Are Gallant, Gretzky, Playfair next?
With Flyers owner Ed Snider detonating the management team at the Wachovia Center -- dispatching coach Ken Hitchcock shortly before GM Bobby Clarke "retired" -- one can expect other owners will be looking at the standings a month into the current season and saying, "Hey, that's not a bad idea."
• If we were Columbus coach Gerard Gallant (and we're not, nor have we ever insisted we are), we'd be as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. The Blue Jackets -- despite an offensive lineup that includes Rick Nash, David Vyborny, Anson Carter, Fredrik Modin and Nikolai Zherdev -- are off to a desultory 2-4-1 start and rank 23rd in goals per game. Worse, they rank dead last in five-on-five scoring with just six even-strength goals in the team's first seven games. For a team desperate to make the playoffs for the first time, patience will be short, and Gallant had better find a way to get the Blue Jackets into a scoring and winning frame of mind.
• As for any notion that second-year coach (and part-owner) Wayne Gretzky might fall on the sword in Phoenix, forget it. Although the Coyotes are the league's worst team, having managed to assemble two four-game losing streaks this early in the season, a source close to the team told ESPN.com that Gretzky is in it "for the long haul."
• One guy who isn't likely in danger of losing his job is rookie coach Jim Playfair in Calgary. But it's increasingly obvious that his predecessor and current boss, GM Darryl Sutter, has followed a path not that dissimilar to Clarke's in building a team better suited for the past than the future. Although the Flames were picked by many to go deep into the playoffs, it seems more likely they'll struggle to make the postseason given their lack of speed and offensive touch.
It was obvious last spring when the younger but more talented Ducks rebounded from a 3-2 series deficit to bounce the third-seeded Flames, and in Calgary no less. It is obvious again in the early going this season. Even with the addition of Alex Tanguay (it's Alex Tanguay for goodness' sake, not Howie Morenz), the Flames are a mess offensively. Despite pounding the Coyotes 6-1 on Tuesday (who doesn't pound the Desert Dogs these days?), the Flames have scored just 21 times in eight games, 22nd in the NHL.
Although Clarke was excoriated for bringing in big, slow defensemen in Philly, Sutter has thus far been strangely immune to criticism even though his lineup is littered with the slow, aging or underachieving (Tony Amonte, Darren McCarty, Roman Hamrlik and Jamie Lundmark immediately come to mind).
• As for what might be next for Hitchcock -- who won a Cup in Dallas in 1999 and helped guide Canada to a gold medal as an assistant in 2002 and to a World Cup championship in 2004 -- it's possible he could be back behind the bench before the end of the season, if he chooses.
There are already rumors that if Gallant were forced out, Hitchcock might end up in Columbus. There's also the tidy notion that his roommate with the Canadian Olympic and World Cup teams, Jacques Martin, might call on Hitch for help in South Florida, where Martin is the only man to hold both the GM and head coaching titles in the league and his Panthers are bobbing along at the .500 mark.
No one can ever say we can't get into a festive mood here at ESPN.com. We're getting into the Halloween spirit, just don't give us those damn candy corns. So, with the ghosts and goblins a few days away, we wondered what would be some of the more popular costumes in hockey.
• Ryan Smyth, Edmonton Oilers: One of the Hanson Brothers, and he won't have to buy a wig.
• Rick DiPietro, New York Islanders: He'll put on a Yankees uniform, preferably with 13 on the back, don eye black and dream of becoming one of the richest athletes in New York. Wait, that sounds familiar.
• Any Chicago Blackhawks player or fan: A simple brown paper bag will do.
• Tie Domi: Don Juan DeMarco.
• Keith Tkachuk: The Pillsbury Dough Boy (oh, that was last Halloween ... we kid, Keith!)
• Jeremy Roenick: Don Cherry, with his dog named Blue.
And if anyone out there is looking for an easy and quick costume this Halloween, just pick up a Jacques Plante-style mask to show (and scare) your friends.
-- Joy Russo
It was a year ago that the hockey world was lining up to take shots at the Atlanta coach after a couple of nasty dustups with Toronto and Tampa Bay. There were quotes from former players, including the thuggish Wade Belak (might as well go to the source on brainless activity), who suggested that Hartley happily promoted goon hockey. One writer suggested the Thrashers might have to change their motto from Blueland to Goonland (full disclosure; it was this author).
But a year later, the Thrashers are off to the best start in franchise history, having lost in regulation only once in 11 games heading into Thursday's game with Philadelphia. The team that finished 26th in penalty killing a year ago now ranks sixth overall and is playing a hitherto unknown disciplined style of hockey in the South. Skeptics will point to the stellar play of a healthy Kari Lehtonen in net as the main reason for the Thrashers' strong start, but it goes beyond that in terms of team play.
"Our team is much deeper at every position than we've ever been," GM Don Waddell said. And, unlike past summers, Hartley had the benefit of not having any distractions during training camp. Waddell added that he's always believed Hartley is the coach to lead the Thrashers out of the hockey wilderness. "When things get tough, people are going to be in the trenches with him," Waddell said.
Melrose's message to teams with struggling power plays.
|Philadelphia Flyers: A little perspective, please. Let's read from Bobby Clarke's managerial bio with the Flyers: seven division titles, three conference championships, reached the semifinals seven times and the finals three times. Not once since he returned to the helm in Philadelphia in the summer of 1994 did the team miss the playoffs. Critics suggest Clarke had a blind spot when it came to Flyers goaltending, but they forget Clarke's Flyers went to a seventh game of the 2004 Eastern Conference finals largely behind the leadership of now-retired captain Keith Primeau and the goaltending of Robert Esche. Clarke also managed to snag top prospects Jeff Carter and Mike Richards in the first round of the 2003 draft despite finishing with 107 points that season. He also grabbed defensive stud Joni Pitkanen from Tampa Bay. There was Clarke's ingenious dumping of Jeremy Roenick and his bloated salary on Los Angeles last season, allowing Clarke to add Peter Forsberg to the lineup. And all of a sudden Clarke is given the bum's rush from the game? He could be foulmouthed funny or just plain foulmouthed, but Clarke deserved better than he got. -- S.B.|
|FLY ON THE WALL|
|After the Maple Leafs and Senators got downright chippy in the first of their latest home-and-home series on Tuesday, the two teams faced off again Thursday night. And we wish we could have been a fly on the wall (ice) at the opening faceoff, when Ottawa's Chris Neil and Toronto's Darcy Tucker held "talks" before the game's first two faceoffs. Now, not for nothing, but why can't we have those players miked up for a game? There's only so much "attaway, boys" we can take. -- J.R.|
|A SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE|
|Earlier this week, Jobing.com acquired the naming rights of Glendale Arena, home of the Phoenix Coyotes. The arena has been without a corporate sponsor since it opened in December 2003, and Jobing.com, a Phoenix-based online employment service, will pay $2.5 million per year in the 10-year agreement. What? Exsqueeze me? This is as crazy as some of those bowl-game sponsorships, like the No One Cares What You're Selling, Just Play Football Bowl. -- J.R.|
The Sabres reach magic win No. 10.
Games on our radar over the next few days:
• Friday: Ducks at Wild, 8 p.m. ET: Lock the door, sit on the couch with a cold, tasty beverage and take in this early West gem. The Ducks haven't lost in regulation in a franchise-best 7-0-2 start, and the Wild are off to a blistering (and not boring) beginning at 8-1-0.
• Saturday: Thrashers at Sabres, 7 p.m. ET: Who knew this would be on the radar early in the season, but these two teams are fun to watch. We can just hear Rick Jeanneret now ... "NOW DO YOU BELIEVE?! THESE GUYS ARE GOOD! SCARY GOOD!"
• Saturday: Red Wings at Blues, 8 p.m. ET: The Red Wings decided that in spite of stellar regular-season numbers, Manny Legace wasn't their guy, and the affable netminder is now the main man in St. Louis. The Wings have been inconsistent (4-4-1), but a big home win over San Jose on Wednesday was a definite morale booster. The Wings feasted on their Central Division opponents last season, so this will be a good test for both teams to see which direction they're headed.
• Saturday: Senators at Bruins, 7 p.m. ET: This marks the first time Zdeno Chara will face his former mates from Ottawa. When he left as the big prize in the free-agent market over the summer, there were two questions: Can he lead the Bruins back to respectability? And can the Senators fill the significant void along their blue line? The answer to the first is a resounding "no," at least not yet. The Senators, meanwhile, have looked disorganized at times but seem to be finding their groove offensively.
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