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Coach Carousel Continues to Spin Around

Judging from the last few weeks, NHL coaches are hired merely to be fired -- unless you’re Ted Nolan, who can’t get hired in the first place.

The dismissal of Atlanta’s Curt Fraser last Thursday and the Calgary Flames’ hiring of former San Jose bench boss Darryl Sutter on Saturday to replace Greg Gilbert were the latest maneuvers in the game of musical coaching chairs. And after uttering the usual cliches -- Atlanta General Manager Don Waddell said the Thrashers “got a good guy fired and now they’ve got to perform,” and Calgary General Manager Craig Button declared Sutter is “perfect for our team,” -- the Thrashers and Flames dutifully won their next games.

Teams are 6-0-0 in the first game after a coaching change, including interim coaches. Need two quick points? Can’t dump a big contract or pull off a deal? Fire the coach and get a win.

Sutter has never missed the playoffs as a player or coach, and he worked wonders in guiding the Sharks to higher point totals in five straight seasons. But with the Flames, who were 11 points out of the final West playoff spot when he took over, he has little depth or offensive punch. Jarome Iginla, last season’s NHL leader in goals (52) and points (96), has struggled, and it will be tough for Sutter to assemble two decent lines.

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“They can challenge teams in terms of work ethic,” Sutter said, perhaps identifying the only area in which they can hope to match anyone.

Who’s next? Bobby Francis of the flailing Phoenix Coyotes? Lindy Ruff of the nearly bankrupt Buffalo Sabres? Barry Trotz of the Nashville Predators, who have growing pains and shrinking crowds? Rick Kehoe of the sputtering Pittsburgh Penguins? How about Mario Lemieux as an owner, player and coach?

As for Nolan, he interviewed for the Flame job and won several fan polls but Calgary newspapers said he was eliminated because of a “bad interview.” Translation: He has been forever branded a back-stabber and won’t get another NHL job. The Thrashers will probably hire a retread such as Terry Murray, who had lost his players’ respect in Philadelphia even before he’d said they were “in a choking situation” facing a 3-0 deficit in the 1997 Stanley Cup finals. No matter who’s hired, if there’s hockey after the 2004 labor negotiations and the Thrashers are still in Atlanta, someday he’ll be fired too.

Coach in Training?

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After the Kings bought out his contract last summer and no one else was interested in him, winger Nelson Emerson reluctantly accepted the notion that his career was over.

“When I was done, I wanted to sit back and take a year or two off and play golf,” he said, “but this is my life.”

He got a lifeline from the Kings about six weeks ago, when Coach Andy Murray offered him a chance to scout opponents and watch King games and practices to look for things that could help the team. Emerson, 35, attends the coaches’ meetings and occasionally offers his observations. He’s not getting paid, but he’s finding the experience invaluable.

“He’ll be an outstanding coach someday,” said Murray, who has known Emerson since he played in Winnipeg and Murray was an assistant coach there. “I think he could be coaching in this league next year if he wants to. He’s a real good hockey person.... He’s very sharp. He pre-scouted some games in Anaheim and did well. We’re giving him a taste of what it’s like.”

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If he can’t play, this is the next-best thing. After seeing Tony Granato go from the broadcast booth to an assistant coaching job and, last week, the head coach’s job in Colorado, Emerson appreciates the possibilities.

“I really like it,” said Emerson, who was glad he didn’t have to uproot his wife and four children from their Manhattan Beach home. “I like going to the rink every day and being involved. The assistant coaches have been wonderful and Andy’s made me feel comfortable.

“I realize now how much hard work assistant coaches put in, and the amount of time they and Andy put in at the rink. It really opened my eyes. I enjoy seeing how they organize practices and games. Who knows where it will lead? It keeps my hand in the pot a little bit and keeps my face out there. I never realized how much I liked the game until I was away from it for a couple of months.”

No Bang for the Buck

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The New York Rangers are so awful, it’s doubtful first-year coach Bryan Trottier will finish out the season. Or that he should.

They’ve been hammered by injuries to winger Pavel Bure, goalie Mike Richter and defenseman Brian Leetch, but if the Rangers expected the injury-prone Bure (knee surgery) to play a full season, they were fooling themselves. Besides, which team hasn’t lost a key player at some point? Depth, discipline, and the ability to handle adversity are the fundamentals of success, and the Rangers are glaringly short in every department, despite a league-high $69.1-million payroll.

Mark Messier, a warrior but all but spent at nearly 42, is averaging almost as much ice time as Eric Lindros. The Rangers are 2-8-1-1 in their last 12 games and are clueless defensively, which is odd because Trottier was an outstanding defensive player and so were assistant coaches Jim Schoenfeld and Terry O’Reilly.

During a 6-1 loss to the Penguins on Thursday, Bobby Holik sank to the level of slew-footing Lemieux, and he wasn’t the only Ranger to take a run at the NHL scoring leader. Playing a physical game is fine, but Holik, with the tacit backing of Trottier, showed no respect for the game, and that’s despicable.

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Despite working with an apparently unlimited budget, General Manager Glen Sather has lost the genius reputation he earned in Edmonton. The Rangers are a mismatched bunch being guided by an overmatched coach, and Sather, in overpaying players who lack chemistry and structure, is the symbol of the spending excesses that have many clubs forecasting trouble when the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2004.

Slap Shots

The talk of the world junior tournament has been 5-foot-8, 185-pound forward Jordin Tootoo of Canada, a 2001 fourth-round pick by Nashville who was the player of the game in Canada’s 4-0 rout of the Czechs on Saturday. Crowds love him for his punishing hits, fearlessness and the way his name sounds when it’s chanted. (Try it. It sounds like a train buffs’ convention). He’s from Nunavut, an area carved out of Canada’s Northwest Territories, and grew up hunting caribou and whales. He also sells caribou jerky (gulp) on his Web site, www.teamtootoo.com.

Mighty Duck winger Paul Kariya doesn’t forget his friends. After the Ducks’ game at Chicago on Dec. 6, he took time to offer encouragement to Blackhawk winger Theo Fleury, who had just returned from a suspension for violating the terms of his substance-abuse aftercare program. Kariya and Fleury were teammates on Canada’s triumphant Olympic team at Salt Lake City.

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“I’ve known Theo since my second year in the league,” Kariya said. “We have the same agent [Don Baizley] and we always hang out at the All-Star game,” Kariya said. “I just told him to try to enjoy the game again, to just go out and have some fun playing hockey.”

The Tom Barrasso experiment in St. Louis has come to a merciful end. Barrasso, signed Nov. 4 while the Blues’ goaltending depth was thinned by injuries, played only six games and went on the disabled list Nov. 29. With Brent Johnson’s ankle strong enough for him to play, the Blues jettisoned Barrasso.... Alexandre Daigle’s comeback attempt also appears over with his demotion to the American Hockey League. Daigle, the first overall draft pick in 1993, was out of hockey the last two seasons before the Penguins signed him as a free agent this summer. He had a good start but faded fast.

Landon Wilson’s career-threatening eye injury has inspired Phoenix General Manager Mike Barnett to advocate making visors mandatory for players joining the NHL after a certain date, while allowing current players to choose whether to wear eye protection. It’s a noble aim, but the NHL Players Assn. has resisted previous efforts by saying equipment is a personal choice for each player. The real problem is eliminating the Neanderthal thinking that anyone who wears a visor is less than manly.

The Florida Panthers are 1-6-4-1 in their last 12 home games, hardly helping a dwindling fan base. After their 2-1 loss to the Rangers on Saturday, Coach Mike Keenan hinted that shakeups were in the offing because, “We played scared.... You can convince the people you have to do it, or you can get people that will do it. And that’s an organizational decision.” Keenan has turned around a variety of teams and players, but he might have met his match.

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