Q&A: Panthers’ Joel Quenneville on Ekblad, Luongo’s future and more

Panthers new head coach Joel Quenneville joins HC at Noon to discuss his excitement to try and help build another championship team, the parallels he sees between this team and his days in Chicago, and working with Aleksander Barkov.

Following a 36-32-14 season, Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon decided to dismiss head coach Bob Boughner, who held the post for just two playoff-less seasons. Despite having a top-10 offence, the Panthers were undone by the league’s 30th-ranked goaltending tandem, below average defence and the fact that they were the worst in the league at holding third period leads.

So when the opportunity to hire the second-winningest coach in NHL history presented itself, Tallon had to jump. He was GM of the Hawks when they hired Quenneville to be their bench boss in 2008 and although Tallon had been dismissed from his position just before Chicago won its first of three Stanley Cups, he was the architect of those teams.

Quenneville becomes the 16th coach in the 26-year history of the Panthers. No coach has lasted more than three seasons with the team ever, but the hope is this hire will bring some stability to the organization. It’s also, according to Tallon, just the start of what could be an aggressive summer for the team.

“Now’s the time for us,” Tallon told reporters at the press conference to introduce Quenneville. “This franchise needs to be in the playoffs consistently.

“This is the first big step.”

To get an idea of why the coach wanted to come to Florida and what his thoughts are on the team, Sportsnet.ca talked to Quenneville over the phone and covered a variety of topics around the team.

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What did you see in this Florida Panthers roster that made you want to be the head coach there?

“They got some nice young players. You look at what they’ve accomplished in the last couple of years, they were really close to getting in last year. This year was not quite as close, but you’re above .500. They need to play playoff games. When you talk about Barkov, Ekblad, Trocheck, Huberdeau, that’s a pretty nice beginning and then you got some really high-end prospects in the organization.

“They’ve got some young guys that are still in that mix I didn’t mention who could move up to the next level. So that was the exciting part. Working with Dale’s going to be fun so that’s where it’s at. (Owner) Vinnie’s (Viola) excited about his hockey club and is real passionate about what he wants to do and what he wants to achieve and we had the same interest in that level.”

How much did having a relationship and familiarity with Dale, already working with him before, help your decision in going to Florida?

“It helped. I know when we were looking at it as a family, too, part of looking at options or what would be the best place for us, we really liked the possibility of going to Florida and working with Dale. We think there’s a lot of nice things about completely starting fresh, something new. We haven’t been to a climate like we’re going to in Florida.

“I saw first-hand what it’s like (to have) big playoff games down there and how you win down there, it’s just a matter of time before all of a sudden you recapture that excitement in the stands with the fans and that’s what you’re looking for.”

You’re hoping to be dodging rats soon.

“Let’s hope so. Yeah. After the games.”

You haven’t been out of the game long, but I read you’ve been watching a lot of teams other than Chicago this season, so I’m curious in stepping away and watching from afar if there are any takeaways you had that will make you return a different coach in any way?

“One thing is over the years you might make some adjustments to how you coach. The one thing we always fall back on and we always look back on: the simpler we always kept it, or we foresee how we want to keep it, is you keep the game as simple as possible. Play fast, play hard, play with some energy. It seems like there’s more speed across the board, more skill across the board, more guys are making plays. Not a lot of time to make them as well. So that’s kind of the way we’ve always played. We anticipate that’s how we’re going to play.

“When I’m watching the games now it’s not like technically I’m looking so much for structure. I’m watching individuals play. And you got an appreciation just watching a couple nights of playoff hockey how much fun it is and I think that’s what we’re up against in Florida — not playing some meaningful games.

“We need that appetite to find out more about our guys and I think some guys in that type of environment we’d like to see them rise to that challenge and take us to new heights.”

There are lots of rumours and speculation that bringing you in is just the tip of the iceberg and that Dale wants to maybe make some other changes through free agency or trade. Is it important for you to have input on next year’s roster and any changes made? Was it part of the negotiation between you and Dale?

“We’ll be doing a lot of talking together. We’re going to always be looking to do the best we can to improve our hockey club. I think our organization, we’re all going to have input on that. That’s going to be fun whether we’re going into the free-agency market, whether we’re talking trading, going into the draft — I think Dale is up front about things and discussing all options is going to be for sure part of it.

“I think going into free agency Vinnie is willing to do everything he can as well so it’s…we’re optimistic that hopefully between now and the beginning of the season we can look to better our club any way possible.

If a goalie is acquired, the position will be a little crowded there. How important is it for you to have Roberto Luongo’s leadership and presence back in that room and have you talked to him about his future with the team?

“I haven’t talked about the future with him. Spoke to him briefly. Look forward to talking to him in the next little while, but certainly I have a ton of respect for Roberto. He’s a big part of the franchise as well and a big part of the community and we’ll sit down and talk to him and we’ll do what’s best and we’ll go from there.”

I wanted to circle back and ask you about some of the big guys. You said the Panthers have some kids who can take that one more step and you mentioned a couple of them earlier. Aaron Ekblad was one: How do you get a guy like that to take another step up?

“I think as a young player, as a defenceman, I think he’s got a lot of good attributes. I think with young defencemen the first thing you want to be is you want to be predictable defensively. You want to make sure that’s going to be your staple, that’s going to be what makes you a good, strong defenceman.

“After that, he’s got all the other qualities as well. He’s big, he’s strong, he’s physical, he’s got a shot. So he’s got all the assets you want in a defenceman and I think we just want to bring that consistency in his game. And our whole game defensively, which I think was something that has to improve not just by the defence, but the whole group.”

On Barkov and Huberdeau: How do you get more from a couple guys who just passed 90 points this season, one of whom in Barkov is already a highly regarded defensive player?

“Well (Barkov’s) one of those guys that gets you excited about going to Florida because there’s not too many guys in the league who plays the way he does. When you look at a 200-foot player he might have his picture next to it — exactly how you want that guy to play. He’s the perfect specimen about that. I just can’t say enough good things about how dedicated he is, how hard he works, how professional he is. So that gets you excited. I know there are some guys at that level who might score at a better rate, but he still brings the whole package. I don’t think you’d ever complain about his 90 points because he does so many more things and adds so much to our team.

“Huby had a great year as well, numbers were great. I think consistency is something that adds to his game. On the defensive side of things he can be a better player. But I thought the last couple years he progressed really well and he’s got lots of skill — you add some other guys to the mix, all of a sudden you’re looking at your forwards and you could have two really solid lines and then you got some skill on your third and fourth groups as well.”

And aside from those big names, you need quality depth to be successful in the league. So who else are you excited about getting growth from in this lineup? I’m thinking Henrik Borgstrom or Denis Malgin, or maybe there’s somebody else you’d like to highlight?

“The Dadonov kid there, he’s been pretty good for them. He’s had some solid years. I thought he was a pretty good free-agent hire. That Borgstrom kid came in and I thought he progressed as the year went on. A lot of talk about him being one of the guys who has to come forward and step up — assume some more ice time and some more importance to the group.

“I think there’s some other kids. Obviously Mike Hoffman scored 30-something goals and has a terrific shot so I think he’s a guy who can enhance your offence. Franky Vatrano had a good year. He brings some energy as well. Up and down straight guy, can shoot the puck, crashes the net. He and (Troy Brouwer) last year had a good year offensively in a role … that third or fourth hole. He did a good job as the year went on.

You mentioned the young guys you didn’t list earlier. How familiar are you with the big three forward prospects in the system: Owen Tippett, Aleksi Heponiemi and Grigori Denisenko, and how do you see them factoring into training camp?

“They get you excited. And the (Serron) Noel kid, Dale was watching him last night. There’s some good kids in this organization. We’ll see how they all fit in camp. I love making tough decisions, whether they start in Florida or in the minors, I think there’s nothing wrong with putting in some time there and working your way to the top.

“But that kind of depth is one of the reasons why I went — there’s a lot of good players. It kind of reminds me of when I came to Chicago. Dale had a ton of assets, not just up in Chicago, but organizationally. These kids turned into special players and we’re lucky to work with them.”

No team lost more games in regulation when leading after two periods than Florida this year — have you looked into that to figure out why that was? How do you fix something like that?

“When you look around the league, that stat — I’m just going to go back to when we were in Chicago that was almost a lock down for us. I don’t know how many games we’d be in the lead and how long we went without giving up a point — we’d always get a point, most of the time it was two. But it was something that’s a confidence thing. The team needs to be a little more composed. That to me is one of the growing curves we’ve gotta overcome and get better as a team in.

“When you’re in that situation, be confident, want to be out there, want the puck, do the right thing, don’t change the way you’re playing. And in our own end we’re going to be more predictable and stronger. That’s our objective. But that’s certainly the area where, in the league nowadays, there’s 10 minutes to go in a game, you got a one-goal lead, that should be guaranteed two points or at least get to overtime.”

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Florida’s changed coaches a lot in its history, no one has lasted more than three years there. You were with St. Louis for eight years, Chicago a little over 10: Why is it important for a franchise to get some stability behind the bench and is it even more important for a young team like Florida?

“I think they’re at a point now as a team that you get some stability you get some predictability — you got these young guys going to that time in their careers where they need to find out. These guys don’t want to be sitting here right now away from the game and all of a sudden here it is again, same thing happened and over. That’s the message I’m receiving. We can talk about it all we want, but it won’t do us any good — we gotta go do something about it. Whether it’s how we prepare in the off-season, how we train, how we get excited. I think we gotta bring that appetite and attitude every day.

“I think whether everybody was comfortable before — and in Florida they talk about was there a country club atmosphere, I’m going to say no. But they win in Tampa. They win in the warm climates, I mean Dallas is pretty warm. So that’s not an excuse. We gotta find a way to overcome anything, whether it’s a distraction, not getting comfortable. We need to make sure we come to the rink ready to work.”

You still have some decisions to make in terms of your assistant coaches. It was well-documented you weren’t too happy when Mike Kitchen was let go by the Blackhawks so is he someone you’d like to have back alongside you?

“Kitch was a great coach and we get along great and have a great history together. Obviously it was disappointing when we didn’t have that connection on the bench when he left. So that was tough. But we’ll see on the staff as it goes and we’re working on that as we speak. We’ll see how it works ahead, but I got a lot of respect for Kitch.”

Have you discussed Jack Capuano’s future or fit there? He was not mentioned on the press release announcing the coaching changes.

“Talked with the organization, Jack, we’re looking at options right now.”

Anything else you want to add? Maybe a message to Florida Panthers fans who have had optimism for “next season” before — why is this year different?

“We’re just looking forward to it. It’s a great opportunity. Our whole family is excited about getting down to south Florida, getting situated and being a part of it.

“I think the start is going to be critical next year. Let’s get off to a good start, I think that’s been one of the sore spots the last two years and so we’ll be looking to get off to a big start — I think that sets up the whole season.”

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