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Coaches, hits and mutiny within the union

3/11/2007 - NHL

AROUND THE RINK

By Scott Burnside, ESPN.com


We are all for the praise being heaped on Andy Murray's shoulders. What Murray has done with the sad-sack St. Louis Blues since his arrival is nothing short of miraculous, compiling a 21-11-6 record prior to Thursday's clash with Dallas.

Andy Murray

Even after the Blues traded away their top two scorers, Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk, the Blues remain a difficult team to play against under Murray.

But it was less than a year ago that Murray's Los Angeles Kings were going off the rails and Murray was being given the bum's rush by then-GM Dave Taylor. Too demanding, too strident, too hard, media observers smugly wrote.

Certainly, Murray seemed to have lost his ability to motivate a Kings team that was never long on talent, but rarely short on work ethic. Now, he has the attention of a rebuilding Blues team that figures to be in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race next season, well ahead of schedule for a team that was dead-last in the NHL a year ago.

Murray began his coaching tenure in Los Angeles in 1999, so perhaps his time had come. But look around the NHL, and you see that a rush to judge coaches is often incredibly short-sighted.

Claude Julien, Michel Therrien and Alain Vigneault were the three previous head coaches for the Montreal Canadiens prior to the hiring of Guy Carbonneau. The three coaches, currently behind the benches of the New Jersey Devils, Pittsburgh Penguins and Vancouver Canucks, respectively, were a combined 113-62-21 heading into play Tuesday. All three are comfortably ensconced in playoff positions.

Carbonneau? His team is in flames, having gone from challenging for the Northeast Division lead earlier in the season to a diminishing chance of making the playoffs at all. No one is suggesting Carbonneau should be canned (although he does appear to have aged exponentially in the last few weeks), but it reinforces the vagaries of the coaching profession.

As one head coach pointed out of the three former Habs coaches: Did they suddenly get stupid? No. Andy Murray didn't get stupid in Los Angeles; tired maybe, but not stupid.

And Julien, Therrien and Vigneault are all proving their coaching acumen in other NHL cities. It would be a delicious bit of irony if one (or two) of those ex-Habs coaches found their way to the Stanley Cup finals, while Carbonneau and the Habs cool their blades this April.

Maybe a bit of a cautionary tale for other organizations.

THIS LEAGUE NEEDS TO GET TOUGH

Can anyone, anywhere, argue Cam Janssen didn't deserve a more severe penalty for his thoughtless, late blow to the head of Toronto defenseman Tomas Kaberle?

Anyone? No. Didn't think so.

That the NHL's czar of discipline, Colin Campbell, figured three games was enough for such a dangerous blow to the head speaks volumes about the league's inertia when it comes to acting proactively to curtail such dangerous play. And the criticism the league has received over the suspension is justified. The league has to set the tone, the standard, for what's going to be accepted.

But where does this kind of behavior come from? Earlier this month, we saw Ottawa's Chris Neil, a player moderately more skilled than Janssen but clearly with a similar brainwave pattern, launch a dangerous blow to the noggin of Buffalo co-captain Chris Drury. The hit precipitated two games of brawling action. But seemingly lost in all of this is the onus that should be on players to police themselves.

Players know they can't two-hand a guy in the head because they know they'll incur a lengthy suspension (maybe), and they know it's inherently wrong. People talk about the "code" in hockey, especially tough guys. Well, players like Janssen and Neil prove that "tough" just as often means "cowardly" -- there is no other term for the hits on Kaberle and Drury.

When was the last time a tough, skilled player took a run at another player's head? It rarely happens because being tough and skilled implies a level of hockey smarts marginal players like Janssen and Neil don't possess. Neil had 16 goals a year ago and fancies himself as a two-way player, but the Drury hit revealed he has a lot of growing up to do.

Sadly, it's usually the players of Janssen's ilk, fleas on the rump of the game, that are under the misguided impression that delivering some powerful blow, usually illegal, justifies their existence, an existence that generally amounts to three or four minutes a night of ice time.

The league should have dealt with Janssen with the same savagery Janssen delivered his hit on Kaberle, who is sidelined and might not return this season. Not that anyone, least of all the Devils, would miss Janssen, but that's the message that should be sent.

As a final word on Janssen, Kaberle told reporters in Toronto this week that Janssen had not contacted him after the hit. Nice touch. Enough said.


--S.B.