Conference finals: A look at the coaches
NEXT COACH >>>
HOW HE GOT THE JOB: The 64-year-old Ottawa-area native landed the Senators coaching job during the lockout summer of 2004, in large part because he wasn't Jacques Martin. Despite boatloads of talent, Ottawa failed to claim the big prize, or even a trip to the Stanley Cup finals, for years. So GM John Muckler plucked the longtime coach from Anaheim, where Murray was GM. A former Jack Adams winner when he coached Washington (1984), Murray has coached more than 1,200 regular-season games and is closing in on 100 postseason contests. It's worth noting, however, that Murray has never advanced to a Stanley Cup final as a coach.
WHAT HE'S ACCOMPLISHED: A member of the Senators organization tells ESPN.com he doesn't think Murray has changed at all since coming on board; rather, the team itself has changed dramatically in terms of their willingness to buy into the team concepts Murray was selling. There are more than a few parallels between the evolution of this Senators team and what happened in Detroit when Scotty Bowman arrived in the early 1990s (ironically after Murray's stint as Red Wings coach ended). The Wings were a skilled team, but it took a number of playoff disappointments (remember the Devils' sweep of the Wings in the 1995 Cup finals?) before they committed to Bowman's master plan that allowed offense to spring from superlative team defense. Murray has preached a similar sermon and the congregation has listened.
PERSONALITY: Maybe it's his experience working in nontraditional markets. Maybe it's the fact he was a former teacher. But Murray possesses a patient demeanor that seems to jibe well with both his players and the media covering the team. That's not to say Murray suffers fools easily -- he doesn't. But he is more likely to cut with sarcasm than shouts when he believes someone is either misinformed or misguided on the Senators.
COMBUSTIBILITY FACTOR: Low, but not Jacques Martin low (that could hardly be possible for any human being still alive), which goes back to one of the reasons Murray was so attractive to Muckler. Muckler wasn't looking for a stick-thrower; he was looking for more emotion behind the bench, and he's got that in Murray. During the Pittsburgh series, Murray was quick to voice his belief that Penguins forward Gary Roberts was running his players and getting away with it. He will chide his players in public, but in a way that doesn't emasculate them. In short, he's sort of a smiling assassin type.
TURNING POINT: Murray has repeatedly acknowledged the Senators were not a very good team early on this season. It was due partly to the growing pains of new personnel and also learning to play the way Murray wanted (more attention to detail, especially defensively). There was resistance, and by mid-November, the Senators were floundering with a 7-11-1 record. When top center Jason Spezza went down with an injury for a month around Christmas, many believed the Sense were done. But the team responded under Murray's tutelage, especially forward Dany Heatley, whose game has evolved dramatically under the coach. During the last half of the season, the Senators were among the league's hottest teams and many observers' favorite to advance deep into the playoffs. Since the postseason started, the Senators have shown not the slightest wobble, something that sets them apart from previous incarnations and indicates Murray's impact.
<<< PREVIOUS COACH | NEXT COACH >>>
HOW HE GOT THE JOB: This offseason will mark a decade behind the Sabres bench for Ruff, 47, who is the NHL's longest-serving head coach. When he arrived on the scene in July 1997, Ruff was coming home to a team that drafted him 32nd overall in 1979 and for whom he played 608 regular-season games. Unfortunately for Ruff, he was coming to a broken home, one torn apart by the poisonous atmosphere that had grown around coach Ted Nolan, GM John Muckler and players like Dominik Hasek, with whom Nolan had warred. In short, Ruff and new GM Darcy Regier were charged with cleaning up the mess. In an interview earlier this playoff season, Regier explained how he'd done his due diligence, asking former mentors and bosses -- including Al Arbour, Bill Torrey and Scotty Bowman -- what he should look for in a new coach and what they thought of Ruff. A decade later, it turns out Regier got pretty good advice.
WHAT HE'S ACCOMPLISHED: It's been a pretty boring ride for Ruff since taking the job. All that happened was a trip to the 1999 Stanley Cup finals, which the Sabres lost on one of the most disputed goals in NHL history (Brett Hull and your big toe, come on down!). There were criminal charges against ownership, a bout with bankruptcy and the threat of relocation. There was a turn in ownership, a lockout, and now two straight trips to the Eastern Conference finals. This season also marked the franchise's first Presidents' Trophy as the top regular-season club. Gee, hope something interesting happens before Ruff expires from boredom.
PERSONALITY: A native of Warburg, Alberta, Ruff cut his hockey teeth in the rough and tumble Western Hockey League, playing for Lethbridge. So it's not surprising Ruff appears to have the perfect personality for this hardscrabble border community. Although the Sabres have evolved into one of the most talented teams in the league, there remains a blue-collar feel to Ruff's team. Neither Ruff nor the fans in Buffalo would have it any other way. He has a quick sense of humor, which is often on display in his dealings with the press, both locally and nationally. But beneath the friendly discourse, there is always a "work first, joke second" current that runs through the proceedings on and off the ice.
COMBUSTIBILITY FACTOR: Medium to high, downgraded from Defcon 1. Not that anyone is suggesting Ruff is actually mellowing out; in fact, players actually grin like you're an idiot when you suggest it. But there has been a shift in Ruff's demeanor over the years. Regier said as time has passed, Ruff has learned that while all things concerning the team matter, it's important to isolate the things that matter most. And by doing so, Regier said Ruff has been able to address situations better, faster and more accurately.
TURNING POINT: During the lockout, Ruff made the 75-mile trip from Buffalo to Rochester and back countless times. He went and watched and talked to players, and watched some more. He didn't coach, though. That was Randy Cunneyworth's job as coach of the Rochester Americans. But Ruff, Cunneyworth and Regier implemented a game plan they thought would work at the AHL level and, if they were lucky, when the NHL got back to work. They were more than lucky -- they were prescient. The style Ruff imagined jibed perfectly with the new rules and the emphasis on offense that came with the end of the lockout. After the Sabres' surprising run to the Eastern Conference finals last spring, Ruff proved it wasn't a fluke by coaching his team to 10 straight victories to start this season.
<<< PREVIOUS COACH | NEXT COACH >>>
HOW HE GOT THE JOB: Quite simply, the crusty longtime NHL defenseman got his first head coaching job at age 49 because GM Brian Burke wanted him to have it. OK, maybe it wasn't quite that simple, but pretty close. When Burke was hired by new Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli in the summer of 2005, he offered then-coach Mike Babcock a one-year deal to stay on. It was an offer both Burke and Babcock knew would not fly. Babcock got permission to look around for more security and headed to Detroit, while Burke quickly brought in Carlyle to remake his Ducks. Burke knew Carlyle from his work with the Manitoba Moose of the International Hockey League and later the American Hockey League (the Moose having become the farm club of Burke's old team, the Vancouver Canucks). Although Carlyle was old compared to many rookie NHL coaches, Burke believed Carlyle could marry the defensive core with the up-tempo style needed to succeed in the new NHL. He was right.
WHAT HE'S ACCOMPLISHED: When the Ducks made their stunning march to the 2003 Stanley Cup finals, they might as well have been marching on the very bones of the game -- their clutching, grabbing, stupefying brand of hockey was what drove fans away leading up to the lockout. In short order, Carlyle brought a new identity to the franchise -- hard work was crucial, but creativity was also allowed to thrive. The Ducks surprised most observers by making last season's playoffs and knocking off favored Calgary and Colorado before falling to upstart Edmonton in the Western Conference finals. Although he's seen Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger come in and anchor the blue line, Carlyle has managed to turn castoffs Chris Kunitz, Andy McDonald and Francois Beauchemin into elite NHL players. He also implemented a game plan that has allowed 36-year-old Teemu Selanne to return to NHL star status, with 84 goals and 184 points over the past two seasons.
PERSONALITY: Craig Heisinger, Carlyle's longtime friend and former boss in Manitoba, told ESPN.com this week he never imagined Carlyle would become a coach because, frankly, Carlyle didn't like coaches all that much. And maybe that's why Carlyle is such a fine coach -- he treats his players as he wanted to be treated when he was playing. "It became very evident very quickly he had a passion for it," Heisinger said. "If there is a trait Carlyle has carried as player, manager and coach, it's that he works hard and he expects everyone around him to work just as hard. And if you aren't prepared for that, you'd better find someplace else to go."
COMBUSTIBILITY FACTOR: While many NHL coaches use their explosive personalities to try and entice players to play better, to intimidate officials and the media, and generally to keep people off balance, Carlyle has a different tack: it's called the glower. Look through any photo archive and it's always there: the glower. Even when he's smiling, which is rare (at least when he's working), the glower seems to be waiting in the wings to take over, something even more menacing than a blow-up.
TURNING POINT: At the beginning of last season, Carlyle's lineup included enigmatic superstar Sergei Fedorov and the talented but soft Petr Sykora. It didn't take long for Carlyle to go to Burke and tell him they weren't going to cut it. In response, Burke dealt the pair and Carlyle responded by giving more responsibilities to youngsters like Joffrey Lupul, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Beauchemin. There were growing pains, perhaps stalling the Ducks short of the Stanley Cup last spring. But now, that experience has the team in a better position this season to challenge for their first championship.
<<< PREVIOUS COACH
HOW HE GOT THE JOB: In some ways, Mike Babcock became the Detroit Red Wings coach because of what he did to the Wings when he was coaching in Anaheim. Not that the Wings necessarily wanted a coach that would play the stupefying brand of hockey Babcock's Ducks did in 2003; but rather GM Ken Holland wanted a team with more moxie, more commitment to defense. Holland had given longtime assistant coach Dave Lewis a chance after Scotty Bowman retired following the Wings' 2002 Cup win, but Lewis couldn't motivate his highly talented squad. So when Babcock knew he wasn't going to get the long-term deal he wanted in Anaheim, Holland acted quickly and hired the native of Manitouwadge, Ontario, to take the Wings back to the top.
WHAT HE'S ACCOMPLISHED: In some ways, Babcock is in a similar position as Ottawa coach Bryan Murray. Both were brought in to take talented, underachieving clubs to greater heights and both had to overcome early disappointments in getting there. The Senators were bounced in the second round by Buffalo last spring, while Babcock's Wings followed a Presidents' Trophy-winning regular season only to be ousted in the first round by eighth-seeded Edmonton. Sure, there were questions about the Wings' goaltending, but ultimately, Babcock could not get his club to take the proverbial step forward -- until this spring. In the absence of Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, Babcock preached all season the need for his team to be more determined, to be less passive when things got rough. And if their sterling play in knocking off Calgary and San Jose is any indication, they've more than heeded the call.
PERSONALITY: Babcock, who just turned 44 and is the youngest of the four remaining coaches, has a homey charm that belies his considerable hockey intelligence. Babcock's background is that of a teacher. His playing days included a four-year stint at McGill University in Montreal and he followed that with more than a decade of coaching at the Canadian junior level with one year of Canadian university coaching thrown in for good measure. The former defenseman, who attended graduate school studying sports psychology, is a teacher and motivator more prone to thoughtfulness than bombast.
COMBUSTIBILITY FACTOR: Low. Babcock isn't much of a screamer, at least not where you can see him. Passionate? Yes. A screamer? No. For a coach who preaches patience and thoughtfulness when it comes to the game, his ability to remain calm under intense playoff pressure seems crucial to maintaining his dressing room credibility.
TURNING POINT: It's not one point that seemed to put the Red Wings on track this season, but a series of events, starting with their humbling loss to the Oilers last summer. That was followed by the retirement of Yzerman and the departure of Shanahan for New York. Real or symbolic, many ties to the Red Wings' dynasty that won three Cups between 1997 and 2002 were gone (or at least off the ice). In their place, Babcock brought along young players, like defensemen Brett Lebda, Andreas Lilja and Niklas Kronwall (now out for the playoffs with AN injury). Up front, reclamation project Daniel Cleary added offensive zest and a combative physical presence, while Tomas Holmstrom matured into an offensive go-to guy and one of the game's finest high-traffic players. Mikael Samuelsson, brought in as a free agent, also flourished under Babcock.
MORE NHL HEADLINES
- Penguins sign forward Spaling to 2-year deal
- Goalie Lehner signs extension with Senators
- Canes captain Staal has core muscle surgery
- King, L.A. agree to 3-year, $5.85 million deal