Back in Business
Coach Mike Keenan's latest enterprise is trying to turn around the woeful Panthers
Clad in a turtleneck, jogging pants and flip-flops with white socks, Mike Keenan looks anything but Wall Street. Yet when asked to explain why he has changed jobs so often—he's coaching his seventh NHL team—the 52-year-old Keenan, who was hired on Dec. 3 to replace Duane Sutter behind the bench of the Panthers, turns to business-speak. "In this industry there's turnover," Keenan says. "It's not always about what happens on the ice; it's sometimes the context of the situation. In New York, the team was sold and the ownership changed. In St. Louis, the team was sold and the ownership changed. In Boston and Vancouver, the management changed. It's like corporate takeovers—when a new owner comes in, most often the CEO is out."
Keenan jumps from one gig to the next with the facility of a practiced turnaround specialist. His seven-city r�sum� ( Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, St Louis, Vancouver, Boston, Sunrise, Fla.) reads like an airport DEPARTURES monitor. Despite his intense style, which inevitably causes friction with general managers and players, and has frequently led to his dismissal—whether he admits it or not—he usually makes teams better, as he did in taking the Flyers (1985 and '87) and the Blackhawks ('92) to the Stanley Cup finals before winning the trophy with the Rangers ('94).
The Panthers, who through Sunday had the league's second-worst record (7-16-2-3), seem ready-made for Keenan. To rebuild Florida, which hasn't won a playoff series since its trip to the Cup finals in 1996, Keenan will rely on a combination of proven stock (wingers Pavel and Valeri Bure, who between them had 179 goals in the past two seasons) and intriguing futures (22-year-old goaltender Roberto Luongo, who at week's end had a .918 save percentage this season, and explosive 23-year-old forward Kristian Huselius, who led the Panthers with 13 goals). Keenan will also have to massage Pavel, who chafed under Sutter and was criticized for his poor defensive play, and coexist with interim CM. Chuck Fletcher by keeping in check his tendency to appropriate management duties.
Keenan has already stamped his mark on the Panthers by running his trademark up-tempo practices ("Much harder than they were, always balls-out," says Luongo), instituting an 11:30 p.m. curfew on nights before games and requiring players to work out on stationary bikes after games. The ever-confident Keenan is talking playoffs, although Florida trailed the Penguins, the eighth-place team in the conference, by 12 points. "For us to make the postseason from this position," says Keenan, "would be exciting."
In CEO lingo, that's an ambitious fourth-quarter projection from the master of the turnaround.
Slovakia's Olympic Setback
Having to Play Shorthanded
Pity Peter Stastny, the Hall of Fame forward who's general manager of Slovakia's Olympic team. He has enough NHL talent to field a medal contender in Salt Lake City—envision a top line of the Blues' Pavol Demitra, the Bruins' Jozef Stumpel and the Sabres' Miroslav Satan—but may not reach the medal round. Although the NHL will stop play for 12 days in mid-February to accommodate that round, eight countries, including Slovakia, must play three qualifying matches in Salt Lake City for two open berths in the medal round, and those matches are to be played before the break. (Six teams, including the U.S. and Canada, have already qualified for the eight-team medal round by virtue of the results from the Nagano Games.)
The difficulty of flying players to Utah on off days to play qualifying games, plus the NHL's insistence on enforcing Bylaw 21, which mandates that teams use their best lineups in league games, means that most Slovaks on NHL rosters are likely to miss playing in qualifying. "Players get time for personal reasons, family reasons, drugs or alcohol," Stastny says. "To have [all the best Slovakian] players for even one game would do so much."
As of Sunday only three NHL Slovaks, Coyotes forwards Michal Handzus and Ladislav Nagy and defenseman Radoslav Suchy, were scheduled to play in qualifying, and for only one game (Feb. 9 against Germany). "We had two choices," says Phoenix G.M. Michael Barnett. "One, make them watch the game on television and have them come to the rink the next day to play Edmonton very likely disgruntled. Or two, let them go, have them come back possibly fatigued but happy for having contributed to their national team, with the idea that we'd gone out of our way for them and that we expect the same from them in the future."