Commentary

These bench bosses are starting to feel the heat

Updated: March 24, 2008, 12:20 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

With less than two weeks left in the regular season, the coaching rumors are starting to percolate. There are already two openings that must be filled during the offseason in Ottawa and Atlanta, and there will likely be a handful of others.

You have to wonder if GM Dean Lombardi is going to look at his dead-last Los Angeles Kings and decide he needs someone other than Marc Crawford behind the bench to take the youthful, talented squad to the playoffs despite their improved play of late.

[+] EnlargeMarc Crawford
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesMarc Crawford and the Kings sit last in the Western Conference with a 30-40-6 record over 76 games.

There also remains a significant belief that unless John Stevens can coach Philadelphia into the postseason, the Flyers will be looking for a new bench boss.

Another coach whose career may be directly tied to how things play out is Jacques Martin, who holds the dual coach/GM portfolio with the Florida Panthers. Another early spring will mark seven straight seasons without a playoff appearance. That might be enough to prompt owner Alan Cohen to make a move even though the Panthers have again played well down the stretch after digging themselves into a big hole.

Ted Nolan appears to have rubbed folks in high places the wrong way with his handling of Islanders netminder forever Rick DiPietro, but the coach has proven he's the real deal as an NHL coach over the past two seasons. If Nolan did get nudged out, he would almost certainly land on his feet, perhaps in Florida, where the team is just short of success and could use a motivator like Nolan.

There's always speculation in Tampa Bay about the job security of coach John Tortorella; but given the loyalty GM Jay Feaster has for Tortorella (there was that 2004 Stanley Cup, after all), don't expect a change there unless new ownership cleans house at the top.

If Feaster stays and Tortorella believed the team needed a change after his almost seven seasons as coach, look for Feaster to call on old pal Bob Hartley to take over the Bolts.

Coaches with a Stanley Cup on their résumé always receive a lot of attention, with good reason, which means Hartley should get a lot of calls. So will Crawford. Both would be attractive in Cup-starved Philadelphia if Stevens' ticket is punched.

Then there's Pat Burns.

There was some talk Burns would step into the Atlanta job when the Thrashers fired Hartley after an 0-6-0 start, but the former coach in Montreal, Toronto, Boston and New Jersey (where he won a Stanley Cup) remained in semi-retirement after recent battle with cancer.

Burns would be an interesting match in Ottawa and certainly a significant departure in personality from the low-key John Paddock. Last month, Paddock was relieved of his duties by GM Bryan Murray, who returned behind the bench in a duel role.

The Ottawa job will be one of the most interesting to watch this offseason, especially if the Sens get bounced early in the playoffs, which many are predicting given their uneven play and lack of dressing-room cohesion.

Hartley, of course, is familiar with star Dany Heatley from their shared time in Atlanta and was especially supportive of Heatley in the weeks and months following the fatal car accident that took teammate Dan Snyder's life in the fall of 2003.

Murray will no doubt want a coach with a thick NHL résumé. Crawford might fit that bill and he's from Eastern Ontario. Of course, it does seem like an awfully long time since Crawford won his Stanley Cup (1996) and his coaching record since in Vancouver and L.A. hasn't been filled with playoff successes.

Many thought associate coach Brad McCrimmon would have been given a chance to take over the Thrashers. That didn't happen, which is unfortunate given the way the bottom has fallen out on Atlanta down the stretch. But there are many who believe McCrimmon would make a fine head coach. He's a former Flyer and hard as nails (his nickname is "Beast"), which might make him a good fit in Philly if there is a vacancy there.

John Anderson, a former player who has had terrific success at the minor-pro level, always appears at the periphery of these kinds of discussions. Given his AHL Chicago Wolves are Atlanta's farm team, it would seem he may get a shot at the Thrashers job. After spending many years toiling in the minors, Bruce Boudreau's success in Washington this season suggests there is merit to that route.

If Crawford goes in Los Angeles, Lombardi will be looking for someone who can be a teacher to his young squad. Mike Sullivan, now an assistant in Tampa, probably didn't get a fair shake in Boston during his only head coaching gig, but he's highly regarded.

Another highly regarded bench boss who needs a strong playoffs to ensure continued employment is Dave Tippett in Dallas. If the Stars falter, Tippett will move to the top of almost everyone's wish list.

Stay tuned.

Slap shots


Maurice
Good week
Don't know which of the two miracle Canadian teams represents the more compelling story, Edmonton or Toronto, but both deserve kudos after being written off long ago. The Leafs and Oilers both had huge wins over divisional rivals Saturday, and while both remain long shots to make the playoffs, their play has revealed a ton of character that many didn't believe existed. While Oilers coach Craig MacTavish seemed pretty secure in his job given the team's injuries and youthfulness, the Leafs' strong play may give whoever takes over in Toronto as GM pause before dismissing coach Paul Maurice.

Bad week
If you think losing four straight games, three against divisional opponents, is a bad thing, then you'd have to qualify last week as a bad one for the Colorado Avalanche. Looking to sneak into the Northwest Division lead a few days ago, the bottom has fallen out on the Avs. Saturday's wild 7-5 loss to Edmonton not only gave the Oilers new playoff life, but it also sets up an interesting return engagement against the Oilers on Friday. Prior to Saturday's shootout, the Avs had managed just four goals in losses to New Jersey, Minnesota and Calgary this past week. Colorado's 23 home wins are second only to Detroit in the conference, but it can't win away from home and it may cost Colorado a playoff berth. Peter Forsberg, where art thou?

Stuck in neutral
While there have been significant improvements made in places like Chicago, Columbus and Phoenix, those steps forward won't yield a playoff berth for any of those teams. As of Monday, the Blackhawks were in 11th place, four points out of eighth -- a reminder that no matter how often someone says change can be affected very quickly in the new NHL, meaningful change takes time. Next season, all three should be playoff teams; if they're not, folks at the top will have to answer for that.

Our top story lines of the week


Hossa

1. It's fine to debate no-touch icing in the wake of Kurtis Foster's gruesome fall into the end boards against San Jose last week, a crash that ended Foster's season with a broken left leg. Sure, if there's no-touch icing, the play never happens; but if Torrey Mitchell doesn't give Foster a push in the back (however slight), that accident never happens. No doubt Mitchell, who was also racing for the puck in the hopes of negating an icing call, didn't mean for Foster to break his leg. But if the league's players knew instinctively that it's going to be a penalty if they hit a player whose back is turned to them, this incident might have been avoided. Rather than reinforcing a stated policy of cracking down on hits from behind, the NHL opted not to suspend Mitchell. Just another in an endless series of head-scratching decisions regarding discipline produced by Colin Campbell.

2. Marian Hossa finally looks like he's hitting his stride in Pittsburgh. The talented winger went down with a groin injury in his first game with the Penguins after the trade deadline (actually he played 10:13) and has played in only five games for Pittsburgh. Still, he collected three assists in a 7-1 thrashing of New Jersey on Saturday, and that was without captain Sidney Crosby (ankle). With Evgeni Malkin making Hart Trophy noise and Crosby expected back before the start of the playoffs, the Pens will boast the league's best 1-2 punch down the middle. Hossa is expected to play with Crosby once the Pens captain returns. But with the Pens suddenly vying for the top spot in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference, it might not matter who Hossa lines up with.

3. As bad as the Dallas Stars have been lately, it might actually help them. After sitting atop the Pacific Division and closing in on Detroit for the Western Conference lead, the Stars have lost four in a row and are 1-7-0 in their last eight. The team doesn't play again until Thursday, but are fifth in the conference, just one point ahead of Calgary. The problem for the Stars and Flames, and even Vancouver, is that finishing fifth almost certainly means a first-round date with defending Cup-champion Anaheim. That's not a good thing. Let's be honest -- finishing sixth and playing the winner of the Northwest Division, whether it's Minnesota or Calgary or Vancouver, is a much more palatable matchup.

4. We had a chance this week to drop in on the new entertainment Web site Hulu.com, where the NHL now has a presence. The site, which launched last week, offers free movies and television shows, and the NHL and NBA are the site's first two major sports providers. The NHL's presence includes current highlights, games, classic games and interviews. For old timers, the whole "new media" promotion of the league may be a bit murky, but for a new generation whose tastes and habits are dramatically different (they don't have television remotes glued to their hands like earlier generations, but rather a BlackBerry), having the NHL available in non-traditional formats is a way to reach out to a market that is vital to expanding the league's profile. Hulu.com has more than 50 providers, including NBC, Fox, MGM, Lionsgate and Sony.

"Ultimately, Hulu wants to be the first place users go to when they think about enjoying premium content online and we are excited to offer hockey fans great NHL highlights and behind-the-scenes videos for free and on demand," Hulu spokesperson Christina Lee said in an e-mail to ESPN.com.

5. Speaking of television, there's a lot more interest in the popular show "Dancing with the Stars" in the Raleigh, N.C., area than in the past. That's because former Olympic figure skating gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, wife of Hurricanes defenseman Bret Hedican, is on the show this season and she scored a record-high result in her first appearance last week. Hedican said he encouraged his wife to take on the show because she had taken time away from her own career over recent years with the couple's two children and the Hurricanes' 2006 playoff run that led to their first Stanley Cup. Both Yamaguchi's and Hedican's mothers have dropped into Raleigh to help with childcare duties while Yamaguchi is filming the show and Hedican is away with the team. In Hedican's hometown of St. Paul, Minn., his sister threw a big party to coincide with Yamaguchi's first appearance. "It was like a Stanley Cup party," Hedican told ESPN.com.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.