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Coaching changes can bring risk and reward for hockey pool owners

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Just six games into the NHL season and the Atlanta Thrashers had enough of winless coach Bob Hartley. He was given the axe and not a single tear was shed in fantasy hockey.

Would you expect otherwise? Poolies are not a loyal or sentimental at the best of times. And when their players are struggling, they are downright hard-hearted.

Ilya Kovalchuk could be better while Slava Kozlov and Marian Hossa are certainly underperforming. So if a change behind the bench can create some production on the ice, then to poolies it's bye bye, coach. See you later. Oh, and better luck in your next job.

But can a new coach really make a difference in fantasy hockey? Well, yes and no.

After four straight seasons with 50-some points, it appears Rick Nash of the Blue Jackets is going to bust out this year. The reason, according to Wayne Gretzky, is new Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock.

"Hitch is working with him and he's destined to be a superstar," said the Great One, who knows a thing or two about superstars. This is fantastic news to Nash's owners, but other poolies will wish Hitchcock could work similar magic on the seriously slumping Sergei Fedorov and David Vyborny.

When Mike Keenan took the reins in Calgary, prognosticators wondered whether Iron Mike's strong personality would bring the team together or tear it apart. One thing's for certain, they predicted: Flames forward Kristian Huselius would be a total mess because Keenan ran him out of town when both were in Florida.

Well, either Huselius has matured or Keenan has mellowed because the big Swede has nine points in eight games and poolies who took a chance on him are now patting themselves on the back.

Be aware, however, that Huselius is the only top Flame with a negative plus/minus rating. The door to the doghouse is not locked tight just yet.

Waiver Watch

Poolies certainly love the coaches who favour a wide-open game or instil an all-out effort at both ends of the rink.

That's the case in Boston where new coach Claude Julien promised to make his Bruins bust their butts on every shift. Not only might young players like Phil Kessel and Chuck Kobasew step it up this year, but Patrice Bergeron is finally accepting his role as team leader.

The increased intensity also means both Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez are good starts in goal.

Coaching changes don't always work out so positively.

In New Jersey, incoming coach Brent Sutter said he'd adjust the team's traditional defence-first mindset this year. That change in philosophy might be the reason why Travis Zajac has emerged as a quality pool player or why checking forward John Madden has six points in eight games this year.

Overall, however, the Devils are still a low-scoring team. The real downside has been at the other end where goaltender Martin Brodeur is having the worst start of his career.

Injury Update

No-one should even think about dropping or reserving Brodeur but if you need a goaltender in your pool, grab Johan Hedberg of the Thrashers right away. Kari Lehtonen is down indefinitely with a groin injury and those things can take a long time to heal.

There's a new coach in Atlanta, remember, so maybe under Don Waddell the Thrashers might actually win a few games.

Poolies might want Erik Cole to stick to hockey. The Canes winger will miss at least a week after injuring his foot in a soccer game.

They are probably also wishing Sheldon Souray would keep his skilled hands on his hockey stick. The high-scoring Oilers defenceman separated his shoulder in a fight and is out indefinitely. Joni Pitkanen is now the team's top blue-liner but is more a liability than a viable option in fantasy hockey.

Another power forward, Todd Bertuzzi of the Ducks, will also be sitting out a week. Big Bert is recovering from a concussion suffered Oct. 14.

Some players to watch or watch out for in your hockey pool this week:

Who's Hot

1. W Nik Antropov, Maple Leafs. Tidy streak of a goal and assist in four straight games.

2. RW Jarome Iginla, Flames. Ten points in four games launches his MVP campaign.

3. C Travis Zajac, Devils. Speedy sophomore making the most of stint on the top line.

4. D Chris Campoli, Islanders. New power-play quarterback has four-point game.

5. G Chris Osgood, Red Wings. Unbeaten backup has .932 save percentage, 1.67 GAA.

Who's Not

1. C Petr Prucha, Rangers. One goal in six games. So much promise, so little production.

2. LW Ladislav Nagy, Kings. Perennial underachiever a healthy scratch in two games.

3. C Sergei Fedorov, Blue Jackets. Dumped off the top line and now virtually invisible.

4. D Joni Pitkanen, Oilers. Scored in first game but no points and minus-6 in past five.

5. G Chris Mason, Predators. Five straight losses after opening season with two wins.

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Greg Dennis can be reached at theCanadianpress.pool(at)hotmail.com.

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