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Jerry Crowe ON THE NHL

O'Connell Takes Gamble on Bruins

March 25, 2003|Jerry Crowe

It worked for the New Jersey Devils, so why not the Boston Bruins?

Three years ago, the Devils fired coach Robbie Ftorek with eight games left in the regular season and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Last week, the Bruins canned Ftorek with nine games left.

So far, the similarities end there.

In their first game under General Manager Mike O'Connell, who took over behind the bench after dumping Ftorek, the Bruins squandered a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 loss to the going-nowhere San Jose Sharks.

In their second, they gave up a 3-0 third-period lead over the going-nowhere Kings before winning in overtime, 4-3, Saturday night at Staples Center.

Afterward, O'Connell looked wrung-out.

"Second thoughts?" he said, repeating a question. "Yeah."

The victory, he said, hadn't done much to raise the Bruin confidence level, even if it did put them two points closer to the playoffs.

"I tried to address the team afterward about that issue," he said. "You know, we've got to find a way ... to play the same way whether we're up or down and we've got to eliminate the scoreboard anxiety

"We've also got to give the other team credit. Sometimes they make good plays and [the puck] ends in our net, but we take it so hard that [we think] we caused it. Somehow, we've got to get that out of our head."

It had been a trying time for O'Connell, and it showed.

"The last few days have been OK," he said, not altogether convincingly. "The buildup to making the decision, that was the hard part ... when you have to let a guy go that you like, and who cared a great deal."

Only a week before sending him packing, O'Connell said Ftorek had "weathered the storm," adding, "I'm prepared to go with him for the rest of the season."

He changed his mind, however, after a 2-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes last Tuesday night, putting himself at the center of the storm.

Boston columnists blistered him, questioning the timing of the move, so late in the season. After a 19-4-3-1 start, the Bruins had endured a prolonged slide and after Monday night's 3-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs were 35-29-8-4, good for seventh in the Eastern Conference.

But in the eight games before losing at Phoenix they had picked up 11 of 16 points and seemed to have turned a corner.

Then came Phoenix.

"I couldn't wait any longer," said O'Connell, a former minor league coach who before Friday had never coached an NHL team.

Under Ftorek, he believed, the team would continue to wither.

Back home, club President Harry Sinden seemed to endorse the move, even if it continued an era of instability behind the Bruin bench.

O'Connell is the team's 12th coach in 18 years.

"It is a lot of coaches," Sinden told the Boston Globe. "My wife said, 'The Celtics [who have had six coaches since 1985] never do this.' "

Nobody is predicting a Stanley Cup run for the Bruins this spring, but Sinden said, "This really isn't a bad hockey team. It should give a good account of itself for the rest of the year and in the playoffs. ...

"It's a sorry situation whenever this happens. Mike made his decision. I said to him, 'Do you think this will help your team?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Do you think it will stop the decline?' He said, 'Yes.'

"So I said, 'Well, how can you not make the change?' If you are managing something and you have a solution, and you don't do it, who are you?"

Of course, that was before club scoring leader Joe Thornton also questioned the firing, expressing strong support for Ftorek.

And then came O'Connell's first week behind the bench.

By season's end, nine games might seem like a lifetime.

Dump and Chase

Nothing lasts forever, but the dismantling of the only King team that has known any playoff success over the last 10 years has been remarkably swift.

Gone from the team that upset the Detroit Red Wings in the opening round two years ago and pushed the Colorado Avalanche to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals are Luc Robitaille, Jozef Stumpel, Glen Murray, Nelson Emerson, Kelly Buchberger, Philippe Boucher, Bryan Smolinski, Stu Grimson, Mathieu Schneider and Jere Karalahti.

And out the door next, possibly, are Craig Johnson and goaltender Felix Potvin, who are eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

"At the time," a former King said, "we thought we could build on our success and the Red Wings, who were older, would tear up their roster."

Instead, the Red Wings added to it and won the Stanley Cup last spring.

Meanwhile, within months, Robitaille and Grimson had left the Kings via free agency, attracting better offers elsewhere, Robitaille from the Red Wings.

Early last season, Stumpel and Murray were traded to the Bruins in the deal that brought top-line center Jason Allison and Karalahti was shipped to the Nashville Predators. After the season, Boucher and Buchberger left via free agency, again for greener pastures, and Emerson retired.

Two weeks ago, Schneider and Smolinski were traded.

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