The firing of Avalanche coach Bob Hartley on Dec. 18 was no surprise. Through the season's first 2� months the perennial Stanley Cup contenders slumped to a 10-8-9-4 record (10th in the Western Conference) and had the 22nd-ranked power play and the 30th-rated penalty kill. "The team had a slow start and showed no emotion, so I had to come to a decision," says general manager Pierre Lacroix.
What was shocking was Lacroix's second decision: naming 38-year-old Tony Granato as Hartley's replacement. Granato, a former winger for the Rangers, Kings and Sharks who retired after the 2000-01 season, had never coached before joining Hartley's staff as an assistant this year. Lacroix's track record with rookie NHL coaches is strong—two that he hired from the minors, Marc Crawford in 1994 and Hartley in '98, eventually won Stanley Cups with the Avalanche—but Granato's lack of experience means he'll have to draw on lessons learned during his playing career. "I've been in thousands of practices," Granato says. "I know what makes a good practice. I know what players want. I don't need a manual."
Granato's upbeat attitude is a welcome change in the Colorado dressing room, where Hartley's vocal, disciplinarian style grated on the players over time. "Bob was old school; he came across hard," says winger Mike Keane. "You made a bad pass, and when you came back to the bench, you heard about it for five minutes. Tony will let you know if he's unhappy, but he's not going to dwell on something like that."
In Granato's first 72 hours on the job, the watchword was fun. He ran brief morning skates and a 45-minute off-day practice ( Hartley's were known to last twice as long) and opened up his offense in home wins against the Oilers and the Wild, rolling four lines and permitting his forwards to spread the ice with long passes.
Granato's biggest challenge—besides upgrading the underachieving special teams, which were his responsibility under Hartley—is restoring energy and enthusiasm, particularly among the team's talented youngsters. Left wing Alex Tanguay, 23, whose goal production has dropped from 27 two years ago to 13 last season to four in 33 games in 2002-03, chafed under Hartley, while 6'3", 220-pound defenseman Martin Skoula, also 23, has never lived up to expectations. "Tony's more relaxed than Bob," says Skoula. "Tony doesn't yell as much. He tries to calm players down. Sometimes the game gets intense, and the coach should be the one who calms players."