- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2002

He hasn't grabbed a goaltender by the scruff of the neck as he did to Ed Belfour when coaching Chicago. And he hasn't tried to climb the glass to assault a timekeeper as he once did in Boston. But don't think for a second that Mike Keenan has mellowed. At 52, Keenan is still "Iron Mike." Just ask some of his Florida Panthers.
"Mike will yell and scream at you," said 11th-year left wing Bill Lindsay. "He challenges guys to be stronger mentally. He'll push you in ways that maybe you haven't been pushed before. Every player has been benched, even Pavel [Bure, the two-time NHL goal-scoring champion]. The bottom line is that Mike's trying to make you a better player. If you can understand that, the stuff that he does shouldn't affect you as much."
Except that organization after organization from New York to Vancouver has decided that Keenan's take-charge style was too much to take for too long. Florida is an NHL record-tying seventh stop for Keenan, who has won six division titles, three President's Trophies (best record) and a Stanley Cup (the Rangers' only title in 61 years). Keenan ranks fourth all-time in victories (550) and games (1,103), but he can't keep a job.
"It's like having a very demanding teacher," said Keenan, who received a three-year contract when he replaced Duane Sutter on Dec.3. "You probably don't appreciate him until your high school years are over. I enjoy the game. I enjoy coaching. I like the teaching part of it. I've coached a lot of great players, have challenged them to be better and they've responded. Losing still totally frustrates me. But I understand that when you take over a program like this that losing is part of the process."
A little more than two years ago, the Panthers were 16 games over .500 and atop the Southeast Division. But Florida went .500 the rest of the way and was swept by New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs. The Panthers plunged last year, finishing 22 points out of postseason, and were 17-34-5-3 and 19 points out prior to last night's game at MCI Center.
"We haven't played well all year, but Mike's committed to turning it around," said Lindsay, who played for Florida's surprise Eastern Conference champions in 1996. "We've got 23 games left to show that we want to be part of the turnaround process."
Although the Panthers appear a long way from contention, Keenan used to be the master of quick turnarounds. The Flyers, who had lost in the first round three straight years, reached the Cup finals in Keenan's first season (1984-1985). The Blackhawks, who had also lost three straight opening round series, made the conference finals in Keenan's first year (1988-89) and the Cup finals three years later. His 1993-94 Rangers became just the second team to win the Cup after not qualifying for the playoffs the previous spring.
However, St. Louis was more successful before and after Keenan's three-year tenure, he bombed in Vancouver, and Boston just missed the playoffs after Keenan replaced Pat Burns eight games into last season. Now the Panthers, who began the season as the NHL's fourth-youngest team, are seemingly headed in the wrong direction, having gone 3-12-2 since an 8-7-1 start under Keenan. Only Bure and rookie left wing Kristian Huselius had more than 11 goals and only defenseman Darren Van Impe and injured blue-liner Paul Laus had positive defensive ratings. Only Atlanta and Columbus had given up more goals or accumulated fewer points.
"The mindset and the confidence level of this group has to be developed in order for them to be consistently successful," Keenan said. "You try to start driving the expectation level up and hopefully the players can accept some of that responsibility. We have some good young players, but it's a very inexperienced group. It might only take adding four or five different players, but they're definitely not in the room yet."


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