March 31, 2009
Can't Really Fire the Coach

[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- Imagine being an NHL general manager. It's a really cool job, you get to sit in a private box high above the arena, you get to pick the players on your team, get to yell at agents every so often and from time to time (and more and more times recently) you get to fire a coach.

Throw in an average salary in excess of half a million dollars per year, and in these days of economic strife, it's a gig most people would love.

But with this responsibility comes expectations and one GM of the chosen 30 in the NHL has quite a dilemma on his hands.

As teams that are in playoff position are regularly whacking coaches because they donít like the way they're finishing the season.

"Our guys are trying, but they're not always trying the right way," coach/GM in Montreal, Bob Gainey, simply put to the press recently.

Gainey's team is eighth overall and he's only greased the Habs late season skid after he had to put down good solider Guy Charbonneau when the drums too fast and loud.

But this one GM, he's in a far worse position.

While not in the bright glare of the 100 year spotlight that consumes Gainey's every move, this GM's relatively anonymous team has spit the bit. They've sunk to the depths of the conference are in the midst of a losing streak that has buried them.

In February, they were as high as sixth in the conference and with an inspirational leader, very talented youngsters and an above average (although kooky) netminder, they were one of the success stories of the league.

But this GM experienced the same woes that most do when the skies darken around a franchise. His teamís lack of depth and experience was an albatross around its neck and dragged it down over the past few weeks. As the talk turned away from seedings and games in late April and towards who was playing for jobs next season, the logical move was to release the coach. After all, over three plus seasons, he mentored the team to a record 25 games below .500, a record worse than Barry Melrose had after a 16 game encore with the Tampa Bay Lightning. The coaching ghosts of Robbie Ftorek and Denis Savard are probably screaming, "If we had to go, so should this guy."

Small problem.

The GM is the Phoenix Coyotes' Don Maloney.

The coach, well, he's 99. It doesn't help that the coach is a partner in the team and one of the highest paid coaches in the game. But far more experienced coaches have been shown the door for far less.

But you canít whack the Great One, can you?

The eternal debate lingers on about the likelihood of a great player evolving into a great coach. If you explore the coaching talents behind the bench of the great and almost great teams, their stewardships are devoid of any household hockey names.

Al Arbour might be at the top of the list with respect to on and off ice success. Larry Robinson could be considered as heís won a Cup as a player, assistant and head coach. But over the last decade, the great ones who stepped away from the game have chosen a different path. Mario Lemieux went straight to the Penguins ownerís box, Mark Messier circles mysteriously around the New York Rangers and Jarri Kurri is doing the backstroke somewhere north of Helsinki.

But Gretzky battles on, with no inkling of stepping aside from a record that would have made him sick to his stomach as a player. As the final days of the season draw closer, the Great One sounds like a coach who has every expectation of being back for the 2009-í10 season. Itís just so unusual to see this singular figure so tolerant of losing.

In the era of salary caps and guaranteed contracts, the Great One's will, alone, won't empower his team if the effort isnít there.

So heís reduced to old school tactics like hard practices and reduced ice time. After a weak effort against playoff contender Nashville, he had his team skate backwards for the next two practices. After surrendering four powerplay goals in a recent loss to Anaheim, Wayne was exasperated and direct outside his teamís locker room.

"We needed guys giving more of an effort so I just went with the guys who were playing hard. There's really no secret to it. If you play hard, you play," probably nonplussed those words came out of his mouth about a team he managed.

Proponents of keeping Gretzky on as coach point to the fact that he is an integral part of the teamís marketing efforts. While having him attached to the franchise certainly accrues benefits unique to this franchise, the truth is that the Coyotes are among the poorest draws among the 30 teams and if the team ainít winning it wouldnít matter if Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman took turns behind the bench. One need only look as far as directly across the street from the (arrgh) Arena and to see the Arizona Cardinals and their recent success at the University of Phoenix (double arrgh) Stadium.

They starting winning, the fans starting coming and they didnít care that the old man QB Kurt Warner was starting and hipster and underachiever Matt Leinart was riding the pine. Gretzkyís usefulness as an icon to help the franchiseís visibility in the Phoenix sports landscape need not come from his appearance behind the bench especially on those nights when his demeanor is mostly grounded in exasperation. He could step aside and give himself a nebulous title of Executive Vice President or maybe become a VP of Player Personnel; I doubt thereís a more qualified person in the league to assess ability than him. Perhaps he could step away from the hockey end of the franchise and run the business operations like Luc Robitaille does with the Kings.

So many options for a man who may be most ill suited for his present role. But the conspiracy theorist in me thinks that thereís one primary reason he stays on as the head coach.
Heíll sell a hell of a lot of tickets as coach when they move back to Winnipeg.


While we'll talk about the pretenders and contenders for the second season in a few weeks, thereís one team thatís hit panic mode after a no turbulence ride for the first 60 games.

The Boston Bruins, once the clear cut favorite to emerge from the East, well, that cut is getting foggier with every game. Theyíve sputtered in the regularís season final quarter to such an extent that its lead in the Eastern Conference that was once thought to be insurmountable could be jeopardize by the New Jersey Devils and their returning conquering hero, Martin Brodeur. They failed to make a big deal that would have re-energized that stale air in the locker room and the increasing questions about the teamís viability deep into the playoffs (think Chris Pronger).

Zdeno Chara, my lock for the Norris at the All Star break, has drifted into mediocrity while wunderkinds like Phil Kessel and David Krejci have hit the wall that starts to build during the rigors of an 82 game regular season. Despite a regular season that statistically rivals an NHL goaltender, people are waiting for Tim Thomas to morph into, well, Tim Thomas. And as it is in Boston, the media adds to the feeding frenzy of worry and angst as Game 83 draws closer.

While we donít see the Bruins ripe for a first round upset picking but after that who knows. They finished with a flourish last season just to make the tournament and the roster has minimal playoff success in its midst, hence the trade for last-time-around-the-park Mark Recchi. They are as likely to emerge from the East and they are to be the victim of a second round TKO.

And now for the bad news.

That pesky thing called a "salary cap" is looming large in the distance beyond the Back Bay. As far as it concerns the Bruins, the combination of big money free agent deals and career years puts the Bís in a precarious position. They have a great group of young players but $43.5 million committed to thirteen players next year with Kessel, Krejci and both goalies up this summer (Thomas and Manny Fernandez). A probable drop in the cap could make it very difficult to keep three of the aforementioned four and fill out the roster. Projecting one summer out, they have to deal with high scoring Marc Savard, Blake Wheeler and Milan Lucic and already have $26M committed to 6 players for the 2010-í11 season.

So the Bruins you see on the ice this year may bear little resemblance to the team, championship or not, that steps to the ice next October.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles Correspondent for The 4th Period Magazine and a Columnist for

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