A little less than a week after overhauling their coaching staff, the Panthers find themselves rejuvenated. They snapped a nine-game winless streak Tuesday night and are once again expressing optimism about the season ahead.
There’s a tangible difference in the locker room atmosphere. Guys are hanging around longer to chatting amongst each other. They are showing an enthusiasm that had been missing for a few weeks.
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And when it comes to discussing new coach Peter Horachek and assistants Brian Skrudland and John Madden, players are vocal about their appreciation for a more simple system and accountability.
“If you play good, you play hard, you battle, you’re going to play,” Tomas Kopecky said. “[Horachek] stressed that from day one. He laid out some ground rules and now I think the guys are buying into that. It’s nice to see all the guys on the same page and battling for each other. It’s much more fun going home after a win than a loss.”
Whether being respectful of Kevin Dineen or simply wanting to move forward, players did not want to suggest their former coach lost the room. But quite a few suggested Dineen’s game plan, married with a downward spiral in the standings, warranted something new.
Scottie Upshall broke down the differences on-ice, saying Horachek’s approach is more “north” as opposed to the “east-west” style the Panthers had been playing.
In Florida’s new system, every skater is expected to contribute in every zone. Horachek said he always wants to see five guys in the offensive, defensive and neutral zones. The Panthers move as a pack.
Under the old system, Upshall said the individuals on the team “tried to do a lot of things by ourselves.”
“I think when things don’t go your way, you’ve got to get back to basics,” Upshall said. “Whether you’re a first-line guy that gets 35 goals or you’re a guy that steps out there for 5-10 minutes a night to finish checks, everyone here has to do things the right way.”
And when players make mistakes or fail to stick with the system, they now expect repercussions.
“All of the guys weren’t accountable when Kevin was coaching,” Tomas Kopecky said. “We were creating so many turnovers. Now, you create a turnover, you might as well be benched for a shift or two.”
Defenseman Mike Weaver, who thrived under Dineen, suggested the woes led to players just not executing.
“Sometimes there comes a time where you have to switch things up a little bit,” Weaver told foxsportsflorida.com. “We were missing even with Kevin. When it’s all said and done, you can have the best plan before the game, but we’re the ones that have to execute.”
Upshall, who played under Horachek as a first-year pro in Milwaukee of the American Hockey League and later with the Nashville Predators, likes that the change stresses a team-first mentality.
“I think that system and that attitude is there to make us better and to get the best out of the group that we have,” Upshall said. “We have a great group of guys, but there are no guys that are going to get 110 points.
“We’ve got guys who have a lot of upside,” he added. “We’ve got a lot of good young players that are going to be better professionals and better pros in the short-term and the long-term that are going to be better with a guy like Peter and the staff we’ve assembled with Madden and Skruds.”
Gudbranson gets at ‘A’
A new coach was not the only thing Erik Gudbranson had to adjust to when the team hit the ice in Ottawa last Saturday. He found his jersey and place in the locker room carried a little extra weight.
One of the first moves made by Horachek was to award the 21-year-old with the role of alternate captain.
“I showed up to the rink and [my jersey] was a little left shoulder heavy,” Gudbranson said. “It was pretty cool. It was really classy of the team going back to Ottawa.”
Wearing the ‘A’ may have been viewed by Gudbranson as temporary for his homecoming, but nothing has changed in the time since. The defenseman continues to serve in a leadership role, something Horachek said he’d like to see more of from the third-year pro.
“I put it on him to bring it out, encourage him to step it up,” Horachek said. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be the final situation. It may change. Leadership has to come in a lot of forms and from a lot of different people. Sometimes young guys can step up, too. Sometimes you do things for a reason to encourage that part to come out.”
Mottau gets the call
Despite a glut of defenseman, finding a player to fill the last spot on the depth chart has been tricky for the Panthers.
Ryan Whitney lasted just six games with the team before being waived and sent to San Antonio. Matt Gilroy has had his ups and downs in 12 contests.
Mike Mottau, who signed a two-way deal with Florida last summer, is latest to get a shot at regular ice time. The Panthers recalled the blueliner on Nov. 11.
The biggest benefit to adding Mottau is his familiarity with Horachek’s system. The Cats new coach had plenty of time to observe the blueliner in the minors and felt the veteran could assist teammates with the transition.
“He’s played at this level before,” Horachek said. “He’s a smart player. He’s a leader. I think that will settle things down a little bit. I am sure he is going to step right in and do a good job.”
A former Hobey Baker winner as college hockey’s top player, Mottau said he isn’t looking to wow anyone, just provide stability.
“Nothing too flashy,” Mottau said. “[I’m] just trying to make the right reads, right decisions, add value where I can. If you can duplicate what you’re good at over and over, you help calm things down back there. Hopefully I can provide that value.”
Florida embarks on a five-game, 10-day road trip Thursday. The Panthers begin with back-to-back games over the weekend against the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche.
“Minnesota, Colorado right off the hop. They’re both top teams,” Horachek said. “They play a very good, structured system. Patrick Roy has Colorado playing at a top pace. They’re fast, they’re skilled. There are not going to be any easy games.”
Florida will have two days off before facing the Vancouver Canucks Tuesday. The Panthers travel to Alberta for another set of back-to-back contests, facing the Edmonton Oilers on next Thursday and Calgary Flames the day after.