The New York Rangers have a coaching problem. So what's new about that? What's new is that the man with the best coaching record for the Rangers this season is Phil Esposito, who already has a job as the team's general manager.
Because of an ear ailment, Coach Tom Webster has not been able to travel on planes and has had to miss some games. In those he has coached, the Rangers have a 4-7-4 record.
Webster, who was hired last November to replace the fired Ted Sator, flew to Los Angeles last week, his first plane trip since he underwent surgery Dec. 24. The flight here worked out fine for him, but he got sick when the team flew on to Vancouver and Edmonton. Webster had to take a train home to New York.
Meanwhile, the colorful Esposito has filled in behind the bench, often wearing a tuxedo. In Monday night's 6-3 win over New Jersey, fans in Madison Square Garden chanted, "Espo! Espo!"
"The team seems to respond to my style," Esposito said. "But I would rather not coach. That's Tommy Webster's job, if he's healthy."
The Rangers are expected to make an announcement today regarding the coaching situation.
Monday's victory gave Esposito a 10-3 record as coach, far and away the best mark of any of the various coaches the Rangers have used this year.
"I have a doctor's appointment and I want to see what he says about the flying situation," said Webster, who arrived in New York's Grand Central Station at 10 p.m. Monday, too late for his team's game. His train ride from Edmonton took four days.
"If I can't fly, I don't think it's fair to the hockey club to have two coaches, on the road and at home," he said.
The ailment had allowed Webster only to coach during games at home, or at places he could reach by ground transportation. In games neither could attend, the coaching duties were divided between assistants Wayne Cashman and Ed Giacomin. Their record has been 0-2-0.
Esposito said that he would take over as coach for the rest of the season if flying were ruled out for Webster. Even in that event, however, that would not preclude certain duties for Webster.
As for his coaching, Esposito said he has told his team "just to go out and have fun."
"I hate to lose as much as anyone," Esposito said. "But, with me, it's not a life-and-death matter. There's always another day. The only thing I want is a good effort."
When goaltender Brian Hayward joined the Montreal Canadiens last summer, he was targeted as a backup for Patrick Roy, the most valuable player in last year's Stanley Cup playoffs. But he is giving Roy a run for the starting job.
Hayward has started about 40% of the Canadiens' games this season, and Coach Jean Perron likes what he sees.
"Brian has been very consistent lately," Perron said. "But right now, I don't know who our best goaltender is. We'll go with the one who's hot. As soon as one weakens, the other one will take over, and that's it."
Hayward was traded to Montreal from the Winnipeg Jets for Steve Penney, who is now playing in the American Hockey League with the Sherbrooke Canadiens. Hayward went to the Canadiens' training camp knowing that Roy had all but wrapped up the No. 1 position.
Roy started 15 of the Canadiens' first 20 games but then got the flu, giving Hayward a chance. Hayward's work was so exemplary that he started 10 of the next 20 games and has been used frequently since.
Said Hayward of his new stature:
"There are two goalies on the team, and both have to play well during the regular season. The only time that a No. 1 goaltender comes into play is in playoff time, and it is far too early to speculate on who's going to be the guy."