Wednesday July 16th, 2008

Coaches get hired and fired. Players being signed on both sides of the pond. Can someone tell me when the offseason is supposed to start?

With so many issues to touch on, let's take a dip into the mailbag.

I'm absolutely livid over [the Islanders] firing of Ted Nolan. Why on earth would they get rid of a proven coach, especially at this time? That place is a complete sideshow. I'm done. I wish I had season tickets so I could make a statement by giving them up! -- Ronald Li, New York

Going by the amount of mail I received in the aftermath of Monday's firing, you're not alone. I'm guessing a number of Islanders fans are completely fed up after years of abuse from Wang the Merciless. They may not seek out another club to root for, but they're at the point where they simply tune this team out. And who can blame them?

Your use of the word sideshow is close, but I think the term you're looking for is three-ring circus. There was plenty of blame to go around on this decision, and no one walks away without some blood on their hands, not even Nolan.

The lion's share belongs to owner Charles Wang, whose guns are constantly half-cocked and pointing at his own feet. In some ways, he reminds me of Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys, another owner whose overestimation of his understanding of the game and a desire to be seen as one of the sports guys in his early days led him to make a series of poor calls that doomed the organization to years in the toilet. Eventually Jones figured out he'd look at lot smarter, and learn a lot faster, by surrounding himself with qualified help, rather than guys who happened to be nearby with some free time on their hands. The fact that the Cowboys now are regarded as contenders should give Islanders fans at least faint hope that it is possible for a meddler to turn things around.

In this case, Wang's decision to hire Nolan in 2006 wasn't a bad one in and of itself, but choosing a coach himself instead of hiring a GM first and allowing him to make the call set the stage for this failure.

Wang's second kick at the GM can, Garth Snow, didn't acquit himself particularly well, either. It's not unusual to see a coach and GM squabbling over quality of talent or team direction. But Snow's inexperience and unease at not having his own man in place was evident in his mishandling of the situation. If he was serious about a youth movement -- not a bad idea for a franchise whose veterans were a mix of aging and ill-fitting parts -- he could have extended Nolan's contract beyond next season to reassure his coach that he wasn't simply grooming the kids for his successor. Instead, he left Nolan hanging, which pretty much ensured that he would be gone at some point this season. Snow also grossly overestimated the quality of talent he'd assembled, and underestimated the impressive job Nolan performed in getting the squad into the playoffs in 2007 and keeping an injury-riddled side competitive for much of last season.

And while Nolan deserves credit for those efforts, he also has to realize we all have to answer to someone. If the boss asks you to work in the kids as part of the organizational plan, you work in the kids. Losing is tough, but for Nolan this job was about more than just wins and losses. This was a second chance, an opportunity to prove he could be a team player and maybe, just maybe, ditch the reputation as someone who can't get along with his GM. Safe to say that tag is tattooed onto him now, making it unlikely he'll be given another NHL gig anytime soon ... if ever.

Maybe the only surprising element of Monday's dismissal is the timing. Clearly this rift had been deemed irreparable during the season, and only Wang's loyalty to Nolan prevented an earlier dismissal. At this point, Snow's basically choosing from the leftovers after the teams who were more resolute had their pick of the coaching litter. But at least he'll be able to pick his own man this time around.

I just spent most of the last week at the Boston Bruins development camp and came away very impressed with Brad Marchand and Blake Wheeler. What do you think their chances are of making the team this season?

Well, if you spent that much time at camp, you've seen more of them lately than I have. But from what I was told by someone who was there every day, the duo clearly stood out from the pack (other than the rehabbing duo of Patrice Bergeron and Manny Fernandez, of course).

Marchand, a 20-year-old right winger, is a nasty pet who'll do whatever it takes to win. He already has NHL speed and the courage to go into the hard areas, but he's also a player who needs to prove to the organization that he can keep his head on straight after incidents with Team Canada and Halifax of the QMJHL. Wheeler, the Phoenix Coyotes first rounder-turned-UFA who was snagged earlier this summer by the Bruins, caught everyone's attention with his speed and shot but also gave the impression that he needs time to fill out his big frame.

The best guess though is that both will start the season with Providence of the AHL, and acclimate to the pro game with the chance to earn significant ice time with the Baby B's. Then maybe if things go well, both could get a shot in Boston later in the year.

That's just a guess, though. After seeing Milan Lucic last summer, I shared the almost unanimous opinion that he had no chance of sticking in Boston. Bruins fans know how that one turned out.

I was reading your column the other day about Alexander Radulov leaving Nashville to sign with the Russian league. I'm worried this is just the first shot of many to come. Is that possible or pessimistic? -- David Schwartz, Somewhere in the Smokies

At this point, I think it's pessimistic, given that the NHL and KHL agreed to a deal last week that would see each league recognizing/respecting the contracts of the other. The Radulov deal reportedly was consummated two days before this agreement, and so it managed to skirt the issue. Of course, nothing's been signed yet between the two leagues, so even if the deal had transpired afterward, there's probably nothing the NHL could do about it. All that said, odds are you won't see any more players following Radulov's lead and jumping leagues with a valid contract in hand.

Personally, I feel bad for Nashville -- Radulov is a major loss for a team shy of young scoring talent -- but I got a kick out of Salavat Yulaev, the team he signed with, offering the Preds a $200,000 transfer fee. That's the same amount the NHL offers to European clubs who lose a player to North America. I wrote last year that there needed to be a more equitable transfer system, similar to the one in place for soccer. If Nashville fans are angered by that pittance, they'll get a good sense of how Europeans have felt for years after seeing their top talent bolting to the NHL for the same amount.

Do you have any information about who the Kings might be looking at for their vacant coaching job? It's been frustrating watching as the best candidates have been swept up by other teams, while Dean Lombardi has been twiddling his thumbs. Also, any thoughts on what steps they might take to ensure they reach the salary cap floor? Seems like they're still a long way off. Any trades in the works? -- Kathie Anser, Long Beach, Calif.

Word out of L.A. Tuesday night suggests the Kings are set to go with Terry Murray, last seen as a Flyers assistant, as their new bench boss.

You can be forgiven for failing to stifle a yawn. On the surface it's a left-field choice, and certainly not a sexy one. Murray's name wasn't on the radar of any other team that was looking to hire a new man this summer, but that doesn't necessarily mean he's a poor choice. He has a reputation for being a skilled teacher, something that will be critical for a team committed to a youth movement, and he's extremely well prepared. Consider him a custodial coach, someone who'll be in place while the team endures some growing pains, but who'll likely be replaced when they are ready to take a step into serious contention.

An interesting side note to all this is that the delay in making the choice may have been attributable to the potential sale of a minority share in the team to Wyc Grousbeck. A co-owner of the Boston Celtics, Grousbeck reportedly was being given a say in the process. Seems more than a bit dysfunctional -- see the Islanders situation -- but as long as it was simply a matter of courtesy rather than an actual approval, it's no big deal.

The salary cap issue isn't really as much of an issue as some are making it. With just over $29 million committed in salaries and buyouts (Dan Cloutier and Alyn McCauley), the Kings are about $11 million shy of the cap floor.

At the moment, they have just 10 forwards and four defenders signed. Jarret Stoll, Patrick O'Sullivan and Brad Richardson are RFAs, and all should be signed in a matter of weeks, if not days, taking up somewhere in the range of $7.5 million. Drew Doughty, the second overall pick in last month's draft, is given a real shot to stick with the team, and the blueliner's cap hit could be anywhere from $2-$3 million. That only leaves them needing to spend another million or so on a sixth defenseman, something that's not so hard to do these days. So don't worry about them having to pay out some ridiculous one-year salary to a washed-up vet just to make the floor. Once they take care of business, everything will be in order.

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