An inordinate number of coaches took the long walk in 2002-2003. For one horrifying spell from December to January, there seemed to be a fresh casualty a week. Never before had the job been so tenuous, the patience so thin, the pressure so
Well, brace yourselves, gentlemen, a new season is upon us.
And while, as the old saying goes, all coaches are hired to be fired, there are few probably the victims of more sleepless nights than their peers.
1. Paul Maurice, Hurricanes: The erudite, intelligent Maurice has seemingly survived more assassination attempts than Sammy (The Bull) Gravano. But with the 'Canes tumbling from Stanley Cup finalist two springtimes ago to 30th place in a 30-team league, new bullets are at this very moment being loaded in the gun chamber. Maurice, almost unbelievably, is currently the coach with the longest tenure in his present position. Carolina doesn't figure to be markedly improved from last season and a decent start is crucial to his immediate survival. Ah well, all good things must come to an end, right?
2. Brian Sutter, Blackhawks: Sutter stuck his neck out a year ago when he stumped for the Hawks to shell out $8.5 million and gamble on the highly-talented, vastly-troubled Theoren Fleury. And Fleury might as well have lopped Sutter's head off at the base of the neck by his antics outside a Columbus strip club in February. In Sutter's favor are the fact that the Hawks are painfully slow to do anything, the respect and regard owner Bill Wirtz holds for the Sutter family and the intangibles they bring to any endeavour (which may be what saved the coach's job over the summer), and the uncertain future of general manager Mike Smith. But the heat will be on to be more reminiscent of the team they were two years ago.
3. Claude Julien, Canadiens: Incoming general manager Bob Gainey is accustomed to winning. The Canadiens aren't (anymore). Gainey inherited coach Claude Julien, hired by outgoing general manager Andre Savard, who had led the Habs to a less-than-enthralling 12-16-3-5 record after he replaced Michel Thierrien. This wouldn't seem to the basis for a loving, long-term relationship.
4. Ed Olczyk, Penguins: Well-spoken, personable and popular, Eddie O enters his first season coaching the Pens, and coaching, period. These promotions out of the TV booth rarely pan out. Olczyk is a smart hockey guy and is buds with owners/resident superstar Mario Lemieux, but there's a real fear he'll be too player-friendly, a fatal flaw on a team projected to be as wretched as this one. The Pens dealt their No. 1 goaltender to Vancouver, and outside of Martin Straka and Super Mario, the fowards are an anonymous lot. And, whoa there Babalooey!, don't get us started on that there defense. Say your prayers, Eddie Oh Oh!
5. Glen Sather, Rangers: See below.
And a sampling of general managers sure to be fidgeting in their well-appointed seats ...
The general managers
1. Mike Smith, Blackhawks: The Windy City is a perfect place for Columbo: He always seems to have been standing on the shores of icy Lake Michigan on a particularly blustery early winter day. But Wirtz's patience can't help but be running thin. The Hawks were a revelation two years ago, their first season with Sutter in charge of the bench, but slipped back to harsh reality in 2002-2003. The United Center is virtually empty for Hawks' games now, in what was once a proud Original Six town, and interest is close to flat-lined. Given Wirtz's fondness for Sutter, if the Hawks limp out of the gate, Smith will likely be the first one to go.
2. Glen Sather, Rangers: Slats wears the genius mantle uneasily these days, the salad days of Edmonton now nothing more than a warm, fuzzy memory. Sather the GM has assembled an undeniably talented lineup -- Eric Lindros, Alexei Kovalev, Petr Nedved, Bobby Holik, to name but a few -- for Sather the coach, but one that lacks much cohesion or any conviction whatsoever. Injuries did cripple the Broadway Busts a year ago, but for that payroll, there's not near enough bang for the buck. Sather did little in the way of re-tooling this offseason, probably with an eye towards the pending labor impasse, but also because he continues to argue that the current Ranger lineup is more than enough to crack the elite eight in the Eastern Conference. This year, he'd better be right.
3. Darcy Regier, Sabres: The ultimatum has been laid down by new owner Tom Golisano and manager partner Larry Quint -- make the playoffs, or ... Shorn of the scandal surrounding former owner Tom Rigas, the Sabres have been injected with fresh cash and a new enthusiasm. Golisano is determined to make sure all the old built-in excuses don't cut it anymore. Longtime coach Lindy Ruff signed a three-year deal in the offseason, which puts the onus directly on Regier to upgrade the Sabres' talent level. Chris Drury is promising start.
4. John Ferguson, Jr., Maple Leafs: Would you want this man's job? Nowhere is the fish bowl smaller than in Canada's largest city. Already, Fergie the Younger is finding out. It's not so much about fielding a competitive team (which the Leafs are), or even putting up enviable regular-season numbers. It's about 1967 and all the suffering that's gone on since. The desperation level is, naturally, exceedingly high in Toronto and every player move or rumor or perceived slip-up will be micro-dissected into eternity. Ferguson is the man of choice and the Leafs are far too good a team to put his immediate future at risk, but he'll need a hide as thick and tough as his old man's to deal with arguably the most thankless job in hockey.
5. Doug Wilson, Sharks: He's been groomed for this for years, but piecing together the remnants of a team many felt were on the verge of a legitimate Stanley Cup drive as little as one year ago would be a daunting assignment for an experienced GM. Wilson is beginning his first year on the hot seat. Making matters more complicated, Shark fans, those dedicated disciples in teal, have become accustomed to competitive, contending teams. This one is just swinging around to a rebuilding phase.
George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.