Monday, October 1
By Mike Heika
Special to ESPN.com
When it comes to coaches, it's hard to decide whether the NHL is
cruel or kind.
Do you back the league for giving everyone from equipment salesmen to
factory workers a fair chance to earn a job? Or do you curse a
fraternity of management that blames its bench bosses on everything
from whiny superstars to bad ice?
The hockey carousel has spun around a few more times this season and
there are plenty of success stories from Dallas' Ken Hitchcock (a
former equipment salesman who has earned a three-year contract
extension) to Colorado's Bob Hartley (a former windshield factory
worker who has earned a Stanley Cup). Of course, there are also
seemingly unfair firings in Anaheim (good guy Guy Charron is fired
for being too optimistic) and Boston (Mike Keenan reforms himself and
still gets the axe).
But that's what makes the league so exciting. Now, coaches who were
kind of cheated a few years ago (Brian Sutter and Robbie Ftorek) are
back and coaches who have never before been given the chance (Peter
Laviolette and Greg Gilbert) are in.
Here's a rundown on what to expect from the new guys this season:
Peter Laviolette, New York Islanders
There are plenty of success stories for Peter Laviolette to pattern
his coaching career after. A hard-working player who had a cup of
coffee in the NHL (12 games with the Rangers in 1988-89), a player
who had to use his smarts over his talent, a guy who didn't mind
working his way up through the minors with the Providence Bruins,
Laviolette isn't much different than Bobby Francis or Joel
Quenneville or Bill Barber. Of course, he's also not that different
from Butch Goring -- the guy who got fired with the Islanders last
Laviolette, 36, is a two-time Olympian (1988 and '94) and played
minor league hockey until 1997 before taking over as coach of the
Wheeling Nailers of the East Coast Hockey League. Two seasons later,
in his first season in Providence, he led the team to the Calder Cup
as American Hockey League champions in 1999 and also performed
magnificently in 2000 as he pushed his injury-riddled team into the
playoffs. After one year as an assistant with the Bruins, Laviolette
is now being given the chance to run the Islanders by former buddy
Laviolette was a disciplined defenseman when he played and he is
expected to bring the same qualities to his first head coaching gig.
He's regarded as a player's coach and he should have his hands full
with a collection of talent that was stirred heavily over the summer
by the additions of Alexei Yashin, Michael Peca and Chris Osgood. If
you thought Milbury put pressure on the four previous coaches he's
fired, wait until you see what Laviolette has to endure.
Robbie Ftorek, Boston Bruins
When last we saw Ftorek, he had the Devils in first place in the
Eastern Conference and was looking forward to a serious run at a
Stanley Cup. He was half right. Ftorek was fired with eight games
remaining in the regular season and then could only look on in
stunned silence as Larry Robinson led the Devils to the 2000 NHL
It hardly seemed fair at the time, but those who watched the change
being made in New Jersey said Ftorek had lost the Devils and that
they never would have won the Cup had he remained the coach. And, in
truth, his team cratered in a first-round elimination from the 1999
playoffs, despite a 105-point regular season.
Ftorek, 49, was a high school star in Boston and is expected to be
helped by the return to his roots. He's not expected to be helped
much by management, which has already alienated 95-point scorer Jason
Allison and free-agent-to-be Bill Guerin. Ftorek previously coached
the Kings in 1988-89, but he made his name when he took the Devils'
talented minor league affiliate in Albany, N.Y., to the 1995 Calder
With a young team, the Bruins are hoping Ftorek will have a softer
touch than previously-hired-and-fired Pat Burns and Mike Keenan.
Although based on the accomplishments of those two veterans when they
led the Bruins the past two seasons (and the seemingly unexplainable
firings of both), it's hard to imagine Ftorek (or anyone, for that
matter) doing a much better job of directing the talent on hand.
Brian Sutter, Chicago Blackhawks
All Brian Sutter has to do in Chicago is exactly the same thing he
did two years ago with the Calgary Flames -- and that's produce a
hard-working, fun-to-watch team out of a group of prospects and
hangers-on. Of course, that impressive performance inexplicably got
Sutter fired in Calgary, so there's really no telling what the future
holds in Chicago this season.
Quite possibly the most intense of all the Sutter brothers, Brian is
the all-time family leader in penalty minutes with 1,786 in 779 NHL
games. Still, his fierce drive has paid off in his coaching career
with a 360-319-103 record in 10 NHL seasons. His teams have made the
playoffs seven times.
His best work came in leading the Bruins to a 109-point campaign in
1992-93, but he watched that team get eliminated in the first round.
He pushed the Blues to a 105-point season in 1990-91, but saw that
team lose in the second round.
Although Sutter may have more talent in Chicago than he did in
Calgary, things won't be easy with the Blackhawks this year -- they
have little hope of making the playoffs and likely will have to deal
with trade rumors concerning Tony Amonte all season. But look for
Sutter to get a lot from players like Eric Daze and Alexei Zhamnov,
who could use a stern leader after floundering under the laid-back
Bryan Murray, Anaheim Mighty Ducks
Few new coaches can boast the 484-368-123 record of Bryan Murray.
Few new coaches can boast a Jack Adams Award. Few new coaches can
spin tales of how they have directed players like Rod Langway and
Steve Yzerman. Of course, few new coaches can also say they're going
behind the bench full-time for the first time since 1993.
Murray, 53, has a great track record. He led the Washington Capitals
for eight seasons, helped break in the new Red Wings as coach and GM
from 1990-94 and helped build the Florida Panthers into Eastern
Conference champs when he took over as GM in 1994. However, he was
canned by the Panthers last season and now he's getting a fresh start
as a coach again with a team that is struggling mightily.
Murray's experience will help him deal with superstar Paul Kariya. It
also should help him stay calm in the face of fading fan interest and
rising team frustration. Already, Murray is looking smart as he and
GM Pierre Gauthier have improved the team's defense and solidified
the goaltending. If Anaheim buys into a defense-first system, Murray
could surprise some people. Then again, if the Ducks improve 20
points over last season's 66 (24-41-11-5), they still probably miss
the playoffs in the West.
Greg Gilbert, Calgary Flames
Officially, Gilbert's career NHL record is 4-8-2, compiled after
taking over the Flames from Don Hay late last season. Unofficially,
this is a new start for Gilbert, who is being given a team that has
undergone drastic changes in the offseason. Gilbert, 38, is expected
to rule with fevered speeches and fiery energy, as he showed last
season when he told the Flames that he would not tolerate whining or
non-believing. Raised by such NHL greats as Al Arbour and Mike Keenan
(with whom he won three Stanley Cups combined as a player), Gilbert
has used that no-excuses formula to prod the Blues' minor league
teams to winning seasons.
Now, the question is whether that approach will work with a team that
last season showed little direction. Gilbert has been given the
backing of his GM, Craig Button, who has cleared out the perceived
malcontents and brought in leaders like Craig Conroy, Rob Niedermayer
and Bob Boughner. Now, it's up to Gilbert to see if he can get the
team to play together against tough odds in the Western Conference.
Expect there to be plenty of sparks.
Duane Sutter, Florida Panthers
He's not really new, having taken over in December of 2000, but this
will be the first season that Duane Sutter gets his chance to really
put his mark on this team. President Bill Torrey served as GM
throughout the summer and tried to assemble a team that more
reflected Sutter's style. Yes, the addition of Valeri Bure to his
brother Pavel is quite un-Sutter-like, but adding Jason Weimer helps
balance things out.
Duane is the rookie among Sutter brother head coaches, as this is his
first gig. He went 16-20-6-4 down the stretch, a marked improvement
over the Panthers' start under Terry Murray. Sutter's history is as a
scout an assistant coach, so he'll have to learn the nuances of
motivation, but with four Stanley Cup rings he does know a little
something about winning.
Sutter's three years as a head coach in minor hockey with the
Indianapolis Ice (66-92-20) weren't sparkling, but he's learned a lot
since he ended that stint in 1995.
John Tortorella, Tampa Bay Lightning
At 43, Tortorella has a vast and varied coaching background. He
played collegiately at Maine and kicked around Sweden and the
Atlantic Coast Hockey League, where he eventually moved into the
position of head coach and GM in 1986. He was hired to run the New
Haven Nighthawks of the American Hockey League in 1988 and has
maintained a strong relationship with Lightning GM Rick Dudley ever
He served as an assist to Dudley with the Buffalo Sabres and then
landed as the head coach of their top farm team, the Rochester
Americans, and won a Calder Cup in 1996. He also has served as an
assistant with the Phoenix Coyotes and New York Rangers.
With that kind of background, Tortorella knows NHL players. But
whether he can make that work on a struggling Lightning team that is
trying to win now will have to wait to be seen. The bottom line is he
has to coach both for now and for the future, and that's not easy to
Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News is a regular contributor to