OTTAWA - The Florida Panthers have been put on notice, and the players say the message has been received.
The Panthers fired head coach Kevin Dineen and assistants Gord Murphy and Craig Ramsay on Friday after the team got off to a dismal start to the regular season.
More changes could still come if the team doesn't soon find a way to improve its on-ice performance. The Panthers have lost ten of their last eleven games, sit seventh in the Atlantic Division with a 3-9-4 record and are 27th in the league heading into Friday's games.
"It's easier to fire a coach than to fire 23 players," general manager Dale Tallon said on a conference call earlier in the day. "But we're on the phone constantly and we're going to make changes as we go. We want people that want to be Panthers, and if they don't want to be we'll accommodate them. Right now I'm dissatisfied with the effort from most of the guys and we need to be better."
Peter Horachek, who had been coaching the team's American Hockey League affiliate in San Antonio, was named interim coach. Director of player development Brian Skrudland and professional scout John Madden will serve as assistant coaches.
The Panthers took part in their first practice Friday with Horachek at the helm. Afterwards they said they were disappointed by Dineen's firing and know it's up to them to turn things around.
"I think for us as players we definitely share or take most of the blame for what has gone on, but we're trying to look forward now," said defenceman Brian Campbell.
Players are well aware of the situation and say they control their own fate.
"Who knows who's safe and what not, but now it's just going out and playing the right way as a team," said Erik Gudbranson. "We've put ourselves behind the eight ball early in this season and the only way that we can get out of it is within our dressing room and going out there and playing hard and playing the right way."
When asked about Tallon's comments on potential trades, Campbell admitted such things shouldn't even need to be said at this point.
"I don't think Dale needs to say a word about that," said Campbell. "Us as players should realize that, but hopefully it can bring us together closer and we can think about the good times we had with Kevin and then move forward to hopefully great times ahead."
Tallon met with reporters in Ottawa late Friday afternoon and said, "we need our better players to play better or I have to get better players."
Rumours had been swirling for weeks that a change was likely imminent and Tallon said he felt a change was necessary.
"You've got to do something, you can't sit still when we're doing this poorly," he said. "We have new ownership and they have high expectations of excellence and performance and so we've got to make sure and we had to change direction."
Panthers owner Vinnie Viola, who bought the club in late September, wrote a letter to fans saying the change in direction was "absolutely necessary."
"With 66 games remaining this season our expectations remain the same," Viola wrote. "We expect a team that plays hard, that sacrifices for each other, that gives everything they have for our fans and supporters, and a team that wins hockey games. By the end of this season we expect to be competing for a place in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and we expect to have taken a significant step toward achieving the goals and objectives we have set for this franchise."
With the Panthers playing the Senators Saturday afternoon Horachek, known as a no-nonsense coach, has little time to implement many changes, but he does hope the day's events resonate with players.
"I think the guys know there's a talent there, there's ability there and they have pride and they have to understand that there's a big responsibility on their backs for where they are and what's gone on," said Horachek. "I think there's a professionalism and they have to move forward here and do all the things necessary to be a competitive team, be where we need to be and how we need to play and I think they realize that. They feel good about committing and being part of that journey right now."
Horacheck says it's up to the players to look in the mirror and take responsibility for the situation.
"We have to take a bigger, better approach on how we approach our day and how we approach ourselves," he said. "Are we prepared to practice, are we prepared to play? And how we want to go about that. What kind of team do we want to be? Do we want to be individuals or do we want to start playing the way we're capable of playing?"
When asked what the biggest problem has been this year Campbell summed it up fairly easily.
"I think our consistency definitely," said Campbell. "We can be more consistent throughout a game, shift to shift. Expectations put on yourself, but also accountability. I don't think there's enough accountability right now put on each and everyone of us. I think that's something we need to change and expect everybody playing on the same page and nobody taking shortcuts."
Tallon's message to the players was simple.
"Win a fourth game and go from there. Win the next game and be ready to play hard in that particular game."
Dineen was 56-62-28 in parts of three seasons, leading the Panthers to the 2012 Southeast Division title and guiding the team into the playoffs for the first time since 2000. Tallon said Dineen has been offered a spot within the organization.
— With files from The Associated Press.