FEBRUARY 2002 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES.

A TALE OF TWO COACHES.

In June 2000, the Dallas Stars, defending Stanley Cup champions and coached by Ken Hitchcock, met the New Jersey Devils, whose bench boss was Larry Robinson. In a thrilling six-game series, Robinson's Devils would best Hitchcock's Stars to become Cup champions.

If anyone had said back then that less than two years later, both men would be unemployed, that person would've been dismissed for lack of hockey knowledge, as well as considered an outright loon.

But if there was anyone who made a Vegas wager on this possibility, they certainly cleaned up during the final weekend of January, 2002.

On the Friday leading into that weekend, the now-struggling Stars fired Hitchcock, while the floundering Devils, barely one year removed from their return trip to the Cup finals, sent Robinson packing the following Monday.

What caused these dramatic events to take place? Why was Hitchcock, who guided the Stars to five straight division titles, two Cup finals appearances and a Stanley Cup, given his walking papers? Why did the Devils cast off Robinson, who took over a team in turmoil late in the 1999-2000 season and coached them to two straight Finals appearances and the 2000 Stanley Cup?

In Hitchcock's case, it was simply because his players were no longer listening to him. "Hitch" had done a terrific job of making the Stars one of the league powerhouses in the late 1990s, and his strict defensive system was instrumental in not only bringing the Stanley Cup to Dallas in 1999, but made more complete players out of offensive forwards such as Mike Modano and former Star Brett Hull.

However, after their failure to defend their title against the Devils in 2000, the same dogged determination the Stars had in the past to play Hitchcock's system seemed to disappear. Respected veteran leaders such as Guy Carbonneau, Brian Skrudland and Mike Keane, who bought into Hitchcock's system and in turn could make their teammates buy into it, left via retirement or free agency. Then unnamed players began to grumble to the press of their inability to play a more offensive style under him.

When they were pushed to seven games by the upstart Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the 2001 playoffs and subsequently soundly beaten in five games in the next round by the St. Louis Blues, Hitchcock and Stars GM Bob Gainey acknowledged it was time to change their system, to play a better offensive game, and to bring in the type of players to bring that style about.

However, the free agents Gainey brought in - Pierre Turgeon, Donald Audette, Valeri Kamensky and Jyrki Lumme - chaffed under Hitchcock's demanding coaching. One by one, all but Turgeon were dealt away, each firing verbal salvoes at Hitchcock's coaching methods as they left.

Were they merely "sour grapes" from disgruntled players who just couldn't measure up to the Stars standards, their comments would've been easily dismissed if the team was still riding high in the standings. But with Dallas languishing in an unaccustomed spot amongst the lower playoff contenders, scrapping to hang onto a playoff berth, their words gained more credence.

In the end, it was perhaps the clashes with starting goalie Ed Belfour, and a heated exchange with Modano during one of Hitchcock's final practices that sealed his fate. It was one thing for new players to not get along with him, but when the established stars were becoming more outspoken of his methods, something had to give.

Observers say that, away from the rink, Hitchcock was approachable and friendly to his players. Unfortunately, it was his inflexible coaching style that would bring about his downfall.

In New Jersey, some on the Devils roster were openly grumbling about Larry Robinson's coaching, but his firing had more to do with covering the ass of GM Lou Lamoriello than anything else.

Lamoriello has been widely praised and respected, if not liked, for taking a Devils team that was a laughingstock in the late 1980s and building into one of the strongest clubs of the last 10 years. His savvy trades and shrewd drafting built the New Jersey franchise into the team that dominated the Eastern Conference enroute to three Cup Finals appearances and two Stanley Cup championships. He won noteworthy praise for building winners while maintaining a strict budget, refusing to over-pay his talent and squeezing every last drop of effort out of his unrestricted free agents.

One of Lamoriello's landmarks was to make trades by dipping into his deep talent pool of young players and shipping them out for established veterans to bolster his team's playoff roster. Most notable was trading Jason Smith and Steve Sullivan to Toronto for Doug Gilmour in 1997, shipping Brian Rolston to Colorado to re-acquire Claude Lemieux in 1999 and dealing Brendan Morrison and Denis Pederson to Vancouver for Alexander Mogilny. The latter two deals worked, as Lemieux's veteran leadership and Mogilny offensive wizardry were key in the Devils winning the 2000 Stanley Cup.

However, perhaps the main reason for the 2000 championship was the coaching of Larry Robinson, whom Lamoriello hired to take over a Devils club in turmoil late in the 99-00 season from Robbie Ftorek. Robinson's easy-going style was a marked contrast to his predecessor, and his players responded well to it. He could also kick butts when needed, such as his locker room tirade in Game 4 of the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals. Down 3 games to 1, Robinson tore into his players, then chided them publicly for an unacceptable effort. The end result saw the Devils storm back to win the next three games and the series, and onward to their defeat of the Stars in the Finals.

Robinson was instrumental in the Devils returning to the Finals in 2001, before falling to the Colorado Avalanche in a heart-breaking seven game loss. There are those who claim Robinson was "out-coached" in that series, but the simple fact was his players were drained, and Colorado goaltender Patrick Roy outplayed New Jersey's Martin Brodeur.

New Jersey's slow start and subsequent struggles to hang onto the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference this season had little to do with Robinson and everything to do with Lamoriello. The Devils GM was furious with his players for failing to repeat as Cup champions, and castigated them for it. Furthermore, Lamoriello continued his tightwad ways with his players salaries, despite the Devils being purchased in 2000 by YankeeNets, headed up by wealthy NY Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. His players were grudgingly willing to accept less than top dollar to remain with the Devils because the previous owner was the grandfatherly and less wealthy Dr. John McMullen, but it stuck in their craw that Lamoriello wasn't opening up the pursestrings with YankeeNets now running the show.

What worsened the situation was the treatment of Alexander Mogilny and long-time Devil Bobby Holik. Although he slumped in the 2001 playoffs, Mogilny, along with young centre Scott Gomez, was key to the Devils having two strong offensive forward lines. Meanwhile, Holik was renowned as one of the best two-way centres in the game, someone who always matched up against the opposing team's best forward.

Inexplicably, Lamoriello let Mogilny get away to free agency, rather than re-signing him. He compounded the error by not bringing in another offensive forward, either via free agency or a trade, to replace Mogilny. In essence, Lamoriello hamstrung his offence, taking away the key component that made the second line work, and forcing the first line of Jason Arnott, Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora to carry the offensive load.

Next, Lamoriello blundered in his handling of Holik's and Petr Sykora's salary arbitrations. Rather than pay them their worth, he let the players go to arbitration, where he argued they were worth less than what they were seeking. It backfired on him. Sykora was given a huge raise by the arbitrator, while Holik emerged angry at his treatment by Lamoriello, and vowed he would leave the team for free agency the following summer.

The negative fallout from these moves was bad enough, but next came the realization as the 2001-02 season progressed that the Devils were lacking in quality depth within their system to off-set any injuries or slumps by their established players.Goaltender Martin Brodeur has been the most overworked netminder in the NHL over the past three seasons, with no capable backup to help him carry the load, and the strain is showing this season. The over-taxed "A" line struggled and was broken up several times in vain attempts to spread their offence throughout the roster.

The young players Lamoriello dealt away over the years for established veterans have gone on to become key players for other teams. Brendan Morrison is a star centre with the Vancouver Canucks. Jason Smith is not only the anchor of the Edmonton Oilers blueline, he's also their captain. Steve Sullivan emerged last season as a lethal goalscorer for the Chicago Blackhawks. Brian Rolston has developed as a quality forward for the Boston Bruins. Imagine the contribution these players could be making now to the Devils!

Meanwhile, the players Lamoriello dealt these young players away for no longer play in New Jersey. Doug Gilmour has bounced from Chicago to Buffalo to Montreal. Claude Lemieux is now in Phoenix. Alexander Mogilny now plays for the Devils most hated playoff rival in recent years, the Toronto Maple Leafs. While the Lemieux and Mogilny trades did help bring the Cup to New Jersey in 2000, Lamoriello foolish decision not to retain them means he now has nothing to show for it over the long term.

Is it any wonder the Devils has struggled mightily this season? The players are toiling for an organization that has revealed itself to be uncaring about them. If the management doesn't give a damn, where are the players supposed to find the motivation to give their best? In that situation, even the greatest coach in the league would have trouble getting his team to return to their Cup winning form. Larry Robinson wasn't fired because he was a bad coach. Even his players felt they'd let him down with their inconsistent play, their finger-pointing amongst themselves to assess blame, and their whining to the media.

Could the same logic be applied to Hitchcock? Was he a victim of GM Bob Gainey's blunders? While Gainey certainly won't look back on his free agent acquisitions in 2001 as the high mark of his management career, Gainey supported his coach during his tenure as Stars general manager, and did his best to land the type of players Hitchcock needed. Ed Belfour, Mike Keane and Brett Hull were three notable UFA signings Gainey made who contributed to Dallas's winning the Stanley Cup.

Most importantly, Gainey didn't trade away promising talent for short-term help that he would subsequently cast aside with nothing to show for it in the long run. Trading for Joe Nieuwendyk, Guy Carbonneau, Sergei Zubov and Darryl Sydor are four prime examples. Gainey could make mistakes too, practically giving away goaltender Roman Turek to the St. Louis Blues in 1999, but his blunders were few and far between.

Gainey wasn't prone to the nepotism displayed by Lamoriello. Prolonged contract holdouts were not common events in Dallas. While players may have grumbled about Hitchcock, nobody had an unkind word to say about Gainey. He was as well-respected as a GM as he was when he was a Hall-of-Fame forward.

Hitchcock got the axe because he was inflexible. Robinson was made the fall guy by New Jersey management.

A sad tale of two successful, and now unemployed, NHL coaches.

 

THIS DOG HAS HAD HIS DAY.

The news of Toronto Maple Leafs goaltender Curtis Joseph suffering a fractured left hand that could sideline him until the middle of April has done more than throw the Leafs playoff plans into question. It may also have spelled the end of Joseph's tenure as a Leaf.

This may be difficult to believe for some Leafs fans, given how "Cujo" has been arguably the best player on the Toronto roster since he signed with them as an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 1998. During that time, Toronto's average blueline corps was bailed out time and again by Joseph's acrobatics in goal. His play was seen as the major contributing factor to the Leafs turnaround from playoff pretender to contender and, in the eyes of the Toronto media, Cup contender.

However, many were caught off guard last fall when it was reported Joseph had not reached an agreement on a contract extension with the Leafs. In the wake of the Leafs giving team captain Mats Sundin a whopping $9 million per season, Joseph was demanding to be paid the same money as Colorado's Patrick Roy and Detroit's Dominik Hasek, approximately $7.5 million per season.

Joseph's supporters believe he's worth every penny, that as the main reason the Leafs even made the playoffs in 2001, plus his contribution in previous seasons, including a Vezina nomination in 2000, the least the Maple Leafs could do is reward him accordingly.

Critics of Cujo, however, say he's being unreasonable, that seeing himself as a peer of Roy and Hasek is unfounded. Roy is the greatest goalie of this generation and a proven playoff performer, as his regular season and playoff wins records, plus his three Vezinas, three Conn Smythes and four Stanley Cup rings can attest. Hasek has won six Vezinas since the mid-1990s, as well as two Hart trophies as the League's MVP, the first goalie to win it since Jacques Plante in 1962. Unlike Joseph, Hasek has also backstopped a team to the Stanley Cup finals. Measured against those credentials, what right did Joseph have to demand comparable pay?

Still, there was no acrimony between Joseph and Leafs GM Pat Quinn. It was felt that some sort of agreement could be worked out long before the summer, when the unrestricted free agent market opened up.

However, it may well have been that Quinn wanted to push Joseph, to make him play up to earning that demanded $7.5 mil per season. What better way to earn that money than one of two ways, either by helping to end Canada's fifty year gold medal drought in Olympic hockey, or by bring the Stanley Cup back to Toronto for the first time in 35 years. If Cujo could pull off both tricks, the combination to the Leafs vault would be his.

Everything appeared to be in place for Joseph becoming Team Canada's starting goaltender in Salt Lake. The guy every observer believed should rightfully have the job, Patrick Roy, opted to pass up this golden opportunity to get the rest he claimed he needed to help the Avalanche defend their Cup title. New Jersey's Martin Brodeur and Dallas's Ed Belfour, both of whom also have Cup rings and more individual awards than Joseph, weren't being seriously considered for the job by the Toronto press. With Quinn as Team Canada's head coach, there was no question Joseph would be the main man.

Sure enough, Cujo was between the pipes for Team Canada's opening game of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Then it all went horribly wrong. Canada was whupped by Team Sweden 5-2, with Joseph's Leafs teammate Sundin lighting him up for two goals. While the entire Canadian team played poorly, Cujo faced the brunt of the wrath, as three of the Swedish goals were deemed "questionable" or "soft". Quinn went with Brodeur in the next game against Germany, and stuck with him the rest of the way.

Team Canada would finally win it's long-awaited Gold in men's hockey, but it would be Brodeur and not Cujo who would go down in Canadian hockey history as the main man in Canada's net. Joseph got a gold medal along with the rest of his teammates, but whispers were heard of his disappointment at not getting another shot in goal during the tournament.

Joseph was too much of a team player and a nice guy to make waves about it while the Games were going on. After all, egos and selfishness had no place on a quest for Olympic glory. But the suspicions of his disappointment, of his feeling let down by Quinn, wouldn't go away.

Still, if Joseph were to carry the Leafs to the Stanley Cup finals this season, even possibly winning it all, that would still be enough to keep him in Toronto. That would ensure he'd get the top dollar from the Leafs, as well as shaking the reputation for being a great regular season and first round goalie who never had enough left in the tank for the subsequent rounds.

Now that has been placed in jeopardy by his fractured hand. Quinn says he won't rush into finding a short-term replacement for Joseph, that there isn't much out there the Leafs would want to fill in between the pipes while Cujo recuperate, but should the losses start mounting and Toronto start to slide down the standings, Quinn's tune will change. He won't risk missing the playoffs because he didn't want to go out and find a short-term replacement to fill Joseph's shoes down the stretch.

Of course, if Joseph is back by mid-April, he'll be just in time for the Leafs playoff run, he'll still have another shot of carrying the team to Cup glory, right? It's still possible, but Joseph has yet to prove he's of the calibre of a Roy or Hasek, a goalie who can carry an average team into the Stanley Cup finals. Joseph has had the advantage of playing for a Toronto team that stacks up better in comparison to Roy's 1986 and 1993 Montreal Canadiens, or Hasek's 1999 Buffalo Sabres. Yet they've still be unable to go all the way. To be fair, a good reason for that has been the Leafs average defensive game. But another reason was Joseph's meltdowns after the first round.

In the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals, the one time Joseph actually played beyond the second round, he was outplayed by a "Dominator" who was nagged all series by a groin injury. In 2000, he and his Leafs faltered as a team against the New Jersey Devils in the Conference semis. In the 2001 Conference semi-finals, the Leafs had the defending champion Devils on the ropes, up three games to two and seemingly in control of the series. But Joseph was average in the final two games, and it cost the Leafs their best shot of making the Finals since 1967.

That hasn't been lost on Quinn. Indeed, if he felt Joseph was worth the money, he'd happily pony up whatever Cujo wanted to keep him a Leafs. But there was a suspicion hinted at of Quinn's unhappiness over Joseph's play in those final two Conference semi-final games in 2001 tempering his contract talks with his starting goaltender. With Quinn having stuck with Brodeur for the remainder of the Olympics, instead of giving Cujo another shot in goal, the perception is growing that Quinn may have lost even more confidence in Joseph.

But who would the Leafs find for a replacement for Joseph next season? Surely such talk of letting Cujo walk for nothing is nonsense? Perhaps it is, but there is one goaltender who may be available next summer. One who is a proven winner. One who has a Cup ring. One who put on a remarkable display of netminding in the 1996 World Cup that was the difference as Team USA upset Team Canada, outduelling none other than Joseph himself. That goaltender is Mike Richter of the New York Rangers.

It is possible the Rangers could let Richter walk after this season, provided they don't trade him first to a team that signs him up to a long-term deal immediately. Richter's value will surely go up on the trade and free agent markets, given his strong performance for Team USA at the Olympics.

If Richter goes to free agency, and Quinn can convince the Leafs ownership to provide the necessary cash, it wouldn't be surprising if Toronto made Richter a serious offer. Quinn admires Richter's style, after all, it was Richter's goaltending that helped defeat Quinn's Vancouver Canucks in the 1994 Stanley Cup finals.

But surely the Leafs won't be able to afford Richter? Surely another team will snap him up before Toronto could make a serious bid? Surely Richter won't want to go to Toronto, preferring to sign with an American based team? Then again, nobody believed the Leafs would make a bid for Joseph in the summer of 1998. Remember, everyone had him pegged as going to Philadelphia, but the Maple Leafs grabbed him instead.

Granted, this is all speculation on my part. Quinn may well wish to keep Joseph and is merely hoping he can drive down Cujo's salary demands a little. There may be nothing to the speculations of Joseph's unhappiness with Quinn, and Cujo could be a Leaf for many years to come. Perhaps Quinn would like to get another starter, but will find the free agent pool lacking in what he wants, forcing him to re-sign Joseph.

In my opinion, however, I don't think so. I think Quinn has seen that, as good as Joseph is, he's not the type of goaltender that can carry a franchise to Cup glory. Particularly one whose fans are getting more demanding for an end to 35 years of frustration.

Unless Joseph can backstop Toronto to the 2002 Stanley Cup championship, this is his last season as a Maple Leaf.