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THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT

Sharp Blade Hangs Over the Coaches

November 12, 1996|HELENE ELLIOTT

By this time a year ago, two coaches already had been fired--Paul Holmgren in Hartford and Jacques Demers in Montreal--and Ottawa's Rick Bowness was 10 days from being dismissed.

No one has gotten the ax yet this season, but it won't be long until the first head rolls. That dubious honor may go to Philadelphia's Terry Murray, who probably doesn't deserve it.

According to several sources, the Flyers contacted the Toronto Maple Leafs to inquire about Pat Burns, who was fired as the Maple Leafs' coach last March but still is being paid by them. It was apparently a background check, because Flyer General Manager Bob Clarke didn't ask permission to speak to Burns and Burns denied having spoken to the Flyers.

Even Burns, however, said the speculation is unfair to Murray, who hasn't had center Eric Lindros this season because of Lindros' groin pull. Dale Hawerchuk and Joel Otto were also injured and 51-goal scorer John LeClair had a slow start. But the Flyers have a new building to fill and lofty expectations to meet, so Murray's time may be short.

Lindros, incidentally, plans to return Nov. 21. He went home to Canada for treatment but joined the team in Buffalo last week to deliver a pep talk.

A few other coaches may also be on shaky ground. Terry Crisp got Tampa Bay into the playoffs last spring but the Lightning is 1-6-2 since a 5-1 start this season and the new Ice Palace isn't selling out. General Manager Phil Esposito made Crisp sweat before giving him a new contract and Esposito might pull the plug if there's no turnaround soon.

Montreal's Mario Tremblay, who got into a shouting match with forward Donald Brashear in Colorado on Saturday and sent Brashear home, is under pressure because of his team's just-completed 1-4-1 trip--part of a 1-7-1 road record--and horrible defensive play. However, Buffalo's Ted Nolan, whose job was in danger a few weeks ago, appears safer after a management shake-up.

Ron Wilson has been feeling heat in Anaheim, and sniping between Wilson and club President Tony Tavares over Wilson's World Cup involvement doesn't make for a harmonious situation.

Wilson didn't return from the World Cup the most humble guy in the world, but the mess in Anaheim isn't all his fault because he has little to work with beyond Teemu Selanne, Paul Kariya and a game but aging Jari Kurri.

Instead of spending money to upgrade their talent, as they should, the Disney folks may decide it's cheaper to fire the coach.

COACH IN WAITING?

Whenever a coach's job was rumored to be on the line in the last year, Jacques Demers has been mentioned as a possible replacement.

Demers was fired by the Montreal Canadiens early last season and has since been scouting for them but hasn't ruled out a return to coaching. But he said he's happy for now because he has been given meaningful assignments, such as scouting the St. Louis Blues before the Canadiens made the Pierre Turgeon trade, and he has the ear of General Manager Rejean Houle.

"When your name is mentioned, you think about it," Demers said. "It's flattering. But it would have to be a really good situation. Right now, I enjoy my job with the Canadiens.

"Last year I had some difficulty with the adjustment. But I talk to Rejean a lot and I feel very much a part of the team. I'm not out in left field."

LUCKY LUC

New York Ranger left wing Luc Robitaille looks at the low attendance figures in the summaries of King games and shakes his head.

"It's like when I first got there," said Robitaille, who joined the Kings for the 1986-87 season, when they averaged 10,644 a game. "L.A. is a winning city. Fans want to see a winner and obviously the team wants to rebuild. So it's going to be tough and it's going to take time. We hear about a new building, and maybe fans are waiting for that.

"But remember, in L.A. a few years back, it was easy to get tickets for the Lakers. Now try to get Laker tickets."

Robitaille, who last season signed a six-year, $19.2-million contract, has been the target of criticism from New York fans unhappy with his 23-goal output last season. He has six goals in 19 games this season.

"They expect me to produce, and that's fair," he said. "I don't think the fans here are tougher than anywhere else. They may turn on you but as soon as you score a goal they come back."

MATS AND LEAFS AREN'T DOORMATS

The Maple Leafs, one of the NHL's older teams, have defied predictions by rebounding from an awful start and staying near .500. Forward Mats Sundin attributed the turnaround to Coach Mike Murphy, whose previous experience was limited to 65 games as the Kings' coach in the 1986-87 and 1987-88 seasons.

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