Jim Kelley
Thursday December 4th, 2008

If we are to learn anything from the firing head coach of Peter Laviolette in Carolina -- other than that it's still a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world for coaches and general managers -- it's that even a Stanley Cup doesn't bullet-proof your resume.

John Tortorella won one as recently as 2004 and not only was he fired in Tampa Bay, he's on the sidelines doing television in Canada while other less successful coaches have been hired by NHL teams.

Laviolette is likely to learn the same lesson. The winningest American-born coach in NHL history (he passed Tortorella just this season) likely will get another job in the league some day, but it won't be right away and it won't be because he has a Stanley Cup ring and a record of success. It will come only if Laviolette has the ability to convince another boss that what worked for one organization will work for another and that he won't necessarily charge the highest-end price for his services.

That's the state of coaching today. Lots of people think they can do it and more than a few do it well, but the job seldom lasts long. Even good ones are not immune to market forces. In Carolina, well, the team wasn't doing all that bad (12-11-2 and three points behind the Southeast-leading Capitals at the time of Laviolette's dismissal), but it wasn't doing good enough.

The old saw that you can't change 20 players still holds, but it's also true that nowadays you have difficulty changing out even one player, what with the salary cap and roster limitations. You either win with what you have or someone else gets the chance to try.

One could argue that Laviolette almost didn't even get fired. Carolina's finances are so tight that GM Jim Rutherford might not have been able to afford this move if he didn't get Toronto to continue paying a part of Paul Maurice's severance package. Money in the smaller markets is simply that tight.

Rutherford truly believes that this edition of the Hurricanes is better than its record, but it's a minority view. Some of the changes he's made simply haven't worked. No amount of coaching, good or bad, can change that. Still, Rutherford had a bone to pick with Laviolette and it was not unlike the one that some players gnawed on when the coach was plying his on Long Island: after a time, his relentless push falls on deaf ears.

Laviolette had other problems according to Rutherford. Consistent slow starts, both in games and the schedule, cost the team dearly the last two seasons. Blowing a lead in 2007-08 and allowing the surging Capitals to not only gain a playoff spot but push the 'Canes out of first place in the division and the postseason in the same run didn't work in Lavilotte's favor, either.

He's a good coach, but he's by no means a great one and when he ran his course in Carolina, a place where neither management nor the players particularly cared for him, it was all over.

People might laugh at Rutherford's decision to bring back the coach he canned in 2004 for another go, but they shouldn't. Maurice is good and has the distinct advantage of being a likeable person -- so likeable that he and Rutherford consider each other best friends despite the fact Rutherford fired him.

It works that way in sports. The Colorado Avalanche brought Tony Granato back last May. George Steinbremmer brought Billy Martin back to manage the New York Yankees five times.

Too many of you to name wrote to say that I'm some kind of jerk because I characterized Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson as an American even though he was born in Ontario, Canada.

That's true, but I pointed out in the column that he has dual citizenship and has operated as an American since he was about 12 years old. He's coached Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey and the Olympics. He played college hockey in America and he lives in America. The key distinction is that he acts like an American and, until he got to Toronto, conducted himself as one.

If you want to get your nose out of joint about it, consider this: Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman, both of whom live and work in America, have taken out American citizenship and still manage Canadian Olympic and World teams. Oddly enough, the good people of Phoenix and Detroit are not bothered by that.

And now, some of your other concerns:

Why no outrage or glaring spotlight on the NHL for allowing (Rick) Tocchet to be an NHL coach? This does not happen in the NFL or MLB in regards to gambling or league credibility. -- Skip Logan, St. Paul, MN

Good point, Skip. It doesn't. The hockey argument is that Tocchet's crimes were, by legal definition, minor and that he paid his debt to society given the league ban for nearly two years and his plea arrangement with authorities. Had he been convicted of a felony, it might be a different story. In my book, Tocchet is beyond fortunate. Hockey has a reputation of taking care of its own and Tocchet has a great many friends in the game. From the league's perspective, he is on double secret probation and under that spotlight it's assumed that he won't screw up again. There are people worth taking a second chance on. Clearly, the Lightning and the league believe Tocchet is one of them.

I sense watching Barry (Melrose) on ESPN over the years that maybe he wasn't real knowledgeable, or maybe it didn't matter because ESPN left the game years ago. So I can't say that I disagree with your article, but your tone was quite nasty. Almost like it was personal. -- Art Cantrell. Pittsburgh, PA

I know Barry. I've never worked with him, but I've met him several times. He would be the first to tell you that in this business you say what you think and let the pieces fall where they may. Few people like it, but people who are exposed to it understand it.

Do the Los Angeles Kings have the right combination of youth and veterans to be a playoff contender? -- Mike, Los Angeles,CA

I don't think so, Mike, but I believe they do have enough veterans on their roster to help guide the kids into becoming a playoff-capable team as early as next season. They are close right now, but the more experienced teams know how to win when points are hard to come by late in the season. You can't teach experience. You can only hope that your players learn from it.

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