East-leading New Jersey took a gamble and fired coach Robbie Ftorek
The Devils' dramatic sacking of coach Robbie Ftorek last Thursday, with eight games left in the regular season, inspired some serious skull scratching. At the time New Jersey led the Eastern Conference with 95 points, and Ftorek had gone 88-49-19-5 in his reign of nearly two years. Had Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello lost his mind? Sure, New Jersey was in a 5-10-2-1 funk, but never had such a good team made a coaching change with the playoffs so close at hand. "We weren't playing to our ability/' explains Lamoriello, who replaced the intense Ftorek with affable assistant Larry Robinson. "I had to do something about it."
The Devils players, for their part, were not nearly as perplexed by the firing as they had been by Ftorek. Even while expressing sympathy for their former coach, players spoke of how high-strung he had been and lamented his tendency to complicate simple things. At one team meeting this season Ftorek wrote two letters on a marker board in the dressing room: a lowercase m and an uppercase W. "Who can tell me what this means?" he asked. Ftorek went around the room, demanding that players give their best guesses. Responses ranged from, "I don't know, Coach," to "Beats me." Finally an exasperated Ftorek said, "It's the little me and the big We?
"How the hell were we supposed to guess that?" asks one player, who requested anonymity. "He was always talking in riddles. He didn't say things straight out, so you never knew where you stood with him." Ftorek did not return requests for comment.
Harbingers of the coach's dismissal appeared as far back as last April, when top-seeded New Jersey lost to the Penguins in seven games in the first round of the playoffs. Ftorek was outcoached by Pittsburgh's Kevin Constantine partly because Devils veterans felt too distanced from Ftorek to offer suggestions on how he might improve player matchups.
Such reticence is not likely under Robinson, who coached the Kings from 1995-96 through '98-99 and whose weakness may be that he is too readily influenced by his players. Last season Robinson questioned whether he had the skills to be a head coach because, he said, he was too nice.
New Jersey split its first two games under Robinson, including an 8-2 smashing of the Islanders last Friday. The easy victory over a poor team was reminiscent of the Devils' season-opening 4-1 win over the Thrashers. After that victory Ftorek appeared inexplicably tense, and he took players aside to say he was disappointed in them and in the team. After Friday's game Robinson spoke cheerily with the media and praised enigmatic defenseman Vladimir Malakhov, even though Malakhov had not played well. Meanwhile, in the dressing room, players ate pizza and spoke confidently of New Jersey's chances in the playoffs.
When Florida acquired veteran netminder Mike Vernon from the Sharks on Dec. 30, Trevor Kidd, the team's outstanding No. 1 goaltender, was sidelined with a dislocated right shoulder. "We thought Trevor was done for the year," says coach Terry Murray. Instead, Kidd returned in late February and has given hockey observers a reason besides supersniper Pavel Bure to keep an eye on the Panthers: Florida is the only playoff-bound team with a goalie controversy.' Vernon has been the guy lately," Murray says, "but there are still some games left for Kidd [to regain the starting job]. I'm not ruling anything out"
Managing goalie dilemmas is becoming a specialty for Murray, who successfully divided time between Ron Hextall and Garth Snow while coaching the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996-97. Kidd's claim to the No. 1 job comes from his early-season performance: He was 13-4-2 and among the league's top netminders when he went down on Dec. 15. Since his return, however, the 28-year-old Kidd had been 1-5-0 through Sunday while Vernon, 37, had won three straight after beating the Canadiens 4-2 last Saturday. Also, Kidd has had only eight postseason decisions (3-5) while Vernon has won two Stanley Cups and played in more career playoff matches (134) than any other active goalie in the Eastern Conference. "I know about having two good goalies," says Vernon, who competed for ice time with Steve Shields in San Jose earlier this season and with Chris Osgood in Detroit from 1994-95 through '96-97. "It's simple: If you play well, you play. If you don't, you don't."