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Rookie coaches are the hot fix

A school of thought says a whole generation of coaches outside the NHL is just waiting to be the next Bruce Boudreau. You know the profile: a man who spends his adult life honing his craft while hoping for that in-season call from General Manager Drew Carey to "come on down" (or up, if you consider a bottom feeder in a higher league to be a step up in class).

From a GM's point of view, the price is right. After all, if a rookie coach can turn dying dogs into some semblance of a hockey team, then he'll get a second year at pay that's likely lower than the guy who was fired. If he saves the GM's job in the process, he'll be kept around at least until the next time the team makes the GM look like he should be managing a 4-Pad in southern Alberta rather than a multi-million dollar sports franchise.

If you follow the Boudreau route step-by-step, you can put in 26 years in the minors and not see the bigs until you are 52. But off Boudreau's stirring performance with the Washington Capitals, the follow-the-leader mentality has kicked in because the perception now is that the "farm boys" are having great success.

The Ottawa Senators have been doing well under Cory Clouston. At midweek, the February call-up from AHL Binghamton had an 11-6-3 mark (a .625 winning percentage). Match that against the fired Craig Hartsburg's 17-24-7 mark (.427) and it's enough to make you think that Clouston is a hero and GM Bryan Murray is a genius who needs only to make a few tweaks to the roster to keep his job and put the Sens back in the hunt for the Stanley Cup next season.

Another poster child for all this good feeling is Pittsburgh's interim coach Dan Bylsma, an AHL guy who also got the big call in February. He took over for the fired Michel Therrien and hasmpressively guided the once-sputtering Penguins back into playoff contention with a stunning 10-1-3 mark -- taking 23 of a possible 28 points -- and an off-the-charts .821 win pct.

Compare the performances of the two NHL rookies with the successes of proven coaches like Joel Quennville in Chicago (put behind the bench four games into the season, and with a .635 career win percentage), John Tortorella (.611) in New York and Paul Maurice (.544) in Carolina, and it seems like an infusion from the minor leagues is the smartest way to go.

I beg to differ.

History shows that good teams gone bad may have tuned out their coach, but a new guy, especially a new up-from-nowhere guy, isn't the true reason for dramatic change: It's guilt.

"When a coach gets fired, guys (players) usually say all the right things about how unfortunate it is and all that, but the truth is something else," said a high-profile player who asked not to be identified largely because he fears the wrath of his teammates for speaking the truth. "If the team was expected to make the playoffs and didn't look like it was going to get there, that falls on us (the players), so when that guy gets fired you'll see the players pick it up big time. They know they got that guy fired and now they have to show it was him, not them, who wasn't doing the job. They pick up their play big time."

Tampa Bay had a few good players on its roster, but the Lightning didn't have the goaltending, defense, management or even ownership to save Tortorella's job. Barry Melrose made his own messes in the short time he was there, but he could have been the second coming of Toe Blake and not succeeded with that club. Same for current bench boss Rick Tocchet. The Bolts needed an overhaul even before Tortorella left. The one they got shows only that they will need another this offseason.

Carolina was thought to be a bubble team this season from the get-go. Whether Peter Laviolette or Paul Maurice has been behind the bench, the 'Canes have played pretty much to that form. Tortorella is now having some success with the Rangers, but he's not exactly working miracles. They are what they are, and what they have been for most of the season: a playoff-capable team that went off track under Tom Renney.

One has to think the Montreal Canadiens aren't going to be a whole lot better with Bob Gainey behind the bench then they were with Guy Carbonneau. They were over-hyped from Day One, and unless goaltender Carey Price reinvents himself virtually overnight, they simply are a second- or maybe even third-echelon team due to their problems in goal, lack of size, and a somewhat porous defense.

So does Gainey promote Don Lever, currently up from the farm in Hamilton to assist the GM-turned-interim coach, positioning him for a major turnaround next season? He could. Lever is a quality coach who has served his time in the minors and is more than ready for a big league assignment. It might not happen simply because the fans in Montreal demand a coach who speaks French as well as he does English (Lever is a little light in that regard). Whoever coaches the Habs next season will have many of the same problems that have vexed Claude Julien, Carbonneau and Gainey. The team simply isn't all that great.

Boudreau may have waited a hockey lifetime for his call to the Capitals, but it came with Alex Ovechkin and a core of impressive kids ready to make their mark in the lineup. He has them to thank for his sustained success, and no coach at any level can make his mark without enough talent on the bench.

I got a ton of mail after a recent column about fighting and the GMs' decision to do next to nothing about it. Most of you sided with the GMs. Here's a representative comment:

Hey, Jim, maybe they shouldn't play on ice. Perhaps hockey could be played in a big bowl of Jell-O. The truth is, Jim, fighting is part of the game and accidents happen. Although dying in a hockey fight isn't what one would want to see, it is part of the risk assumed when one takes the ice. In my opinion, you owe the GMs of the sport you make a living writing about an apology. They obviously are taking into account a much larger picture than you are capable of comprehending. It is also my opinion that it should be up to the men who play the game as to what the rules should be. If these men feel their lives are being placed in reckless danger, then it should be up to their union to step forward and ensure measures of safety are put into place to protect them.-- Shane Hinds, Cedar Springs, MI

Why is fighting a part of the game while Sean Avery's off-color comment is worthy of a six-game suspension? It's because the NHL says so. Does that make it right? Helmets were never a part of the game until the league made it so in 1979. Why? It wanted fewer head injuries. And since when is death a part of the game? If that was the case, why did the NHL put up protective screens after a young girl died at a Columbus Blue Jackets game in 2002 when she was struck in the head by a puck that had left the ice?

Pucks flying into the crowd have been a part of hockey as long as the game has been played indoors. Is being killed by them simply part of the risk assumed when a fan buys a ticket? The league put up the screens because the girl's death was preventable. By not correcting the problem, the NHL would be held legally liable despite what it says on the ticket.

I'm not so naive to think there will never be another fight if the league bans fighting outright. I do believe the NHL can go a whole lot farther to protect the players. It chose not to. And, by the way, the players asked the GMs to amend the rules regarding blows to the head because they are inherently dangerous. What was the GMs' response? They did nothing. Hard for a union to do more than ask, except perhaps to refuse to play because of unsafe working conditions -- which may very well be the next step in this battle.

It's true that Don Sanderson, the young man who died in a senior hockey league game in Ontario didn't play in the NHL, but the tragedy is a warning to everyone at every level of hockey, and I will never apologize for pointing out that NHL GMs declined to address that.

A footnote: I made a sarcastic remark in my last column about the NHL treating its facts and figures like "psalms." The league, according to a variety of sources, did a professional accounting on fighting, when and where fights take place, and the circumstances. The point I tried to convey was that the GMs did nothing of value with that information. I stand by that argument. It was not my intent to demean the quality of work that went into the statistical analysis.

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