- Al Morganti
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Although the NHL might be headed for some sort of cap on player salaries, you can look for coaches to take over the inflationary curve.
If nothing else, this playoff season has proven how important it is having the right man behind the bench.
How foolish the New York Rangers must feel about their decision to hire Bryan Trottier last year, when they had their choice of either Ken Hitchcock or Pat Burns. Burns' Devils are in the conference finals and the Flyers, who reached the second round, are vastly improved under Hitchcock. The Rangers? They failed to make the playoffs.
Washington Capitals management has had to put out all sorts of fires that have flared up between first-year coach Bruce Cassidy and his team -- both during the regular season and since they were eliminated by the Tampa Bay Lightning and coach John Tortorella.
In the Western Conference, first-year coaches Dave Lewis in Detroit and Tony Granato in Colorado were stunned in the first round. Granato was taken to school by Minnesota's Jacques Lemaire, while Lewis and the Wings were upended by Anaheim goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere and coach Mike Babcock.
What's that, Babcock is also a rookie coach? Sure is, and the Ducks two first-round victories came against other rookies in Lewis and Dave Tippett -- who was the only rookie coach to defeat a veteran coach -- Edmonton's Craig MacTavish -- through the first two rounds.
As with all sports, it makes more sense for a coach to teach a team to rely on defensive systems than offensive ones if it doesn't have the skill level to do the later. While the lack of scoring is part of the perceived problem in the NHL, as long as commitment to as defensive system continues to win game, coaches will continue to employ them.
The NHL has always been a coaching carousel -- as shown by the eight in-season coaching changes in 2002-03. Hirings and firings have become more critical as organizations pay increasing attention to the bottom line. As a result, star power has begun to diminish. For example, would the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim be badly damaged if they lost Paul Kariya and his $10 million salary? He never really has put people in the building, and if the team is willing to pay attention to a coach's system, why spend that kind of money on one player?
Mind you, Kariya is a team player, he takes direction and he has never stomped his feet to get the money. But when you look at the success and style of the Ducks, along with the success of Minnesota and even Ottawa, you've got to wonder about the star system.
Take a look at the Capitals. The fact of the matter is that if another team called and wanted to make a trade for Jaromir Jagr, general manager George McPhee would probably break his wrists while doing handstands on the roof of the MCI Center. While in Manhattan, Glen Sather might volunteer to battle traffic to each game on a unicycle if a team was interested in trading for Eric Lindros.
As the league works toward a more sane salary structure -- whether it is through a mandated cap or simply using the brain under their caps when signing players under the present system -- you will not see a similar approach with coaches. Can you imagine how much money Scotty Bowman would command if he decided to return behind a bench?
More and more, the NHL will look like the NFL where the coaches get as much recognition as the players, and often a whole lot more.
Al Morganti covers the NHL for ESPN.
One lesson from this year's playoffs: It makes more sense to pay a lot of money to one good coach than 23 players.