Panthers focusing on own end
If eyebrows were raised when Mike Keenan was hired to coach the eurocentric Panthers in December 2001, they practically went through the roof in May when the unsinkable Keenan resurfaced as the Panthers' general manager, only six months after he'd been fired just 15 games into the 2003-04 schedule.
In between, GM Rick Dudley had taken over the coaching duties before handing them to assistant John Torchetti. Then, after receiving a contract extension, Dudley was squeezed out of a job entirely when Keenan and erstwhile Ottawa Senators head coach Jacques Martin presented themselves as a package deal too good for ownership to refuse.
Obviously, stability isn't exactly priority one with the Panthers.
But a look beyond the optics reveals a team that may have as much upside as any in the conference, starting with Vezina Trophy candidate Roberto Luongo, Jay Bouwmeester and Mike Van Ryn on defense, and a bevy of talented forwards from Olli Jokinen to Nathan Horton to Stephen Weiss to Anthony Stewart.
Keenan, who had stints as a general manager in Chicago and St. Louis and was interim general manager in Vancouver, has been busy since returning to South Florida in late May. He signed veteran defenseman Sean Hill away from division foe Carolina and added a familiar face in Alexander Karpovtsev, who won a Cup with Keenan in New York in 1994. Former Washington Capitals rearguard Joel Kwiatkowski will also provide some veteran presence.
And as if trying to make the Panthers playoff ready after missing the last four postseasons wasn't taxing enough, Keenan has spent part of the offseason filming the reality series "Making the Cut," which will run on the CBC in the fall. The show features a training camp run by Keenan and Scotty Bowman with the top players earning an invite to an NHL training camp in a Canadian city.
Keenan took time from his filming schedule to talk to ESPN.com about the rebuilding of the Panthers.
ESPN.com: How would you assess your team's performance last year?
Keenan: I prefer not to talk about last season because I didn't have any involvement with the team. I was fired after, what, 10 games? After that, I never watched the Panthers play again, so I can't tell you anything about them or their season other than I know they gave up a record number of shots on goal.
ESPN.com: How about the guys you brought in this offseason, what appealed to you?
Keenan: They were appealing to me because at least I felt, and our group felt, that we were the youngest team in the National Hockey League and they needed to be supported by these veteran guys in both the locker room and on the ice. There has to be some veteran experience, some veteran exposure. Sean, he brings experience. He's familiar with the division. He can give us more experience on the power play. He will definitely have a leadership role in the locker room.
ESPN.com: What about Jacques Martin and what he brings to the mix?
Keenan: The thing that he brings to the mix is having come from a team that was not successful when he arrived in Ottawa, a team that went through a learning curve and a growth period. This team is ahead of that curve of the team Jacques inherited in Ottawa. He's had the experience in Ottawa and he can share that with the players.
ESPN.com: Which player made the biggest strides in your estimation, had the biggest impact on your team last season?
Keenan: There's no question that Luongo was the most dominant player on that team. Roberto was mostly responsible for the club even coming up with the points they did. He was the main anchor on the team, he's the main building block for the future. You have to have the goaltending or you're not going to win in this league, and you're certainly not going to advance in the playoffs without it. It's pivotal.
ESPN.com: Which player needs to bounce back or take the biggest step forward if there is hockey this season?
Keenan: There are a number of players that we have those expectations for. You can name all of our young players, the Hortons, Weiss, Bouwmeester. Even our goaltender is only 25. They're such a young group that there is that expectation from all the young players. We definitely have the expectation that they're going to improve with age and experience from playing one more year in the league.
I think it's important to have that expectation, because you gave them the responsibility when you signed them to the contract and they accepted that responsibility when they signed that contract. If they weren't ready for those expectations then they should have stayed in the minors or in junior.
Mike Van Ryn. If he wants to be known as a certain style of competitor and known around the league as that kind competitor, he has to come back and do more of the same. He has the potential to improve.
ESPN.com: Who is the top player in your system ready to play in the NHL right now?
Keenan: There is the expectation that there are several players that we think will have a shot. Particularly at the forward position, this is an awful young group. I would say at this point that there will be a competition for ice time. They're going to have to compete with each other to earn a spot and then they're going to have to compete with each other for the dispersal of ice time. They may not get the ice time they had last year.
ESPN.com: What is the top priority in improving the organization?
Keenan: For sure, defensive zone coverage. I don't think anyone would be proud of the fact you hold the league record for most shots allowed. The team defense has to improve dramatically. The players are going to have to buy into the system in a way that they didn't last year. If you're giving up those kinds of shots, it speaks to a lack of commitment.
ESPN.com: What was your favorite moment from last season?
Keenan: I guess there are a couple, the selection of a couple of players that made the team, like Mike Van Ryn, who was slated to go to the minors but who we identified as a player that had potential.
ESPN.com: Least favorite moment?
Keenan: Getting fired? No. I had personal issues, with my mother dying, that were far worse than losing my job.
ESPN.com: What activity, destination or hobby will take you furthest away from hockey this offseason?
Keenan: This show is being completely immersed in the game of hockey. So that's my down time -- completely immersed in the game. It's been outrageous. It really has in a good sense. It's been a delightful experience.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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