Martin firing undermines Senators' credibility

Updated: April 23, 2004, 11:35 AM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

It's not surprising that Jacques Martin got the ax as coach of the Ottawa Senators.

A first-round exit at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs, coupled with a playoff series record of 4-12 with an elite-level team, pretty much made that a foregone conclusion.

Jacques Martin
Jacque Martin was 341-255-96 in just over eight seasons as head coach of the Senators.
What is surprising is the timing of the move -- less than 48 hours after Martin's team bowed to the Leafs for the fourth time in as many postseason meetings under his tenure.

"We felt we have to go in a new direction and with a new voice in the locker room," general manager John Muckler said after firing the coach he inherited.

That may be true, but the timing of the announcement undermines Muckler's stance. Instead of it appearing the decision was made after a thorough review, it seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to a brutal postseason disappointment at the behest of an emotional and temperamental owner.

Eugene Melnyk, the pharmaceutical giant who rescued the Senators from bankruptcy last season, blistered the team in a dressing room tirade in the bowels of the Air Canada Centre after the Game 7 loss to the Leafs on Tuesday. To those outside the room, the ranting was clearly audible. There were even reports -- unsubstantiated, but numerous -- that Melnyk engaged in a little chair throwing to reinforce his frustration.

While Melnyk is well within his rights to fire the coach whenever the spirit moves him, there are some extenuating factors involved that cried out for patience.

For one, Martin is an excellent coach. He amassed a 341-255-96 record behind the Ottawa bench and won the Adams Award as coach of the year in 1998-99. He served on the staff that guided Team Canada to the gold medal at the 2002 Olympic Games and has been appointed to the same position for the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. It's not unreasonable to consider him an asset on the open market, one that would have called for a negotiated release, perhaps even one that would bring compensation from another team (say the New York Rangers). This is, after all, a coach who has won three division titles, a Presidents' Trophy, a Memorial Cup and an Olympic gold medal. Surely, that's worth something in the marketplace.

For another, the loss to the Leafs wasn't all Martin's fault. In virtually every game, the Senators outshot the Leafs and outchanced them, two indications that the team was playing to the best of its ability. The critical difference was in goal, where Toronto netminder Ed Belfour logged shutouts in three of the four games the Leafs won and allowed just one goal in the series clincher. Conversely, Ottawa goaltender Patrick Lalime was porous at key moments, including a meltdown early in Game 7 during which he gave up two poor goals to Leafs forward Joe Nieuwendyk in a two-minute span.

That's hardly a coaching mistake.

Compounding the matter are reports from sources -- ones who have shown some loyalty to Martin -- who tell ESPN.com that Martin had lobbied Muckler for an upgrade in goal throughout the regular season. Martin privately argued that there was simply too much pressure on Lalime after he was tagged for a late goal in the team's Game 7 loss to New Jersey Devils in the Eastern Conference finals last spring. Predictably, Lalime had problems with his game and his confidence level, which caused confidence problems among his teammates, especially when the puck was in their end.

Muckler reportedly listened, but opted to stay with Lalime and add scoring threat Peter Bondra from the Washington Capitals to what was already the league's most productive offense. Muckler also added Rangers defenseman Greg deVries and role players to add grit to the team. Muckler's strategy, one that he defended numerous times during the season, was to support Lalime by adding to the attack in an effort to make his job easier.

It was logical, but it didn't work.

That doesn't mean Muckler should be fired for making a bad decision, although that can't entirely be ruled out given the state of affairs in Ottawa at the moment. Muckler maintained the difficulty in acquiring goaltending higher than the caliber of Lalime and his backup, Martin Prusek. It does, however, indicate a difference in philosophy between the coach and his general manager -- never a good situation heading into the playoffs.

It's impossible to say the outcome would have been different if the Senators had a different goaltender between the pipes. However, it's safe to say that having a goaltender with substantial playoff experience as a backup could have made the difference.

In addition to goaltending, one could argue the Leafs beat the Senators because Toronto management acquired more experienced players last season, especially ones with the ability to perform under the pressure of the playoffs.

But on Thursday, Muckler said his team needed to be more offensive, though it already had the No.1-ranked offense in the league. He said the new coach will have to instill stronger leadership, even though captain Daniel Alfredsson is widely respected as a capable leader.

While the pitiful loss in Game 5 -- after which Muckler laid into the team -- was likely Martin's undoing, the fact the Senators won Game 6 to stay alive was proof of the players' faith in their coach. That's no small endorsement.

Meanwhile, waiting a period of time would at least give the impression that a thorough review of the situation was conducted and that the team is being run in a professional manner -- even if the final decision was to fire the coach. Instead, the Senators placed all of the blame on the most successful coach in franchise history and one of the more respected coaches in the league.

And they did so without the owner even bothering to show up for the occasion.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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