looks around him, beyond his sport, and sees where his club is and where it needs to be headed. He is a Quebec guy; you still hear Canada in his voice, as when the word “organization” comes out “organ-EYE-zation.” But after only one season here he has a sense of sports in South Florida.

This is a different market. This is no hockey town. The NHL remains a niche sport here. And Dineen, free of blinders, knows only one thing changes that. It starts with sustained winning. It culminates with winning everything.

“The Dolphins have their fabulous history here, the Heat and even the Marlins have championships under their belt,” he says. “That’s where we need to get to to really become part of the landscape here, to become part of the conversation and really have something.”

(Dineen, in fact, reached out to Heat coach Erik Spoelstra for advice on how to deal with a lockout-shortened season. Spoelstra was receptive, although his schedule prevented the two from ever meeting.)

Clearly, the Panthers cannot compete in this market with LeBron James or the Dolphins’ history, but nevertheless can and must increase their local footprint.

Recognition issue

Stephen Weiss enters his 11th season with Florida. No current Heat player, Dolphin or Marlin has been here longer. Weiss is the club’s all-time leader in games played. And yet he told me during last year’s playoffs, “There are days you go out and nobody recognizes you.”

Dineen acknowledged this week, “John Vanbiesbrouck’s name is recognized as much here as Jose Theodore’s. And that’s based on success.”

Theodore is the current goaltender. Vanbiesbrouck, of course, was the club’s 1993-98 goalie when the Stanley Cup Finals were attained, when rubber rats fell merrily onto the ice — when the Panthers moved beyond niche sport and seemed to capture our imagination for awhile.

Just as Dolphins fans forever are wistful over the team’s 1972-73 Super Bowl championships, Panthers fans tend to wax nostalgic over ’96 in large part because nothing since has been offered to replace it.

For the hockey team, that could be coming if last season proves to have been just the beginning and not some aberration.

Tantalizing future

Tallon remade the roster and brought in veterans like Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann, but it is what’s next that should excite Panthers fans.

Erik Gudbranson, the 2010 top draft pick, has banked a season’s NHL experience and is ready to take off. Jonathan Huberdeau, the 2011 top pick, is set to make his debut with the big club, offering the tantalizing prospect of the offensive punch the team lacked last season. Young Jacob Markstrom, goaltender of the future, may be ready to blossom.

And behind them is a farm system that might be the most talented and fully stocked in the league.

“Were pushing from below,” as Dineen puts it, “with young players we drafted and are developing.”

Pushing, yes.

For a lost decade it felt like the Panthers were pushing against themselves, stuck, going nowhere.

Now, movement.

A franchise, pushing forward.

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