Judging from the last few weeks, NHL coaches are hired merely to be fired -- unless you're Ted Nolan, who can't get hired in the first place.
The dismissal of Atlanta's Curt Fraser last Thursday and the Calgary Flames' hiring of former San Jose bench boss Darryl Sutter on Saturday to replace Greg Gilbert were the latest maneuvers in the game of musical coaching chairs. And after uttering the usual cliches -- Atlanta General Manager Don Waddell said the Thrashers "got a good guy fired and now they've got to perform," and Calgary General Manager Craig Button declared Sutter is "perfect for our team," -- the Thrashers and Flames dutifully won their next games.
Teams are 6-0-0 in the first game after a coaching change, including interim coaches. Need two quick points? Can't dump a big contract or pull off a deal? Fire the coach and get a win.
Sutter has never missed the playoffs as a player or coach, and he worked wonders in guiding the Sharks to higher point totals in five straight seasons. But with the Flames, who were 11 points out of the final West playoff spot when he took over, he has little depth or offensive punch. Jarome Iginla, last season's NHL leader in goals (52) and points (96), has struggled, and it will be tough for Sutter to assemble two decent lines.
"They can challenge teams in terms of work ethic," Sutter said, perhaps identifying the only area in which they can hope to match anyone.
Who's next? Bobby Francis of the flailing Phoenix Coyotes? Lindy Ruff of the nearly bankrupt Buffalo Sabres? Barry Trotz of the Nashville Predators, who have growing pains and shrinking crowds? Rick Kehoe of the sputtering Pittsburgh Penguins? How about Mario Lemieux as an owner, player and coach?
As for Nolan, he interviewed for the Flame job and won several fan polls but Calgary newspapers said he was eliminated because of a "bad interview." Translation: He has been forever branded a back-stabber and won't get another NHL job. The Thrashers will probably hire a retread such as Terry Murray, who had lost his players' respect in Philadelphia even before he'd said they were "in a choking situation" facing a 3-0 deficit in the 1997 Stanley Cup finals. No matter who's hired, if there's hockey after the 2004 labor negotiations and the Thrashers are still in Atlanta, someday he'll be fired too.
Coach in Training?
After the Kings bought out his contract last summer and no one else was interested in him, winger Nelson Emerson reluctantly accepted the notion that his career was over.
"When I was done, I wanted to sit back and take a year or two off and play golf," he said, "but this is my life."
He got a lifeline from the Kings about six weeks ago, when Coach Andy Murray offered him a chance to scout opponents and watch King games and practices to look for things that could help the team. Emerson, 35, attends the coaches' meetings and occasionally offers his observations. He's not getting paid, but he's finding the experience invaluable.
"He'll be an outstanding coach someday," said Murray, who has known Emerson since he played in Winnipeg and Murray was an assistant coach there. "I think he could be coaching in this league next year if he wants to. He's a real good hockey person.... He's very sharp. He pre-scouted some games in Anaheim and did well. We're giving him a taste of what it's like."
If he can't play, this is the next-best thing. After seeing Tony Granato go from the broadcast booth to an assistant coaching job and, last week, the head coach's job in Colorado, Emerson appreciates the possibilities.
"I really like it," said Emerson, who was glad he didn't have to uproot his wife and four children from their Manhattan Beach home. "I like going to the rink every day and being involved. The assistant coaches have been wonderful and Andy's made me feel comfortable.
"I realize now how much hard work assistant coaches put in, and the amount of time they and Andy put in at the rink. It really opened my eyes. I enjoy seeing how they organize practices and games. Who knows where it will lead? It keeps my hand in the pot a little bit and keeps my face out there. I never realized how much I liked the game until I was away from it for a couple of months."
No Bang for the Buck
The New York Rangers are so awful, it's doubtful first-year coach Bryan Trottier will finish out the season. Or that he should.
They've been hammered by injuries to winger Pavel Bure, goalie Mike Richter and defenseman Brian Leetch, but if the Rangers expected the injury-prone Bure (knee surgery) to play a full season, they were fooling themselves. Besides, which team hasn't lost a key player at some point? Depth, discipline, and the ability to handle adversity are the fundamentals of success, and the Rangers are glaringly short in every department, despite a league-high $69.1-million payroll.