Each Wednesday, two of our bloggers will take on one league-wide topic. A mediator keeps orderly. It's quite a bit like the shootout, actually.
This week's lineup features Eric McErlain's and Ted Starkey's takes on the NHL coaching carousel in the wake of Pittsburgh's firing of Michel Therrien. Yours truly will be the guest referee. Let's get started!
Kevin Schultz: Thanks for taking part today, guys. On Sunday, the Pens let go of Michel Therrien in an obvious move to shake up the struggling team. Do you agree/disagree with the move and, now that Therrien is gone, who's next?
Eric McErlain:As I wrote on Monday, I don't believe the team's failure this season can be solely blamed on Therrien. There was simply too much roster turnover in the off season, and the early injuries on the blue line really hamstrung the Pens from the start. Simply put: this roster only superficially resembles the one that fought its way to the Finals last season. But given the state of the team, dismissing Therrien and importing a new voice into the locker room in Dan Bylsma was the only option left to Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero, even after giving Therrien a three-year extension that I'm sure he'll now use to his full advantage.
With Therrien out, the spotlight has to shift to Tom Renney, though like Therrien, he's something of a prisoner of his roster. After Sunday's loss to the Flyers, Pierre McGuire and Mike Milbury tossed around the idea that before Rangers GM Glen Sather gave Renney the sack, he ought to make some sort of move. One would expect that move would be bringing back Sean Avery on waivers, that is, if another team further down in the waiver order doesn't put a claim in on him on re-entry waivers.
Ted Starkey: There comes a time and place where players tune out their coach, and no matter what shakeups or changes he tries, the team doesn't respond.
The Penguins had well passed that point, and despite Therrien taking the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Finals last year, their suspect effort and lack of intensity puts Pittsburgh's chance of returning to the playoffs this year very much in doubt.
While there are numerous circumstances around the Penguins' poor play this season, including the free-agent losses of guys like Marian Hossa (who was able to enjoy the open ice that teams trying to neutralize Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin freed up) and more character guys such as Ryan Malone, to even a losing-streak stopper that they got last year from Ty Conklin, the Pens are simply too talented to be fighting for their playoff lives. Guys like Miro Satan weren't able to fit in, and with injuries to their blueline, the Pens haven't been effective outside of their top two stars.
Therrien had been in the Steel City for five years, but the team is clearly suffering from a Cup run hangover and it's much easier to change the guy behind the bench than the personnel - although rumors are the Penguins will be doing a big move before the deadline to shake their season to life.
It's probably not quite fair to Therrien, but like changing a goaltender who's been hung out to dry by his defense, sometimes teams need to make a change for changes' sake, and the hope is the shock will wake up the Penguins before it's too late.
Therrien's message had been falling on deaf ears, and it was time for him to go.
Now that Therrien got the axe, the next one is going to be the Rangers' Tom Renney - and it could be sooner than later.
It hasn't been a good stretch for the Rangers, who were humiliated on NBC Sunday by the Flyers with a listless effort that left the fans in the Garden calling for Renney's head. They followed it up Monday with a better effort, but one that ended with another loss, this time to the Blues. The loss leaves the team just 20-20-5 over its last 45 games - and after the team took an early lead in the East with a 10-2-1 start to the season - and now the Blueshirts are slowly sliding back towards the playoff cutoff line with just a five-point lead on Carolina. But even that is deceptive, as nine of the Rangers' 30 wins this season have come via the shootout (including their only one in the last nine games), and the ability to win the Bettman rule is certainly using the rule to enhance their standings in the Eastern Conference - and of course, doesn't bode well for the playoffs.
Observers see the Rangers playing to get rid of their coach, and if that's the case, they're doing a good job of it. In the last week, they've gotten blasted by the Stars 10-2 in Dallas, shut out by the Devils 2-0 in Newark, and then embarrassed at home by the Flyers - even allowing a 5-on-3 goal. Shakeups in the forward lines did nothing to spark their offense, and it's clear that Renney's message isn't working anymore in Manhattan.
New York certainly has the pieces to put together a decent Stanley Cup playoff run with All-Star Henrik Lundqvist backing them up, although the team is a bit of a patchwork squad that needs a unifying coach to get them going.
Renney clearly isn't the guy to blend together the Blueshirts, and it won't be long before he's likely replaced by Jim Schoenfeld or Pat Quinn behind the bench, as the Rangers aren't getting the most out of their roster right now with him behind the bench.
KS: OK, so you guys are in agreement about Renney being the next likely candidate for dismissal. Any chance Glen Sather takes the fall as well, maybe at the end of the year?
TS: I'm not sure Sather will actually pay for the Rangers' failure this year, as unless the Rangers miss out on the postseason completely, he wasn't let go when the Rangers missed the playoffs year after year before the lockout, so an early exit may not doom him.
Clearly though, the Rangers are being built in the model of those pre-lockout messes, as Drury and Gomez, the two big acquisitions from two years ago, have combined for just 25 goals, hardly the bang for the buck they wanted in trying to give those players a bigger scoring role. Even Markus Naslund has been mediocre, and not quite the replacement for Jaromir Jagr that they hoped he would be.
But the Rangers' recent second-round runs have been thanks to their Swedish goaltender rather than the players in front of him, and unless he plays like he did in the first thirteen games of the season, it's going to be a quick exit at the hands of one of the top seeds in the East.
I don't see the Rangers falling completely out of the playoffs, as they certainly have enough talent to hang on, but this team isn't going in the right direction. But I don't think it'll be enough for the brass to kick Sather to the curb.
EM: I love this. In both cases we've got a clear situation where the roster the GM put together was obviously flawed, yet because there isn't any other choice at this point we might as well can the coach.
We ought to review, once again, the difference between this season's version of the New York Rangers and last season's version. At the end of last season, Sather declined to offer contracts to Jaromir Jagr, Sean Avery and Brendan Shanahan. By my count, Sather eliminated three players who accounted for 63 goals last season and played a huge role on the power play. In their place, he imported Markus Naslund, Wade Redden, Nik Zherdev and most curiously, Patrick Rismiller and Dan Fritsche, both of whom are no longer with the team. The result: the Rangers are one of the most punchless teams in all of hockey as the power play has dropped from ninth to 28th overall, as we've all discovered that Redden has no business manning the point on the power play. In short, the Rangers play a defensive system that can only go as far as Henrik Lundqvist can take them because they have no other choice.
The Redden contract alone -- one that has to be categorized as the worst in all of professional hockey and one of the worst in all professional sports -- should be enough to get any GM fired. At this point, I think it's important to remember that Sather couldn't get this team to the playoffs in his first four seasons as GM. Eventually, the Rangers only returned to the postseason every year since the lockout once the understated and unheralded Renney stepped behind the bench to replace Sather. I don't think Renney has lost his ability to coach. Instead, his GM furnished him a roster with plenty of flaws -- ones Renney did a yeoman's job to paper over for most of this season.
KS: Alright, time to move on from the Broadway soap opera. As you see it right now, are there any other coaches around the league who you think could get the axe before the playoffs start? Are there any who should, but won't?
TS: With the churn that's already gone on in Tampa Bay, Carolina, Ottawa and Pittsburgh, most of the prime candidates are already off the market, and with Lou Lamiorello presumably content enough with the Devils' performance not to do his usual late-season change before the playoffs begin, I'm not sure anyone else will get the gate besides Renney before the regular season ends. A lot of the teams will look to shake teams up in two weeks at the trade deadline, but the coaching change and underachievement awards of the season have pretty much run its course with the Rangers being the lone exception. For now.
The Senators were too late to save their season when they axed Craig Hartsburg, and while the Lightning threw Barry Melrose under the bus early this season, Rick Tocchet might be on the ledge with all the instability in Tampa Bay, but to be honest, I really didn't think the Bolts were that good to begin with.
The only teams that are really out of the playoff chase right now are the five bottom teams in the East, and all of them have a coach that wasn't behind the bench at the end of last season - two of them mid-season replacements - and none of them really are surprising they're out of the mix with the exception of the Sens. Atlanta was clearly ticketed to be bad under John Anderson, Peter Laviolette paid the price of two straight non-playoff years following the 'Canes Cup win and seemingly heading towards a third, the Leafs are probably playing a bit better they should under Ron Wilson and the Islanders are performing as well as can be expected with a sub-par roster.
Whatever teams seem to need a boost will try something at the deadline, and if they fail to make the playoffs - or fail to go deep in them - then the coach is a perfect patsy to take the fall. Perhaps one of the Western teams might make a chance if the winds suddenly change, but the knee-jerk reaction this time of year tends to be a trade.
EM: I think Alain Vigneault has temporarily saved his skin as the Canucks pulled out of their extended funk at just the right time. In Montreal, Guy Carboneau is safe despite that team's recent struggles. Does Wayne Gretzky deserve to lose his job? I think that's an open question, but it hardly matters because there isn't any way that either ownership or the league would allow him to be fired. Given the recent news about Gretzky's impressive and complex compensation package, I think it's clear that the Great One will never be pushed out of the job in Phoenix. Rather, he'll just be allowed to come to the decision himself when the time comes. Given his recent comments on Hockey Night in Canada last Saturday, perhaps that time comes as soon as the Coyotes relocate someplace else.
KS: You guys have touched on a lot of the most talked about names. One additional name I want to throw into the mix is Tony Granato in Colorado. The Avs are now last in the West after a recent 3-11 stretch. On January 12th they were 8th in the conference. Any chance he gets canned, or does the blame land squarely on Paul Stastny's injury and a snowblower?
TS: Well, the weird thing about the West this year is even though the Avs are at tied for last place, they're still only one win streak away from reaching a playoff berth, and the Avs have proven to be nothing but streaky this season.
Granato may end up going, but if he does, it'll probably be after the season. I'd think the Avs will be more likely to try and get a spark from a deadline deal or the return of Stastny (likely this Friday in Washington) and Sakic (supposedly in March) to try and close the gap in the tightly packed Western race.
But this isn't quite the case of the Avs a couple of years ago that fired/demoted Granato where they came into the season with high expectations of being a true Cup contender. This year's team was going to be a low seed if healthy, and that certainly hasn't been the case in Denver.
I wouldn't be surprised if he - and several other coaches - end up losing their jobs once the season's done, but at this point, unless the team's totally mailing it in, they're going to try and create a spark via the trade route instead of firing a coach late in the year. Unless you're the New Jersey Devils.
EM: I took a look at Colorado a couple of days ago, and I can't imagine management is terribly happy with what they see. But losing Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny for a good chunk of the season blows quite a hole in your offensive production. Given how tightly teams are packed in the West, I could see management hanging with Granato through the start of next season.