Early NHL struggles can lead to changes

Originally published in Eishockey News in 2007

By Lucas Aykroyd

Life would be so much simpler for NHL coaches if every team won all its home games in overtime. In fact, it’s hard to imagine any other scenario where all coaches could succeed in keeping their jobs. However, the fans would probably start to get suspicious soon.

Since teams do end up with losing records, coaches end up getting fired, and it doesn’t take long in this league. After Atlanta suffered six straight losses to open the season, GM Don Waddell decided enough was enough. On October 17, he fired Bob Hartley, who won a Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2001 and had stood behind Atlanta’s bench since 2003.

Even though the Thrashers responded the next day with their first win of 2007-08, beating the New York Rangers 5-3, questions still surround the club.

Waddell, serving as Atlanta’s interim coach, could soon find his job in jeopardy if his players don’t engineer a rapid rise in the standings. He’s been criticized for dealing first-round picks at last year’s trade deadline to get Keith Tkachuk and Alexei Zhitnik and then getting swept in the opening round. Atlanta has also provided fodder for European-bashers like Hockey Night in Canada commentator Don Cherry, as the struggling Thrashers are the only NHL team with a European captain (Bobby Holik) and four European assistants (Ilya Kovalchuk, Slava Kozlov, Marian Hossa, and Niclas Havelid). More importantly, starting goalie Kari Lehtonen injured his groin versus the Rangers and will remain out indefinitely, which seems unpleasantly similar to the nagging groin injury that kept the Finn to 38 games in 2005-06.

Other Eastern Conference teams also have goaltending issues. Most observers expected ex-San Jose Shark Vesa Toskala to take over the starting duties in Toronto from Andrew Raycroft, who won a club record 37 games last year but posted a mediocre 2.99 GAA and .894 save percentage. However, both goalies have been shelled on several occasions.

While Toskala has shown signs of improvement, there are still no easy answers for coach Paul Maurice, who wants an improved overall defensive effort from his group. (Or at least no more own goals like the one Bryan McCabe accidentally scored in overtime versus the Buffalo Sabres on October 15.) The Toronto media is also virtually placing bets on when heavily criticized GM John Ferguson Jr. will lose his job.

After goalie Marc-Andre Fleury started the season shakily, the Pittsburgh Penguins are questioning whether the 22-year-old Quebecker needs a more reliable backup than Dany Sabourin, who won just two games in nine appearances as Roberto Luongo’s 2006-07 understudy in Vancouver. Could bringing in a currently unemployed veteran like Curtis Joseph be the answer?

New Jersey normally has no worries in goal, but this season, three-time Stanley Cup and Vezina Trophy winner Martin Brodeur has looked poor so far. After years of benefiting from the Devils’ patented neutral zone trap and tight coverage in their own end, Brodeur is still adjusting to New Jersey’s more aggressive puck pursuit system under new head coach Brent Sutter, which allows more opposition scoring chances.

In the Western Conference, the biggest “hot spot” so far has been Los Angeles. The Kings, mired near the bottom of the standings, haven’t solidified their netminding. Dan Cloutier is earning $3.1 million in the minors, and the club decided to return promising youngster Jonathan Bernier to the QMJHL’s Lewiston MAINEiacs after four NHL games rather than ruin his confidence.

Coach Marc Crawford hopes Jason LaBarbera, who recorded the AHL’s lowest GAA last season, will be the answer, but the 27-year-old still hasn’t established himself at the top level since playing his first NHL game in 2001. “The opportunity was there all training camp,” said LaBarbera. “I know it’s an opportunity and I’ve been working to take advantage of it.”

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