Thursday, April 20, 2006

Out With The Old In The New NHL

Two successful and front office stalwarts were let go today, first with the news that Craig Patrick's contract with Pittsburgh will not be renewed, then with the announcement that Pat Quinn was being fired as Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Patrick had served as General Manager of the Penguins since 1989, while Quinn had just finished his 7th season as Coach of the Leafs - and posted a winning record in every one of those seasons. Both are on their way out because they failed to live up to the lofty expectations that their fan bases set for them when the season began 6 months ago.

Both the Penguins and Leafs had high expectations coming into the season, and both underperformed. The Penguins were expected to break their playoff slump on the heels of adding Sidney Crosby through the draft, and Jocelyn Thibault, Ziggy Palffy, John Leclair, Mark Recchi and Sergei Gonchar through trades and free agency. Instead, Thibault flamed out, Palffy retired, Leclair and Gonchar struggled, and Recchi was shipped to Carolina at the deadline. When all was said and done, they ended up right where they have been the past few years - at the bottom of the league. They will be picking 2nd in the June entry draft.

Toronto retained much of their veteran squad from 2003-04, replacing a few key vets (Nieuwendyk, Roberts) with other veteran players (Allison, O'Neill). The strategy failed, and they fell out of contention. With veterans like Belfour and Allison ailing, and younger players stepping in to their roles, the Leafs surged down the stretch and finished 10th in the East. They'll draft 13th, the first time they will be in the lottery since 1998 (when they picked Nik Antropov 10th overall - a few picks ahead of Alex Tanguay and Robyn Regehr).

While Patrick had earned his reputation as one of the best executives in the league, his performance over the past few years warranted a lot of questions. He got little in return in the ownership-mandated fire sale that sent Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka, Alexei Kovalev and others out of town. While it's too early to pass judgment on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the two players that Patrick passed on in the 2003 draft to take him (Eric Staal and Nathan Horton) are already stars. On top of that, most of his free agent signings from the summer of 2005 failed to pan out.

In this respect, I think that the Pens are making the right decision. While Patrick has brought some talent into the system, most of the promising players were obvious selections - namely Evgeny Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Most other draft and free agent acquisitions have failed to yield anything. He was a great GM for a time, but it's clear that Craig Patrick had lost his touch. Perhaps he can succeed elsewhere if given a chance, but the end of his tenure in Pittsburgh doesn't show many signs of promise.

Pat Quinn had emerged as one of the highest regarded coaches in the league, evidenced by his repeated selections to coach Team Canada in the Olympics and the World Cup. Despite this, he could never get Toronto over the hump in the playoffs, making two runs to the Conference Finals that fell short. While he developed a reputation for being too reliant on veterans and too adverse to playing younger players, the bigger reason he was fired appears to stem from a power struggle with General Manager John Ferguson Jr., the man who supplanted him in the Leafs front office three years ago.

I still believe that Quinn can be a good coach in the right situation. I support the move to find a new coach if the Leafs finally decide to go young and undertaken an all-out rebuilding process, as I have previously advocated. If the Leafs are going to attempt to reload and make another run at being a contender in 2006-07, this will be a bad move, as it was the front office, not the locker room that was in conflict with Quinn. The only solace I can take in this is that if the Leafs attempt to contend and fail, then Ferguson will likely be out of a job next summer as well.

I'm positive that Quinn will resurface as a Coach and/or GM elsewhere soon, while we may have seen the last of Craig Patrick in a key role. Two successful front office players saw their careers put on hold because they didn't succeed in the 'new NHL'. It remains to be seen if they can, given the chance. I'm interested to see what direction the two struggling teams take as well. It's imperative that the next front office moves that the Pens and Leafs make pan out, or else fans of the two teams are probably looking at another handful of years of mediocrity at best.


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