Search

Inside The NHL

Feb. 01, 1999
Feb. 01, 1999

Table of Contents
Feb. 1, 1999

Faces In The Crowd

Inside The NHL

THE BIG SPILL
Future Hall of Famer Paul Coffey's cup is nearly empty in
Carolina

This is an article from the Feb. 1, 1999 issue Original Layout

Do you remember Paul Coffey, the breathtakingly talented
defenseman who created goals at will, helping the Oilers win
three Stanley Cups in the 1980s and the Penguins earn the '91
title? By the end of the 1991-92 season Coffey had more career
goals and assists than any defenseman in history. Then, playing
for the Red Wings during the lockout-marred 1994-95 season, he
won the Norris Trophy for the third time. Do you remember all
that?

If you do, and if you cherish those memories, don't watch Coffey
toil for the Hurricanes. At 37 he is performing with an
ineptness so profound it sometimes obscures the greatness of his
past. He's playing with his fifth team in the past 2 1/2
years--Carolina acquired him from the Blackhawks in December for
right wing Nelson Emerson--and the magnitude of his fall is
perhaps unparalleled in the NHL. "The game is still fun," says
Coffey, whose contract pays him $2.5 million this year and next.
"That's why I'm playing."

While two other aging superstars from the Oilers' dynasty, the
Rangers' Wayne Gretzky and the Canucks' Mark Messier, led their
teams in scoring through Sunday, Coffey no longer makes an
offensive impact. Limited in part by chronic knee and back
ailments, Coffey had 29 points in 57 games last year with the
Flyers and has only seven assists in 20 games this season.
Defensively he's a liability.

Evidence of Coffey's decline emerged during the 1996-97 season,
after the Red Wings traded him in October '96 to the Whalers for
left wing Brendan Shanahan. Unhappy in Hartford--he asked to be
traded--Coffey was shipped to the Flyers for defenseman Kevin
Haller two months later. When Philadelphia met Detroit in the
Cup finals, Coffey, who had played erratically in the
postseason, was exploited so regularly that everyone agreed he
was the Red Wings' best player. Last spring Coffey was a healthy
scratch in all five of Philadelphia's playoff games.

The Blackhawks acquired Coffey before this season in the hope
that he could generate offense as a power-play specialist. But
in Chicago, and now in Carolina, he has failed to do even that.
Last Thursday, Coffey returned to Detroit and helped Carolina
lose 4-1. The puck often slid off his stick, his passes bounced
off Red Wings shins, and he was beaten by unheralded forwards.
Afterward Coffey called himself "my own worst critic." Then he
said he believes he can still play well. Publicly teammates and
opponents discuss Coffey with respect and deflect talk of his
performance. Instead, they recall his glorious past.

Islanders
MILBURY IS GOING THROUGH THE MILL

Several months ago Islanders general manager and coach Mike
Milbury compared his former duties as a television analyst to
running a team. "TV's easy," he said. "All you do is spout off
about hockey. Being a manager, that's hard." That explains why
Milbury made the right decision last week in stepping down as
coach. But even with a lightened load, Milbury may be
overburdened.

Because he's bright and passionate and his resume includes 12
seasons as a fearless Bruins defenseman followed by a 90-49-21
record as Boston's coach in 1989-90 and 1990-91, Milbury was
welcomed into the fold of general managers when he took that job
with the Islanders in 1995. Since then New York has gone
95-161-36--including 58-111-24 during his stints as
coach--without making the playoffs. New coach Bill Stewart, who
was an assistant under Milbury, takes over a club that entered
the All-Star break with the second-worst record (14-29-3) in the
NHL.

Milbury's reign showed early promise when he stockpiled talented
young players, mostly through trades. The acquisitions included
defensemen Bryan Berard, Kenny Jonsson and Bryan McCabe, forward
Todd Bertuzzi and goalie Eric Fichaud. But Milbury quickly soured
on some of the youngsters and made some ill-advised deals. His
harebrained swap of the 21-year-old Berard for rusty 27-year-old
Maple Leafs goalie Felix Potvin earlier this month has been
widely criticized.

Favored by the media for his candor, Milbury is also known for
singling out players for recrimination and for driving hard
bargains. Earlier this season during negotiations with sniper
Ziggy Palffy, Milbury opined that Palffy's agent Paul Kraus was
"depriving some small village of a pretty good idiot." As the
season has unfolded, however, Milbury has become increasingly
muted and has taken on the look of a man humbled by his
failings. Now, despite the five-year, $3.5 million deal he
signed last summer to be general manager and coach, his future
is uncertain. The New York ownership group is being
restructured, and the new leadership has to decide whether
turning around the fortunes of the Islanders is too hard a job
for Milbury.

Mike Keenan's Firing
WE'LL BE SEEING HIM AGAIN

Canucks general manager Brian Burke has done what seemed
impossible: He has turned controversial coach Mike Keenan into a
sympathetic figure. After fiery exits from the Flyers,
Blackhawks, Rangers and Blues over the past 15 years, Keenan was
canned by Burke on Sunday and replaced by former Avalanche coach
Marc Crawford.

Keenan was hired as Canucks coach and de facto G.M. in November
1997, and he revamped the struggling team by making 10 trades in
five months, including a deal that brought forward Todd Bertuzzi
and defenseman Bryan McCabe from the Islanders. Many around the
league suggested that if the overbearing but perennially
successful Keenan didn't revive the Canucks, it would be the
last time he'd have complete control over an NHL roster. Then
Burke was hired in June, and he undercut Keenan, refusing to
trade star holdout Pavel Bure until last week. Had Bure been
traded at the start of the season, the players Burke would have
gotten in return would surely have given Keenan a better chance
to succeed. Though Vancouver went just 36-54-18 under Keenan,
the team appeared to be making progress. Now, thanks to Burke,
Keenan may soon get a chance to shape another team.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Carolina's Coffey, thrice a Norris Trophy winner, has no goals and only seven assists this season. [Paul Coffey checking player]

BUST AND BARGAIN

LW MARTIN RUCINSKY
Canadiens
1998-99 salary: $2 million

With nine goals and 13 assists at week's end, he was having his
worst season since his rookie year, 1991-92, and his lackluster
play had helped set the tone for Montreal (17-21-8).

LW SHAWN MCEACHERN
Senators
1998-99 salary: $1.1 million

With 21 goals and 18 assists at week's end, he was having his
best season since his rookie year, 1991-92, and his sparkling
play had helped set the tone for Ottawa (25-14-6).