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Flyers' Stevens suddenly dean of Atlantic coaches

by Adam Kimelman
Flyers coach John Stevens is in just his third season behind the bench in Philadelphia, but today he is the dean of coaches in the Atlantic Division. In fact, he and New Jersey's Brent Sutter are the only coaches to still hold the same job since the end of last season.

Even more amazing, Stevens is third in the Eastern Conference in current tenure with the same team, behind only Buffalo's Lindy Ruff and Montreal's Guy Carbonneau, who has him by a whole eight games.

"It's a little scary," Stevens told when informed of his distinction. "Everybody wants to be No. 1 and they're trying to find the right mix of coaches and players. It's a very competitive business."

At the end of last season, the Islanders parted ways with Ted Nolan, and this season has seen the Penguins fire Michel Therrien and the Rangers dismiss Tom Renney.

All Therrien did was lead the Pens to the Stanley Cup Final this past spring, while Renney ended a seven-season playoff drought on Broadway by getting the Rangers into the playoffs three-straight springs, including consecutive trips to the second round.

None of that mattered, though.

"The memory is short," Stevens said. "It's not what happened last year; it's what's happening now. … I think it's an indication of how competitive the division and the East is and how high expectations are for everybody."

The expectations facing Stevens are no different.

When he took over the Flyers eight games into the 2006-07 season, they finished with the worst record in the League. Last season, though, after a massive roster overhaul, the Flyers made a surprising run to the Eastern Conference Finals. This season, the team sits fourth in Eastern Conference and second in the Atlantic Division, nine points behind the Devils.

All that success, though, doesn't mean Stevens has been free of worry about his job security. Any prolonged losing streak or slump starts the questioning -- like the season-opening six-game losing streak.

"The speculation from the outside is never going to change how we do our job," said Stevens. "The only thing you can control is how hard you work to make your team as competitive as possible."

While the competition on the ice is what fans watch, there's just as intense a competition going on between the coaches. With that intensity, though, comes a large measure of compassion.

NHL coaches are 30 members of the same fraternity, and when one is down and out, others often are there to lend a helping hand. When one coach is fired, he often can expect a few dozen phone calls, texts or e-mails from his brothers-in-arms.

Stevens said he'll often reach out to coaches he's had a relationship with to make sure their spirits stay up.

"I left Tom a message and he left me a message back," Stevens said. "If I had contact with him before (I'll call). As a coach you feel for anybody in that situation because you know how hard they work. Sometimes changes are made for a variety of reasons. From a coaching standpoint, you know how dedicated they are and how much they care. You certainly feel for anybody going through that because you understand the work that goes into it. I haven't met a coach yet who isn't the most caring, passionate person on his team."

While Stevens can empathize with his dismissed coaching brethren, he has yet to experience what being fired feels like. While he was cut from teams during his 15 years as a professional defenseman -- including 53 NHL games in the 1980s and early '90s with the Flyers and Hartford Whalers -- Stevens never has been fired as a coach.

He started as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Phantoms, the Flyers' AHL team, in 1998-99 following a career-ending eye injury suffered earlier that season. He coached the Phantoms for six seasons, then joined Ken Hitchcock's staff with the Flyers for the 2006-07 season. When Hitchcock was fired eight games into the season, Stevens took the reins.

When asked if being cut from a team could compare to being fired as a coach, Stevens said the two were completely different.

"When that happens (getting cut from a team), you're still playing, you still have a livelihood," he said. "When it happens with a coach, it comes to an abrupt end."

Keeping his options open -- Islanders owner Charles Wang is a Long Island resident and has no desire to move his hockey team from its current home. But for the first time, Wang openly discussed the possibility of re-locating the franchise.

Wang has been working since 2007 on the Lighthouse Project, a 150-acre development project that would include a new arena for the Islanders. There is hope ground could be broken by the summer. So far, though, there have been continued delays, which has led to Wang's exasperation.

When asked recently by a Newsday reporter if the decision to play an exhibition game next season in Kansas City was a subtle message to the town of Hempstead and Nassau County, Wang replied, "I don't think it was that subtle."

When asked about possibly moving the team, Wang said, "I'm not contemplating it; I'm not negotiating with anyone, but I continue to keep my options open -- and they should be open all the time."

The Islanders' lease ties them to Long Island until 2015, but Wang said there is language in the deal that would allow him to move the team. A 2007 agreement between the club and Nassau County says that once a lease is submitted for the development of a new arena and 150 acres of county-owned property, the county legislature has 120 days to approve it; if there's no approval in that time frame, the team can leave.

Wang said he has no interest in exercising that clause, but said the possibility is there.

"Ultimately, if you don't want to go to a game because the arena is a dump, I lose, the county loses, everybody loses," said Wang. "I want this thing to proceed. We can talk and talk, but we've got to get off our butts. Let's get it done."

How's the arm, Marty? -- If there was any rust on Martin Brodeur, he certainly has shaken it off in record time.

In his first three starts after missing almost four months following surgery to repair a torn tendon in his left arm, he's 3-0-0 with a 0.67 goals-against average, .970 save percentage and a pair of shutouts. He had a 24-save shutout in his first game, a 4-0 victory against the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday, and then stopped 15 of 17 shots in a 7-2 defeat Saturday of the Florida Panthers.

On Sunday, he made 27 saves in a shutout of the Philadelphia Flyers, giving him an even 100 shutouts for his career. He's the second goaltender ever to reach the century mark in shutouts, and is four from passing Terry Sawchuk's all-time record of 103. The three wins also give him 547 for his career, four shy of Patrick Roy's standard of 551.

"It's a big number," Brodeur told reporters after his historic blanking of Philadelphia. "It's hard to believe a little bit because you go out and play and have shutouts and there's only one other guy that got to that 100 plateau, so it's kind of nice."

Brodeur said he also had to make his first significant glove save Sunday when he snared a Scott Hartnell shot. Neither the Avalanche nor the Panthers went after Brodeur's glove (left) side.

"I've been fortunate," he said. "Nobody has been shooting too much that side. I don't know if my defensemen are playing for me not to get shots to the glove side, but it's been good."

Brodeur said everything has been good in his first games after a 50-game absence following November surgery to reattach the distal biceps tendon in his left arm. It's the longest in-season injury absence of his prolific career.

"I've been fortunate. Nobody has been shooting too much that side. I don't know if my defensemen are playing for me not to get shots to the glove side, but it's been good."
-- Martin Brodeur

"I feel pretty good," he said. "I've worked so hard to get to where I am. (Getting tired) was not really my concern. I know I didn't play for a long time, but I worked out as hard as I could. Even if I would have played games, I don't think I would have worked as hard as I did in the last two months. So I know physically I was going to be OK. Now it's really getting my game, my sharpness back and I think the games went pretty well for me."

Changing the culture -- Fans knew there would be lots of changes when John Tortorella took over as coach of the Rangers. His fiery, blunt personality is the opposite end of the spectrum from the laid-back, player-friendly Tom Renney.

Through the first three games of Tortorella's tenure, there has been a major change in the Rangers' play. It culminated in a six-goal outburst Saturday night in a win against the Colorado Avalanche.

The changes go beyond the team's play on the ice, though.

"One of the first things that John told us was, 'Remember who the (expletive) you are, remember what jersey you wear and be proud of yourselves,'" goalie Henrik Lundqvist told the New York Post.

"I don't think there's been a better feeling in this room all year," said defenseman Paul Mara. "There's a sense that we're ready to take off from here."

Tortorella, though, gave all the credit to the players.

"It isn't about me," he said. "I'm privileged to be here but it's not about me. It's about a hockey team trying to find its way after going through a little bit of an ordeal the last few weeks. It's about the team trying to get into the playoffs."

News and notes -- "Smile Pinki," which won the Oscar for Best Documentary, Short Subject, was about a young Indian girl who undergoes surgery to repair a cleft lip thanks to Smile Train, a charitable organization which was founded by Islanders owner Charles Wang. … With 38 goals in his first 62 games, Devils forward Zach Parise could become the first 50-goal scorer in franchise history. The club record is 48, set by Brian Gionta in 2005-06. … Jaime Langenbrunner's goal Sunday against the Flyers was No. 200 of his career. … A quirk in travel plans and schedule saw the Penguins and Anaheim Ducks sharing the same hotel in Dallas one day last week, which allowed Ryan Whitney, the former Pens defenseman dealt to the Ducks last week, to have breakfast with a few former teammates. … Sidney Crosby's road roommate this season had been Whitney. Last season, it was Colby Armstrong, who was traded to Atlanta at the trade deadline. "I don't think anybody wants to room with me anymore," Crosby told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. ... Flyers center Danny Briere returned Sunday after missing 36 games following surgery to his stomach/groin area. In 16:48 of ice time, he had one shot, one hit, two penalty minutes and went 3-for-10 on faceoffs. "I'm disappointed about the loss, but for myself, it was my first game and I'm just glad to get over that hump," Briere told reporters. "I won't have to constantly look back and think about the injury any more." … Islanders defenseman Brendan Witt was suspended five games for his elbow to the head of Toronto's Niklas Hagman on Feb. 26. He's eligible to return March 10, when the Islanders are scheduled to play -- you guessed it -- Toronto. That's assuming Witt isn't traded before Wednesday's deadline. … Islanders rookie center Josh Bailey took part in Saturday's Right To Play League-wide charity event. Players made donations to the international charity based on minutes played, and could make them in the name of a coach or role model who influenced them. Bailey chose the late Mickey Renaud, his teammate with the OHL's Windsor Spitfires who died in February 2008 at age 19 due to a rare heart condition. "It's great to be able to help out with such a great cause like Right to Play," Bailey told the Islanders' Web site. "Hockey has given me so much in my life, so hopefully I can give the same opportunities to other kids. Doing this in honor of a great friend and teammate makes this even more special."

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