Horachek must get Cats on new path
New coach brings intensity, passion and structure to South Florida
Peter Horachek was sweating when he came out to meet the media in New York before Sunday's game against the Rangers.
It wasn't a deer-in-the-headlights reflex from dealing with reporters in his new role as the Florida Panthers head coach, nor was it from the harsh lights from the television cameras. The rivulets that could be seen running down his face came after a jam-packed pregame meeting with his players in which he prepped them for their second match in two nights -- their second since Horachek took over for Kevin Dineen, who was fired in the wake of an underwhelming 3-9-4 start.
"It's been a whirlwind for sure," Horachek said. "You just hope you can get that first win, so you can stop sweating."
After back-to-back losses this past weekend, Horachek finally earned his first win as the Panthers topped the league-leading Ducks 3-2 Tuesday night, but that's not likely to cool him down.
Horachek sweats a lot, actually. Those who know him well chuckle about it. It seems fitting for a guy whose name often elicits three such adjectives: intense, passionate, structured.
Those qualities have served him well in his years since breaking in as an assistant with the Saginaw Hawks of the International Hockey League back in 1987. His name might not have been the first to pop up among hockey pundits once Dineen was let go -- especially considering the league's propensity for recycling head coaches and opting for retreads -- but the 53-year-old Horachek has plenty of experience to bolster his presence behind the Panthers' bench.
Though he has never been a head coach in the NHL, he has enjoyed success at pretty much every other level. He was named coach of the year in the United Hockey League in 1991-92. He won the Commissioner's Trophy in the International Hockey League as head coach of the Orlando Solar Bears in 2001. After brief stints in both the East Coast Hockey League (Trenton, 2001-02) and American Hockey League (Milwaukee Admirals, 2002-03), Horachek worked his way up to become Barry Trotz's right-hand man in Nashville, where he spent nine seasons assisting the NHL's longest-tenured coach.
"He's won before," Trotz told ESPN.com. "And that's important."
That is, of course, part of the reason Panthers GM Dale Tallon turned to Horachek to redirect his wayward squad. Horachek was one of the three finalists when the team interviewed coaching candidates back in 2011 -- though Tallon tapped Dineen instead -- and the team circled back when Dineen and assistants Gord Murphy and Craig Ramsay were let go last week.
There is also Horachek's relationship with Panthers assistant general manager Mike Santos, with whom he worked in Nashville. The two have been friends for years so there was a natural comfort and trust factor there.
When Horachek was let go as an assistant from Nashville, Santos was one of the first calls he made. Santos didn't hesitate in his effort to bring him on board as coach of the San Antonio Rampage, the Panthers' AHL affiliate.
"When you have a guy that good, that qualified, you want him in the organization," Santos told ESPN.com by phone. "You can figure out where he fits in later."
Santos first got to know Horachek when Horachek was in Orlando with the IHL. Santos was immediately struck by Horachek's behind-the-bench presence and his superb communication skills.
"He's an excellent communicator," Santos said. "He can be firm when he needs to be but not in such a way that he's intimidating. It's more that he encourages you to follow him."
That much is evident already since he has taken over. Though such upheavals are often marked by a period of disarray and acclimation to a new coach, veteran Panther Brian Campbell made it sound like Horachek has left little room for interpretation, calling Horachek "very organized" and "straight to the point."
There has been "a lot of information," according to Campbell, and ample video to assist in helping Horachek mold the team into what he hopes can be "stronger, faster" and "more structured."
"There's no varying on how he wants us to play," said alternate captain Campbell. "He still wants us to be creative, but we've got the blueprint. We've got to follow that blueprint.
"Everything's a little bit different, neutral zone, forecheck," Campbell explained. "A quicker game. Not east-west, a lot more north-south he wants. There's no guessing. He knows what he wants and we have to go do it."
Horachek is inheriting a team that has some tremendous young talent in Jonathan Huberdeau, Nick Bjugstad and Aleksander Barkov, but the team also has a somewhat mystifying group of spare parts, including Scott Gomez, Brad Boyes, Matt Gilroy and Ryan Whitney.
Tallon made some shrewd moves during free agency -- the signing of Tim Thomas is looking good, especially considering the regression of goaltender Jacob Markstrom, who has since been sent to the AHL -- but it's hard to imagine he was not in some ways handcuffed by the tenuous ownership situation that was not resolved until just before the season began.
Wealthy New York businessman Vincent Viola purchased the team in September, adding a strong measure of financial stability and commitment that the team previously lacked.
Should Horachek succeed in shedding that interim tag, those deep pockets could be an asset moving forward in replenishing a roster that Tallon will most certainly look to retool in the coming months. But first, Horachek must evaluate the personnel he has to work with now and assess the best way to deploy his charges.
"I think there's a little bit of reflection on my part," Horachek said. "I have to get to know these guys better than I do. When I got into that first game in that first period, I'm looking and I'm trying to find which guys react better to adversity than others."
Trotz thinks that will be Horachek's biggest strength in leading Florida, a club that has struggled to form a cohesive identity in recent years.
"He'll bring order and confidence to the team," Trotz said. "And he'll put guys in the right seat. If you get a guy in the wrong seat, it can throw off your whole team."
During their time together with the Preds, Trotz always entrusted Horachek with plenty of responsibility. Before moving on to head the AHL's San Antonio Rampage, Horachek was tasked with leading the Predators' defensive corps.
Horachek helped guide the likes of Shea Weber and Ryan Suter in his time with Nashville and the Predators reaped the benefits of those efforts. Nashville was third in the league in 2010-11 in goals against, giving up an average of only 2.32 goals per game. In 2011-12, the Predators remained stingy with 2.50 goals against per game, good for ninth overall.
Again, those words -- passionate, intense, structured -- are what come to mind when some of those guys are asked to describe their former coach.
"He was particular about his systems and he was very passionate about the game," top blueliner Shea Weber told ESPN.com. "Guys fed off of that in the room."
Kevin Klein saw his game grow from Horachek's direction. The 28-year-old defenseman averages over 20 minutes per game as part of the team's second pairing behind Shea Weber and 2013 draft pick Seth Jones
"He was good to us, a good coach. A real energy guy, real intense, a good guy to have in the room. Real nice person, too, which is always a good thing," Klein said. "You want to see him succeed."
That's easier to say, obviously, since the Predators and Panthers play in different conferences and won't be battling for position in the standings.
"He'll be good for that team," Klein said. "You just wish him nothing but the best."
An intense coach often straddles the line between motivating and grating, but there is no hint that Horachek's tactics and style were anything but welcomed and embraced.
"Peter's intensity is channeled differently," Santos said. "It comes across as motivating and he really comes across as a coach that has your back, as opposed to an intensity where it's intimidating or chastising."
Santos is thrilled to see Horachek finally get his chance after working his way up through the ranks and he's eager to see him employ those skills for a Panthers team in need of new direction.
"Communication is being able to get your point across. That's what he's good at. He's very clear and he's very committed to what he says," Santos said. "He gets people on board."
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