Out of spotlight, coaches still feel the heat

Updated: May 8, 2004, 5:24 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

One thing is almost certain on the eve of what promise to be wildly unpredictable conference final series.

John Tortorella
John Tortorella is making his second playoff appearance, but first in the conference finals.
No diehard Sharks or Flames fans tailgating in San Jose nor Lightning or Flyers faithful whooping it up in Tampa Bay will turn to their neighbor, and say, "Gee, I hope the coach is on his game today."

They might remark on the cut of Darryl Sutter's suit or John Tortorella's playoff beard, but the four remaining coaches are, for the casual fan, window dressing to the game itself.

"People don't look at the coach and say, 'Ooh, look at the bench, he's really coaching now,' " said former Carolina coach Paul Maurice who guided the Hurricanes on their Cinderella ride to the 2002 Stanley Cup final.

Instead, the spotlight burns hottest on those left behind, the coaching wreckage that litters the road to the Stanley Cup. Keep playing, and it's about the players. Falter, though, and it's about the coaches.

Jacques Martin was fired less than two days after the Ottawa Senators lost a gut-wrenching seven-game series to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round, his fourth loss to the Leafs in five seasons. Columns questioning Pat Quinn's coaching ability and his future in Toronto, always a staple among writers covering the Maple Leafs, appeared hours after the team suffered a similarly emotional end to their season at the hands of the Flyers. Colorado Avalanche coach Tony Granato has now failed in two straight years to advance beyond the second round with arguably the most talented team in the NHL while Dave Lewis is 6-10 in the playoffs with a Detroit Wings team destined for much, much greater things.

Quinn and Granato will be returning, their GMs said, but Lewis' future remains uncertain.

Was Granato outcoached this spring by the Sharks' Ron Wilson, a year after being outcoached by Jacques Lemaire (whose Minnesota Wild didn't even qualify for the playoffs this season)? Lewis outcoached by Sutter? Martin outcoached by Quinn, who was in turn outcoached by the Flyers' Ken Hitchcock, who was presumably outcoached last spring by Martin?

You can almost hear Tortorella's blood start to percolate at the notion.

"That's a bunch of B.S.," the Lightning coach said. "You know how I feel about it. This isn't about the coaches. The players determine the winning and losing."

Some of Tortorella's passion comes from his steadfast determination to keep everything focused on the players and away from his own role in the Lightning's considerable successes. But other coaches agree that finding an accurate measuring stick for a coach during the playoffs is difficult, if not entirely pointless.

"At the risk of having [owners] dropping coaches' salaries, it's all about the players," said Los Angeles Kings coach Andy Murray.

However, Maurice said there are times when coaching is very important. When a team is playing well, it's merely a matter of trying to smooth the path before them, he said. "You're meetings are one-third in length because they're in tune and they're taking in what you're saying."

But when a team starts to go off the rails in the playoffs, he said, "that's when the coaching comes in."

If it's a technical thing, like improving or adjusting a power play or penalty kill or breakout pattern, that's one thing. But if a team is being out-hustled, then no amount of coaching is likely to turn the tide.

"Walking in and saying, 'Skate harder!' sometimes just doesn't cut it," said Maurice.

Playoff experience counts for something, said Wilson, who took an underappreciated Washington Capitals team to the Stanley Cup final in 1998, "but only in the sense of having the experience not to let outside influences affect what you're doing with your team."

Most coaches agree that the impact they may have on a series is often done between games or before a series starts. Tortorella has had two long breaks between series this postseason, having dispatched the New York Islanders in five games and the Montreal Canadiens in four.

"This is our time right now as coaches," he said. "It's our job to make our players aware of some of the tendencies of the other team, to nail down your team concept and how you are going to play as a hockey team.

"Once these games start, all this talk about these adjustments, this, that, the other thing, line match ups, I think it gets so carried away. The focus comes off the quality people. It's not about the people standing behind the bench wearing a suit. It's about those guys that are battling on the ice."

Much of the attention focused on coaches during a series is on lineup decisions. Goaltending changes are the most common -- and crucial -- change a coach can make. In '02, Maurice deftly juggled his tandem of Arturs Irbe and Kevin Weekes as the 'Canes knocked off the heavily favored New Jersey Devils and overcame deficits against Montreal and Toronto.

"I deftly handled it because Kevin Weekes made the stops," Maurice quipped.

In 1997, then-Flyers coach Terry Murray juggled Ron Hextall and Garth Snow in a desperate attempt to inject some life into his team against Detroit in the final. Each goalie was victimized by soft goals as the Red Wings swept the series. Murray was fired soon after.

According to Maurice, those hours before a game when a coach has made a significant change to his lineup to try and turn the tide in a series are the times when the adrenaline flows most freely.

"That's the juice in coaching. But you can never truly predict the performance of a player," Maurice said.

Lewis benched popular veteran Steve Thomas in favor of Boyd Devereaux midway through the Red Wings' first-round victory over Nashville, calling it the most difficult decision he'd had to make as a coach. Granato benched one-time scoring king Teemu Selanne in favor of a tougher lineup against San Jose, but the Avalanche still fell in six, in large part because they couldn't score. Martin benched young wonder Jason Spezza in favor of Antoine Vermette, who helped force a seventh game by setting up the overtime winner for Ottawa in Game 6.

And still Martin, the coach with the longest single-team tenure in the NHL, a coach who'd guided his team to a Presidents' Trophy and four 100-point seasons in the past six, is looking for work, his 0-4 record in Game 7s a permanent stain on his record.

Quinn is now, in hindsight, being criticized for his use of the ineffective Ron Francis over rookie Matt Stajan, although it's hard to imagine he wouldn't have been castigated for benching a Hall of Famer over an untested 20-year-old.

In most cases, one team wins because it had better players who played better at that time, said Murray. "I don't know a coach in the National Hockey League that's not well-prepared."

He recalled how his Kings defeated heavily-favored Detroit in the opening round of the 2001 playoffs.

"I kept looking over to my left when we were playing in Detroit, thinking I'm putting out a line and Scotty Bowman's going to try and match lines with me. I was just so excited about coaching against him that I never thought about outcoaching him," Murray said.

Still, he added, "it would always be my mindset that I'd never want to be outcoached as well."

"Coaching is all about eliminating the excuses and the 'yeah, buts,' " Murray said. "I want a player to be able to tell me at the end of a series or a game that 'I didn't play good because I didn't play good.' "

Florida Panthers general manager Rick Dudley, a former coach who has scouted much of these playoffs, takes a mathematical approach. A coach may get 90 percent out of his players during the regular season and do a heck of a job, but when the playoffs come they are able to elevate their game only slightly, to say 93 percent. Another coach may only get 70 percent out of his players during the regular season, but all of a sudden they jump to 90 percent in the playoffs.

"They're 90 percent may be better than the other team's 93 percent," said Dudley -- which explains, in part, why top seeds fall early in the playoffs every year, whether it's No. 2 Boston or No. 1 Detroit or No. 3 Vancouver this spring.

Win or lose, coaches must all learn to deal with the complex emotions that come with the bubbling cauldron that is the playoff marathon. Larry Robinson, who won six Cups as a Hall of Fame defenseman with Montreal, said winning a Cup as the coach of the New Jersey Devils in 2000 was ultimately more satisfying.

"I felt I was more part of it," Robinson said. "As a player, you're not out there alone. But as a coach, sometimes you feel kind of lonesome."

Players leave the arena after games and go out for food and drink and then to a hotel room or the comfort of their own homes. A coach leaves the bench and goes immediately to the video room, and then he goes home to the questions about what he should have done better that night and what he must do better the next night.

"It's 2 months of nonstop think, think again and again. Look at tape. Answer the media. Make sure all the diapers are changed," Robinson said.

Murray said when his team won, he felt proud and happy for the players; when they lost, he wondered how he'd let them down.

"I wasn't right for three weeks" after the '02 final, Maurice said. "Two months of living on sleep deprivation and caffeine. That's the speed junkie's version of a high. There aren't any off days. But then again, that's part of the charm."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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