That Old Magic
Mike Keenan showed he still has the touch by getting Boston on track
The surprisingly quiet rehabilitation of Mike Keenan began on Oct. 25 when he replaced Pat Burns as Bruins coach, returning to the NHL for the first time since the Canucks fired him in January 1999. It was no accident Keenan had been passed over for 17 coaching vacancies in the ensuing 21 months. Though he has been a prolific winner in the league (525-393-122 at the All-Star break), Keenan's clashes with management are legendary (fired four times), and he went 47-51-17 with the Blues in 1995-96 and '96-97 before his dismal 36-54-18 showing in Vancouver. General managers wondered not only if they could abide Keenan but also if he could still win.
He can. The Bruins have thrived—after a 3-4-1-0 start with Burns, they were 19-16-5-5 under Keenan and on a 9-5-2-1 run at the break—and they've embraced the thinking that Keenan espoused while guiding the Flyers and the Blackhawks to the finals (twice with Philly and once with Chicago) and the Rangers to the '94 Stanley Cup. "My fundamental beliefs as a coach haven't changed," Keenan says. "I have an extremely high expectation of each athlete and of the group, and I make demands of them."
In classic Keenan style he has leaned heavily on one goalie ( Byron Dafoe had started 22 straight games this season), implemented a rigorous fitness program (all the Bruins ride stationary bikes before practices and after games) and conveyed his winning-is-the-only-thing mind-set. "He carries around this attitude that he hates to lose," says wing Bill Guerin. "That rubs off. After we lose, our locker room is the worst place in the world to be."
Keenan, 51, has brought an aggressive defensive style to Boston, and his reliance on his top forwards is a big reason Guerin (48 points), center Jason Allison (53) and left wing Sergei Samsonov (48) earned All-Star spots. Remarkably, the notoriously hotheaded Keenan has kept his cool. While he has ridden some players intensely, there have been none of the flip-outs that distinguished his earlier years. "He gets upset, but no more than other coaches," Allison says. "After all the stories, we haven't seen him snap."
Some of those stories stem from the 1993-94 season, when Keenan had a fractious relationship with Neil Smith, the Rangers' president and general manager. Now it's Smith, dismissed by New York last March, who's on the outside looking in. He wants another president-general manager job, and no club would be a better match for him than the 14-31-5-2 Islanders, who are last in the league.
The Islanders' owners have cause to fire general manager Mike Milbury, who before this season said, "If we don't win, it's off with my head." Smith, who spent two years as an Islanders scout in the early 1980s, hurt his reputation as a crack talent evaluator with poor personnel decisions during his final seasons with the high-priced Rangers, but he'd excelled as the Red Wings' farm director in the late '80s, and he built the Rangers' Cup-winning team. His background in player development is what the rebuilding Islanders desperately need.
Smith is also a high-profile guy whose return to the New York metropolitan area would inspire hot reactions from fans there and give the fan-hungry Islanders much-needed publicity. The Bruins were smart to bring Keenan back into the league. The Islanders would be wise to bring back his old foil.
Watch Out for The Long Shot
Coming out of the All-Star break, the Panthers' Pavel Bure and the Canucks' Markus Naslund led the NHL with 31 goals apiece. Five other players had scored 30 or 29, and another six had 27, all of which augurs an engaging horse race in the final two months of the season. Of course, one of the favorites to win the goal-scoring tide is still well off the lead. Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux had 16 goals in 16 games, a pace that would give him 46 by season's end.