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ROY MACGREGOR

Coaching carousel slows down for Christmas Add to ...

They are jokingly referring to it as "The Christmas Firing Freeze."

It used to be the holiday roster freeze, but since a meaningful trade in hockey is now less likely than a meaningful answer in the House of Commons, the interest has shifted from where certain players might be going to when certain coaches are going.

There is even a website with a running poll on when Minnesota coach Todd Richards "will get the boot" for the Wild's 13th-place showing.

It has long been said that "coaches are hired to be fired," and some have even delighted in the precariousness of that reality. "I can be out of town in 20 minutes," oft-fired coach Tom McVie once said, "30 if I have stuff at the cleaners."

McVie, however, was coaching in the years before the lockout and the salary cap, in a world where trades were a regular occurrence and blockbuster trades an annual certainty.

No more. A powerful brew of shrinking salary cap wiggle room, ridiculous long-term contracts for veterans and rushed youth that must be protected has created a sports league in which player deals are increasingly rare and those that do occur so meaningless they barely deserve marking.

One former general manager even says that the majority of minor-league and third- and fourth-line players who do move are merely smokescreens and illusions for fidgety general managers who want to get the message out that they are active, working and at least trying to do something to improve their teams.

GMs, one giant step higher in the food chain than coaches, enjoy a far greater shelf life simply because, to them, the easiest and least costly "fix" - whether real or merely an illusion - is to blame the person scant months ago they themselves presented as the solution.

For the past few weeks, the "watch" has been on coaches in New Jersey (John MacLean), Calgary (Brent Sutter), Minnesota (Richards), Toronto (Ron Wilson), Ottawa (Cory Clouston), Washington (Bruce Boudreau) and somewhat less so in Anaheim (Randy Carlyle) and Buffalo (Lindy Ruff). The worst team in hockey, the New York Islanders, already fired its head coach, Scott Gordon, though his replacement, Jack Capuano, has fared no better since taking over.

This, however, goes against the general rule of thumb for hockey's quickest - and simplest - fix. Boudreau and Clouston both set fires under the teams they took over in recent years. While Boudreau's flared more brightly than Clouston's - with talk of Boudreau leading the Capitals to the Stanley Cup as recently as October - both flames have dimmed considerably through the fall.

Still, the evidence grows for general managers that if you cannot do anything about shallow defence and underperforming stars, you can often effect something by replacing the man who takes most of the heat for contract decisions you yourself usually made all on your own.

They tossed out Dave Tippett in Dallas and brought in Marc Crawford and today, in Crawford's second season, the Stars are division leaders and challenging Detroit for the lead in the Western Conference.

They threw out Michel Therrien in Pittsburgh and, before that 2008-09 season was out, Dan Bylsma had a Stanley Cup ring and, today, is in charge of the second-best team in the Eastern Conference.

Bylsma and Boudreau have come to stand as the poster boys for fresh works. Of the 20 or so new coaches hired in Bylsma's time, just over half arrived with no NHL experience at all. The inspiration likely came from the success of Carlyle in Anaheim, who won it all in only his second season.

But fresh can also mean recycled. The next coach to win the Cup was veteran Joel Quenneville, who made it all the way in just under two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks. And the top team in the East at the moment is the Philadelphia Flyers, under Peter Laviolette, who was fired by the Hurricanes three years after winning the Cup in Carolina.

It is, by far, the most precarious position in hockey, one that Monday evening was brilliantly defined by Boudreau as his Capitals climbed out of an eight-game winless streak with a victory over Clouston's stumbling Ottawa Senators.

"Do the simple things and you'll be successful," the beleaguered coach mused. "Hard work and winning battles and shooting the puck and going to the net - that hasn't changed in 60 years that I've been watching the stupid game.

"We can talk about traps and all of those other things and systems and blah, blah, blah, but in the end it's four or five things that are consistently constant about hockey. When you're successful you're doing them right. And when you're not successful, you're not doing them right."

And when you're not doing them right for long, you're gone.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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