2002-06-22 / Sports

A Tale of Three Coaches: A Metro Hockey Update

Hockey Columnist
By Andrei Petrovitch

A Tale of Three Coaches:
A Metro Hockey Update
Hockey Columnist

On June 14, the Detroit Red Wings defeated the Carolina Hurricanes by the score of 3-1 to win their third Stanley Cup in six years. Detroit’s championship victory was, in the minds of many fans and sportswriters alike, inevitable considering the incredible amount of talent on Red Wing roster.

Longtime captain Steve Yzerman, the owner of two Stanley Cup rings and nearly 1,600 career points, skated valiantly with a damaged knee and still managed to contribute both offensively and defensively. Perennial All-Star goaltender Dominic Hasek contorted himself into geometrically impossible positions to repel the Hurricanes’ diligent offensive attack; as a result, Hasek put up six playoff shutouts (a league record) and added an NHL championship to a resume that includes two MVP trophies, an Olympic Gold Medal, and four top goalie awards.

The list of future hockey hall-of-famers goes on. Detroit boasts not one, but three 600-goal scorers in Yzerman, Brett Hull, and Luc Robitaille. Defensemen Chris Chelios and Niklas Lidstrom are considered two of the best players in their position, with the latter being awarded the prestigious Conn Smyth trophy for playoff MVP. As expected in today’s sports world, a roster that includes players of this caliber is very expensive. With several players earning salaries in the millions, the player payroll for the 2001-2002 Detroit Red Wings was the highest in the league.

What does this have to do with metro hockey – or, more specifically, the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils? The success of the Red Wings has just as much to do with the man who was behind the bench as the men sitting on it. In today’s NHL, good coaching can allow a great team to realize its expectations, or at least make a decent team play like a great one. In recent years, the Devils, Rangers, and Islanders have made coaching changes, resulting in various degrees of success. While the Islanders have finally found a good coach in Peter Laviolette (as evidenced by the team’s 40-point improvement in the standings), the Rangers and Devils will have to patiently wait until the season starts in October to know if their recent coaching changes will work out.

In the Rangers’ case, coaching has been a major weakness ever since Mike Keenan bolted the team after the 1994 Stanley Cup championship. Since then, four different coaches have been hired and fired while Madison Square Garden brass has thrown money at the problem by trying to buy every superstar in sight. While done with the best intentions, Ranger management has failed to realize a very important factor. Detroit’s offseason talent hunt would have been all for naught had Scotty Bowman not devised the strategies, line combinations, and motivational tactics necessary to keep the Red Wings from looking like…well, the inept Rangers. You see, the Rangers also have their share of millionaire superstars. But whereas the Rangers have a collection of players, the Detroit Red Wings have a team, with each member working as part of a well-run machine. This explains why, among other things, the Wings can play team defense and the Rangers can’t.

But it may not be this way much longer. With his recent hirings, Ranger President and General Manager Glen Sather seek to bring a level of accountability to the MSG locker room that has been missing since the glory days of ‘94. Bryan Trottier has proven himself to be a winner on all levels of hockey, and assistant coaches Jim Schoenfeld and Terry O’Reilly come to the Rangers with a reputation for demanding hard work and discipline from players. Although it’s unlikely that anyone will confuse Trottier for Bowman (who, at press time, has announced his retirement), this could be the year that the Rangers finally live up to the promise of their expensive, star-studded roster.

The New Jersey Devils have also made a change behind the bench, although it’s anyone’s guess as to why. Gone for reasons unclear is Kevin Constantine, who guided New Jersey to a 20-8 record after taking over for his scapegoat predecessor Larry Robinson. In is Pat Burns, a former Canadian police officer who is known as a disciplinarian. The change makes little sense, as the problems the Devils have are on the ice. Joe Niuwendyk and Scott Stevens are aging, and the team’s top two-way player, Bobby Holik, is threatening to leave as a free agent. While there is still plenty of time left for Devils GM Lou Lamoriello to upgrade the roster, the sad fact remains that, at least for now, Burns, like Constantine and Robinson before him, is being set up to fail.

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