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Preemptive strike

Ftorek fired by Devils; Robinson takes over

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Posted: Friday March 24, 2000 01:50 AM

  Robbie Ftorek Despite top finishes in the Eastern Conference in the last two seasons, playoff failures doomed Robbie Ftorek. Mike Powell/Allsport

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) -- With the New Jersey Devils slumping and the prospects for another postseason debacle increasing, Lou Lamoriello did something his future boss, George Steinbrenner, has been known to do. He fired the coach.

Saying he didn't see any light at the end of the tunnel, Lamoriello fired Robbie Ftorek on Thursday even though the Devils still have the best record in the Eastern Conference and third best overall in the NHL this season.

Assistant coach Larry Robinson was given the task of turning around the Devils before playoffs start in less than three weeks.

Steinbrenner, one of the leaders of a merger that oversees the business operations of the Yankees, Nets, and soon the Devils, was told about the firing although he did have a say in it, Lamoriello said.

"We were not playing to our capabilities, in my mind," Lamoriello said in explaining why he made the switch with eight games left in the regular season.

"I did not think we would come out of this slump ... and go forward," he added.

The Devils were favored to win the Stanley Cup for a second time since 1995 until a recent slide that saw them lose 10 of 16 games, the most recent an embarrassing 5-0 setback at home on Tuesday night.

Philadelphia has pulled within two points in both the Atlantic Division and the race for best in conference.

Making a change at this late stage was surprising, something you'd almost expect from, well, Steinbrenner.

"You don't see that happening to a team in first place in any sport. It's a little awkward," goaltender Martin Brodeur said. "It's unfortunate someone had to take the heat for what was happening. Whether it was needed or not, we'll find out in a couple of months."

Ftorek, who took over the team after Jacques Lemaire resigned in May 1998, wasn't immediately available for comment. Robinson said he took the job reluctantly.

"The only thing I said before all of this was in no way did I want to come here lurking to be the next head coach," Robinson said. "My heart is still with Robbie. I have the utmost admiration and respect for him. Robbie will be with us in mind and spirit."

The Devils return to action tonight at the New York Islanders.

New Jersey has had one of the top regular-season records in the NHL the past three years, but it has been embarrassed in the playoffs, losing in the first round the last two years.

For Lamoriello and Devils owner John McMullen, winning is everything this year.

McMullen announced last week that he was selling the team for $175 million to an affiliate of YankeeNets, the entertainment and sports partnership that features Steinbrenner. The sale will be finalized after the hockey season.

"I want to get back on a winning track," Robinson said. "Hockey should be fun and it hasn't been fun lately because we haven't been successful."

Ftorek, 48, compiled a 88-49-19 (.625) record, playing a more wide-open game than Lemaire's teams, which employed the defensive neutral zone trap.

Ftorek's relationship with some members of the team was strained this season because he benched players at times when they had friends and family in town or didn't discuss why they were not playing.

Forward Bobby Holik said there was "a lack of discipline on and off the ice."

"He [Robbie] prepared as well as any coach but for some reason he wasn't getting through to us of late," defenseman Ken Danyko said.

Robinson, 48, is seen more as a player's coach. He was a key member of Lemaire's staff when the Devils won the Cup in 1995. He became the coach of the Los Angeles Kings the following season and held the job until being fired after last season with a 122-161-45 record.

Lamoriello said he told Ftorek of the decision earlier Thursday, and "he was a gentleman, the way he would always be."

Ftorek is free to remain with the organization in another capacity, Lamoriello added, although he said the two didn't immediately discuss what that would be.

Lamoriello refused to discuss how Robinson's contract might change with his new job.

Despite trades that brought highly regarded defenseman Vladimir Malakhov and one-time 76-goal scorer Alexander Mogilny to New Jersey in recent weeks, the Devils have posted a 5-10-1 record since Feb. 19.

Robinson played on six Stanley Cup championship teams with Montreal and was a 10-time NHL All-Star. His 20 playoff seasons are tied with Gordie Howe for the most in NHL history. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.

Ftorek had many of the Devils' players during three seasons as coach at Albany, New Jersey's top minor league team. He also had previous NHL head coaching experience, in a little less than two seasons with the Kings in 1987-88 and 1988-89, posting a 65-56-11 record.

Related information
Q & A with SI's Kostya Kennedy: Devils can finally relax
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello says there were many factors that went into his decision. (201 K)
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