Martin: 'Lots of work to be done here'

Updated: May 26, 2004, 6:10 PM ET
Associated Press

SUNRISE, Fla. -- The Florida Panthers have big changes in mind for next season and to meet those expectations they got two big names to run the franchise.

Jacques Martin and Mike Keenan, who have more than three decades of hockey history together, were reunited by the Panthers on Wednesday.

Martin -- a four-time NHL coach of the year finalist who was fired last month by the Ottawa Senators -- replaces interim coach John Torchetti. Keenan takes over as general manager, replacing Rick Dudley, who fired Keenan 6 months ago to end a turbulent two-year reign.

The moves were swift, sweeping -- and surprising to players.

"When I got the call, I had to replay my message again just to make sure I heard it correctly," said Roberto Luongo, the team's Vezina Trophy-nominated goaltender. "Mike knows what needs to be addressed, who needs to go, who needs to stay and who he's got to bring in. It's a positive for our hockey club."

The Panthers are one of only five NHL teams to have missed the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, and owner Alan Cohen said he's grown impatient with incremental progress.

"I think I've put ourselves in a very, very stable position," Cohen said. "Jacques and Mike are going to take us to the next level."

Martin is the team's fourth coach in less than seven months -- a revolving door that started when Keenan was fired Nov. 9. Dudley replaced Keenan, compiling a 13-15-9-3 record before turning the team over to his assistant, Torchetti. He went 10-12-4-1.

The status of coaches and other staff already under contract with the organization, including Torchetti, has not been decided, Martin said.

"There's lots of work to be done here," Martin said. "It's a great challenge for everybody. I'm really excited about this, to build this team to where it should be."

Dudley lobbied Cohen to hire Torchetti on a permanent basis. Cohen, instead, fired Dudley on Monday, then hired Martin, the 1999 NHL coach of the year who guided Ottawa to three division titles in 8 seasons.

Martin was 341-255-96 in the regular season as Ottawa's coach, but just 31-38 in the playoffs. He becomes the ninth coach in Panthers history, the sixth since 2000-01.

"He's the best coach in the National Hockey League," Keenan said. "For that reason, I think it's a tremendous future for all of us. It's certainly a challenge and an opportunity that I'll embrace."

Keenan and Martin were part of the hockey program at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York in the early 1970s; Keenan was a senior captain, Martin a freshman goaltender. Later, as coach of the Peterborough Petes in the Ontario Hockey League, Keenan hired Martin to be one of his scouts.

And eventually, Martin worked as an assistant for Keenan in Chicago, the second of Keenan's seven NHL coaching stops -- all of which have ended with a fair amount of acrimony.

In his first nine seasons as an NHL coach, Keenan led four clubs to the Stanley Cup finals, winning the title in 1994 with the New York Rangers -- their first in 54 years.

But even that ended badly. About a month after hoisting the Cup at Madison Square Garden, Keenan declared himself a free agent because he said the Rangers breached his contract by failing to pay him his playoff bonus on time.

The Rangers sued to have him honor the remaining four years of his contract, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman eventually sided with Keenan and allowed him to take over as coach and general manager in St. Louis.

The Blues fired him in 1997. Vancouver followed suit in 1999, Boston sent him packing in 2001 and Florida dismissed him in 2003. Keenan won only 45 of 153 games with the Panthers.

"I didn't want to leave the game that way," Keenan said.

Martin's departure from Ottawa, where he had the league's longest coaching tenure when he was fired, also was brought on by playoff failures. Ottawa lost in the first round this year to Toronto, the fourth time in the last five seasons the Senators' season ended against the Maple Leafs.

"We've got a coach now who had a winning record over eight years," Panthers center Olli Jokinen said. "He built that team over there and he's well-respected around the league. He's going to help our team a lot."

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press