With the season flying by, managing change or affecting it is no small trick for general managers, especially in the salary cap era. What to do and when to act is of paramount importance when it comes to not being left behind -- both in the here-and-now and in the future.
We've so far seen the age-old approach of firing the coach to turn a struggling team around. In Philadelphia, the Flyers are successfully redefining their game under Peter Laviolette. In St. Louis, the hope is that first-timer Davis Payne will spark a second-half surge similar to the Blues' blitz last year.
The Ottawa Senators and Carolina Hurricanes were a little more creative with the change game. The Sens fired their goalie coach. When GM Bryan Murray let Eli Wilson go, citing the lack of development of his goaltenders, it caught everyone's attention. Pascal Leclaire, the goalie Murray traded for, had been performing poorly, his game, confidence and demeanor all poorer since his arrival from Columbus last March. Wilson wasn't helping him, so Murray cleared the way with the underlying message: "Okay, Leclaire, you got your way. Now do it your way and stop the puck."
Getting rid of the position coach seemed to put Ottawa's goalies on notice. The net result was six straight wins after five consecutive losses, the last of which was an ugly 6-1 deal in Atlanta where neither Leclaire nor Brian Elliott were particularly sharp. But Murray has put all on high alert and the Senators are sitting in fifth place in the east, determined to get the goaltending they need to be a playoff team.
Meanwhile, the Hurricanes named a new captain, which is somewhat of a novelty when the player who had the C removed from his sweater remains on the roster as Patrick Marleau did in San Jose after a similar switch before the season. Being relieved of his duties seemed to ignite a spark in Marleau, who has been playing inspired, productive hockey. In Raleigh, the approach to the move is different. The headline reads: Eric Staal replaces Rod Brind'Amour as captain of the 'Canes. The outcry is how can an organization treat an outstanding citizen and accomplished captain of four-plus seasons so cruelly?
The reality is that the Hurricanes have been Staal's team for some time and it was time to acknowledge that fact with a reasoned approach to the team's direction as a whole, the captaincy a piece of the plan. President/GM Jim Rutherford and coach Paul Maurice hunkered down, recast their view of a roster that was not meeting their projected high expectations based on getting all the way to the Eastern Conference Final last spring. They concluded that the best course of action was to increase the roles of emerging young players like Brandon Sutter and Brett Carson. Veterans who have served so well were let in on the plan and were even asked to waive their no-trade clauses.
Harsh? Maybe. Brind'Amour and the rest of the vets instinctively couldn't like the message. That's human nature. But as guys who have been around a while and won a Stanley Cup together, they can't argue with the logic. It's now easier to imagine a quicker turnaround for the Hurricanes with a core led by Staal and goaltender Cam Ward entering its prime. The transference of leadership from Brind'Amour and the veteran likes of Aaron Ward and Ray Whitney will be completed by season's end.
Rutherford's explanation of "why now" boils down to not being delusional about the team's playoff chances this season: "We're far from being a bubble team, never mind a solid playoff team," he says. "It is not what we anticipated, but for many reasons, that's where we find ourselves in the standings. But we can't wait until the offseason to invoke changes. You have to react quickly in the cap era. When you have a chance to win it all, you have to go for it. When it doesn't work out, you have to quickly move on. That's what we're in the process of doing."
At the other end of the spectrum sits GM Ray Shero of the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. His challenge after hoisting the cherished chalice was to replace free agent losses, particularly on the blueline.
"Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi moved on to bigger paydays, which meant we had to assess our young blueliners," Shero says. "We felt both Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang were ready for a heavier load. We added depth with veterans Martin Skoula and Jay McKee. I like our group. With the trade deadline approaching, we could tweak something, but with winning comes cap issues and we're right up against it."
Last year, Shero made the bold coaching move that worked out so well. Dan Bylsma took over for Michel Therrien in February and the story was written. But for Shero, that was a different place than he's in today.
"It was my first time in that situation as a GM," he says. "I'd come to admire and respect what Michel had done for the organization. Still, I didn't like the way we were going. I had to remove myself emotionally and look at the situation from a distance. It wasn't easy, but I'm glad it played out the way it did."
No kidding. A host of other GMs around the league are taking stock of their teams and trying to create an equally impressive result, if not this season, then in the near future, by any means necessary.