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Atlantic: Coaching changes rarely result in Cups

by Adam Kimelman
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only three times in the history of the NHL has a team changed coaches during the season and won the Stanley Cup that same season.

Dick Irvin replaced Art Duncan five games into the 1931-32 season and guided the Leafs to a three-game sweep of the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final.

In 1970-71, Claude Ruel resigned as coach of the Montreal Canadiens, and he was replaced by Al MacNeil for the final 55 games of the season. MacNeil's decision to start rookie Ken Dryden in goal during the playoffs sparked the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup.

The in-season championship-change happened most recently during the 1999-2000 season. The New Jersey Devils fired coach Robbie Ftorek with eight games left in the regular season and promoted assistant Larry Robinson. The Devils finished the regular season 4-4-0, but roared through the playoffs.

They overcame a three-games-to-one series deficit against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals, and then beat the Dallas Stars in six games in the Stanley Cup Final.

Even though it's worked just three times in more than 80 years, it hasn't stopped teams from trying to become the fourth team to capture lightning in a bottle. The Pittsburgh Penguins this weekend joined the Chicago Blackhawks, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes and Ottawa Senators as the fifth team to make a coaching change this season.

It should be noted that of those five teams, only the Blackhawks currently rank in the top eight of their respective conference, sitting fourth in the West.

So can the Penguins and interim coach Dan Bylsma, taking over for Michel Therrien, do what has been tried countless other times?

His first goal is to spark a team that entered Monday's game against the Islanders 4-5-1 in its last 10 and sitting 10th in the Eastern Conference with 59 points, five behind eighth-place Buffalo.

The Penguins earned a point on Long Island by losing 3-2 in a shootout in Bylsma's debut.
The Penguins have struggled to find a scoring forward to play alongside Sidney Crosby, and their special teams have been abysmal -- the Pens are 24th on the power play (16.3 percent) and 20th on the penalty kill (80.6 percent).

Under Therrien, the Penguins resorted to a trapping defense-first style; Bylsma, who had coached the club's American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, has vowed to take the leashes off his offensive players.

"Teams should be forced to deal with our speed and skill and we need to be an aggressive group," Bylsma said in a conference call Sunday. "We're going to try to get the guys on their toes and going, bringing passion and work ethic to the game. If we focus on playing back to our strength and get away from the situation it's been for a while here, you'll see a team that can compete and be a contending team."

Penguins General Manager Ray Shero said Sunday it was unlikely he would make a move similar to last season's blockbuster that brought Marian Hossa to Pittsburgh from Atlanta.

"This is the big move," he said of the coaching change. "The coach of this hockey team is going to see where this is going to take us."

Coaching review -- Judging a coach can be a pretty subjective exercise; wins and losses can't serve as the lone criteria.

Does the team play hard for the coach? Is progress being made? Is there consistency in the game-by-game effort? Those are just some of the variables put into the equation.

While it's certainly too soon to judge Dan Bylsma one game into his tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins, here's a look at the four other bench bosses working in the Atlantic Division:

Brent Sutter, Devils -- The second-year coach has to be the frontrunner for the Jack Adams Award. Injuries decimated the club's lineup for the first half of the season, including the loss of Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur for nearly four months.

With career backup Scott Clemmensen in goal, all New Jersey has done is continue to play at a high level. They entered the week with eight wins in their last 10 games, and an eight-point lead in the division over second-place Philadelphia.

Sutter came into the League with no NHL coaching experience, but that hasn't seemed to hinder him a bit. The players have completely bought into his style of play, and they play hard every night for him. Under Sutter's tutelage, Zach Parise has emerged as an elite scorer and Patrik Elias and Jamie Langenbrunner have rediscovered their games. Brendan Shanahan, signed last month, has been integrated seamlessly into the lineup while displacing long-time mainstay Jay Pandolfo, but there's been no grumbling.

His next challenge will come at the end of the month when Brodeur returns. Clemmensen has played at an All-Star level, but Brodeur is Brodeur. It will interesting to see how the coach handles playing time, but based on his track record, his decision will end up being the right one.

John Stevens, Flyers -- Stevens guided the Flyers from the worst season in franchise history and worst record in the League to the Eastern Conference Finals last season.

Stevens has firm control of his locker room and a good feeling for his team. He rarely goes after his players, but when he does, the message absolutely gets across. The perfect example came Nov. 11, when Stevens benched Scott Hartnell for the third period of a game against the Islanders.

"It looked like he didn't want to play tonight, so we went in another direction," Stevens told reporters that night. "I didn't like his game and didn't think he was moving his feet."

Hartnell's response has been 17 goals and 34 points in 41 games since, and his crash-bang style of play has helped Jeff Carter have a breakout season.

"He (Stevens) is trying to hold guys accountable, and I have no problems sitting if he doesn't think I'm doing a good job," said Hartnell.

Stevens spent six seasons coaching in the American Hockey League, and the experience of working with young players and a roster constantly in flux has helped him with the Flyers. The team never missed a beat when injuries to key players have cropped up, whether it was Simon Gagne last season or Danny Briere this season.

Tom Renney, Rangers -- The Rangers' inconsistent effort this season has clouded the good job Renney has done in his three-plus seasons.

The Rangers were out of the playoffs for seven seasons before Renney replaced Glen Sather late in the 2003-04 season. Since then, they haven't missed the playoffs, and have been to the second round in back-to-back springs.

Following their great start this season, though, the Rangers have been an uneven club. They've had trouble scoring goals and have been close to a .500 club since going 10-2-1 in October.

Renney won't show much emotion publicly, but he isn't afraid to let his players know how he feels, including a recent bag skate.

"I'm intense when I need to be and I can get pretty fired up," he said. "That's something that shouldn't be underestimated. The right attitude and a sense of timing I think is a pretty important coaching trait, and knowing when to do those things. And be yourself. I don't think you can pretend to be anything other than what you are. It's been good to me so far. I have a clear conscience and that's the main thing."

Renney's frequent line combinations has inspired a Web site lampooning the frequent changes, but seeing as no consistent trio has emerged since the season-opening hot streak by the Brandon Dubinsky-Nikolai Zherdev-Aaron Voros threesome, Renney likely is just throwing anything and everything at the wall in hopes of something sticking.

There have been persistent rumors that Renney's job could be in jeopardy, but there's been nothing from Sather to indicate a change is forthcoming.

Scott Gordon, Islanders -- In his first season as an NHL coach, Gordon has been saddled with a rebuilding team that has been gutted by injuries and hampered by inconsistent play.

The first half of the season was enveloped in the soap opera surrounding the condition of goaltender Rick DiPietro, one that didn't finally reach a conclusion until the club shut him down for the season last month.

Gordon has tried to install a high-intensity, heavy forechecking system that relies on good puck movement from the back end to the forwards, but it hasn't caught on enough, and the Islanders have the fewest points in the League.

While the losses pile up, there certainly is hope. Rookies Kyle Okposo and Josh Bailey, the team's future, have made steady progress all season. And Doug Weight, before suffering a sprained knee ligament last week which could end his season, was having a resurgent season.

"They haven't won a lot of games, but they compete extremely hard," Stevens said after his team beat the Islanders, 5-1, on Saturday. "I think Scott Gordon has done a good job there, getting his players coming to play hard."

News and notes -- Bryce Salvador's goal Friday for the Devils against Boston was his first in 21 games. Bruins goalie Tim Thomas said he was trying to steer the puck into the corner with his stick and he whiffed on it. When Salvador tells the story, though, it might sound more like an Ovechkin-caliber move. "I don't get too many goals a year, so I definitely take them when I can," he told The (Bergen) Record. "I'll tell my dad it was top shelf." ... Claude Lemieux played six minutes Sunday against the Devils, but he was happy to be in the lineup at all against his former team. Lemieux was laid up all day Saturday with the flu and didn't expect to be healthy enough to play Sunday. "We've had the flu going around and I got it," he told reporters after Sunday's game. "My wife was going to come in and have a nice weekend with me. She's in Quebec. I canceled everything and was in bed all day. I didn't want her to get sick." Lemieux felt better Sunday, but didn't have much impact, finishing a minus-1 with no shots and one hit. In parts of six seasons with the Devils, Lemieux won two Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy. ... The Flyers hoped Ossi Vaananen would replace the physical element on their blue line they lost in Derian Hatcher, but Vaananen has been a disappointment. He was on the ice for all three goals the Flyers allowed in a 3-1 loss to Boston on Feb. 4. He played a combined nine minutes in the next two games, and then has been a healthy scratch in three-straight contests. "I should be more consistent," Vaananen told the Delaware County Times. "I've had some ups and downs and I need to be more consistent. Any player feels good when you're involved, and I feel like I haven't been battling like I should." Vaananen is fourth on the team with 83 hits, and fifth with 72 blocked shots. ... Here's an example of "the code" when it comes to fighting, from Sunday's Flyers-Rangers game: Rangers defenseman Paul Mara injured his right shoulder during a third-period altercation with the Flyers' Arron Asham, and after the game said, "I give Asham a lot of credit. When he knew I was hurt, he stopped." ... Islanders center Doug Weight might miss the rest of the season with a sprained MCL in his left knee last week. After an awful 2007-08, Weight was having a good season on Long Island, and Newsday reported Weight's agent and Isles GM Garth Snow have had preliminary talks on a contract extension for Weight, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent July 1. Weight would serve as an excellent mentor the Islanders' growing crop of young players, which could include top pick John Tavares next season. ... Wade Redden's two assists Sunday against the Flyers snapped a 10-game point drought, and it was just his third point in 18 games. Redden appeared to have scored the Rangers' second goal in the 5-2 loss, but it was awarded to Nikolai Zherdev. Redden has two goals this season, but he scored them in back-to-back games Oct. 5 and 10. ... Going into Monday's game in St. Louis, the Rangers were 1-for-31 on the power play in the last nine games, and 0-for-19 in their last four.

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