- Jim Kelley
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TAMPA, Fla. -- In a move that surprised many, the Florida Panthers fired general manager Rick Dudley on Monday morning.
Numerous sources tell ESPN.com that the Panthers will name Mike Keenan as GM. They also say former Ottawa Senators coach Jacques Martin will be named as head coach at the news conference scheduled for Wednesday, but it's possible that second part won't happen.
Given that it's only Monday and the news conference isn't until Wednesday, anything can still happen to what is seemingly America's most dysfunctional hockey franchise.
To recap -- as briefly as possible -- Dudley fired Keenan as coach of the Panthers back in November. He replaced Keenan with himself for a while and later brought in John Torchetti, a longtime acquaintance who was working with the team's minor-league affiliate, to finish the season.
The Panthers were 5-8-2 under Keenan before he was fired Nov. 9. Dudley guided Florida to a 13-15-9-3 record doing both jobs. Torchetti went 10-12-4-1.
The thinking when Torchetti was brought in was that the team was not responding to Keenan's coaching tactics and that Torchetti would be a better teaching coach -- and that if the team responded to him as Dudley thought it might, Torchetti eventually would have the job full time.
However, the Keenan firing never went down easy with team owner Alan Cohen and Keenan always kept up a relationship and a dialogue with his former boss who, we might add, was still paying on Keenan's multimillion-dollar contract.
Not a good thing for Dudley.
According to several sources, Keenan's still-strong relationship with Cohen, coupled with a seemingly lukewarm attitude toward hiring Martin over Torchetti, was enough to tip the scales in Keenan's favor.
Dudley did not immediately return phone calls from ESPN.com, but earlier in the day he told Florida-based reporters that Cohen had "expressed a great deal of interest in Martin" and that it came at the same time he was in talks with Torchetti regarding moving him from interim status to permanent.
He was in contract talks with Torchetti when Martin
was fired by Ottawa on April 22 after 8½ seasons -- which was the
longest active tenure in the NHL.
"My feelings were very simple: Torch will be a brilliant coach," said Dudley, who also hired John Tortorella to coach Tampa Bay in January 2001 to lead the Lightning's turnaround.
Club officials, including Dudley, have met more than once this
month with Martin about the possibility
of his becoming the team's fifth coach in three years.
Martin won 341 games and three division titles with the
Dudley said he didn't know whether Martin would be the one introduced
"Alan has expressed a great deal of interest in Jacques, and
that was the direction it took," Dudley said. "But I have no idea
what that means. Maybe Jacques will be the GM, too. I have no way
Panthers officials did not return phone calls from The Associated Press on Monday.
If the carousel isn't confusing enough so far, consider also the expense.
Cohen signed Keenan to a long-term deal before he hired Dudley, but Dudley eventually convinced the owner that Keenan needed to go. Cohen later signed Dudley to a contract extension, and now it's his turn to go.
That's a lot of money to be tossing around, and now Cohen gets a career coach whose time spent as a general manager (St. Louis Blues) was volatile and largely unproductive. He also pays for a new coach in Martin (whose contract terms may not be officially agreed to yet) and must now pay a general manager (Dudley) not to manage.
All this to direct a team that hasn't made the playoffs the past two seasons and relies mostly on goaltender Roberto Luongo to produce even the appearance of competitiveness while a corps of young players begins to develop into NHL-level talent.
Florida increased its point total during both of Dudley's
seasons, but is still looking to make the playoffs for the first
time since 2000. The Panthers have had nine coaches in 12 years, including the three last season alone.
"I like to build things," Dudley said. "When I left Tampa, it
was a very good-positioned hockey team. This team's close, but they
still need to get a few things done. If I'm worried about one
thing, it's that the group of people that are here won't get to
take the same path that Tampa took."
He added, "I'd like to see somebody come in who understands what they've
got. This team could be special."
Dudley has been offered another job in the Panthers' organization, but sources tell ESPN.com that he will not take it. Though most of hockey was shocked by the sudden turn of events, Dudley gave hints that it had been in the wind.
"Sometimes your senses tell you things," he said to a Canadian Press reporter shortly after word of the firing started making the rounds. "Sometimes you get the feeling that you're not as appreciated as you once were. I had that feeling."
He was summoned to the office of team owner Alan Cohen
for a two-minute meeting Monday, and said he was not given an explanation
for his dismissal.
Dudley is experienced in that regard.
He was fired as a coach in Buffalo after some clashes with management that has since departed. For a brief time, he was a general manager in Ottawa, where, coincidentally, Martin was head coach. He left that position to take a job as general manager with Tampa Bay (according to some reports because he couldn't replace Martin after an upset loss in the playoffs).
He receives a lion's share of the credit for building Tampa Bay into a Cup contender, but left after a showdown with the owner and the current management team regarding the handling of star forward Vincent Lecavalier. Dudley wanted to accommodate a request by Lecavalier to be traded. Ownership and then assistant general manager Feaster were against it. Lecavalier remained a Bolt and Feaster became vice president and general manager while Dudley signed on with Florida.
Feaster said he holds Dudley in high regard for his accomplishments in Florida and was quick to credit him for obtaining Tampa Bay players such as goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, veterans Dave Andreychuk and Tim Taylor, and up-and-coming-talent such as Martin St. Louis and Fredrik Modin.
Tortorella had even more praise.
"He's a good person and a good hockey person," said the Tampa coach, who was quick to acknowledge he got his start in coaching in the American Hockey League and his first jobs in the NHL -- as an assistant coach and later as a head coach -- because of Dudley.
"I worked with Duds a long time, and I learned a lot from him, especially regards his work habits," Tortorella said. "I'm shocked, he has a great hockey mind and he works so hard. The way he works and his intelligence for the game, my hope is that he will be back in the game in a very short time."
Probably so, but it won't be in Florida.
Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
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