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The Big Spill
Do You remember Paul Coffey, the breathtakingly talented defenseman who created goals at will, helping the Oilers win three Stanley Cups in the 1980s and the Penguins earn the '91 title? By the end of the 1991-92 season Coffey had more career goals and assists than any defenseman in history. Then, playing for the Red Wings during the lockout-marred 1994-95 season, he won the Norris Trophy for the third time. Do you remember all that?
If you do, and if you cherish those memories, don't watch Coffey toil for the Hurricanes. At 37 he is performing with an ineptness so profound it sometimes obscures the greatness of his past. He's playing with his fifth team in the past 2½ years—Carolina acquired him from the Blackhawks in December for right wing Nelson Emerson—and the magnitude of his fall is perhaps unparalleled in the NHL. "The game is still fun," says Coffey, whose contract pays him $2.5 million this year and next. "That's why I'm playing."
While two other aging superstars from the Oilers' dynasty, the Rangers' Wayne Gretzky and the Canucks' Mark Messier, led their teams in scoring through Sunday, Coffey no longer makes an offensive impact. Limited in part by chronic knee and back ailments, Coffey had 29 points in 57 games last year with the Flyers and has only seven assists in 20 games this season. Defensively he's a liability.
Evidence of Coffey's decline emerged during the 1996-97 season, after the Red Wings traded him in October '96 to the Whalers for left wing Brendan Shanahan. Unhappy in Hartford—he asked to be traded—Coffey was shipped to the Flyers for defenseman Kevin Haller two months later. When Philadelphia met Detroit in the Cup finals, Coffey, who had played erratically in the postseason, was exploited so regularly that everyone agreed he was the Red Wings' best player. Last spring Coffey was a healthy scratch in all five of Philadelphia's playoff games.
The Blackhawks acquired Coffey before this season in the hope that he could generate offense as a power-play specialist. But in Chicago, and now in Carolina, he has failed to do even that. Last Thursday, Coffey returned to Detroit and helped Carolina lose 4-1. The puck often slid off his stick, his passes bounced off Red Wings shins, and he was beaten by unheralded forwards. Afterward Coffey called himself "my own worst critic." Then he said he believes he can still play well. Publicly teammates and opponents discuss Coffey with respect and deflect talk of his performance. Instead, they recall his glorious past.
Several months ago Islanders general manager and coach Mike Milbury compared his former duties as a television analyst to running a team. "TVs easy", he said. "All you do is spout off about hockey. Being a manager, that's hard." That explains why Milbury made the right decision last week in stepping down as coach. But even with a lightened load, Milbury may be overburdened.
Because he's bright and passionate and his resume includes 12 seasons as a fearless Bruins defenseman followed by a 90-49-21 record as Boston's coach in 1989-90 and 1990-91, Milbury was welcomed into the fold of general managers when he took that job with the Islanders in 1995. Since then New York has gone 95-161-36—including 58-111-24 during his stints as coach—without making the playoffs. New coach Bill Stewart, who was an assistant under Milbury, takes over a club that entered the All-Star break with the second-worst record (14-29-3) in the NHL.
Milbury's reign showed early promise when he stockpiled talented young players, mostly through trades. The acquisitions included defensemen Bryan Berard, Kenny Jonsson and Bryan McCabe, forward Todd Bertuzzi and goalie Eric Fichaud. But Milbury quickly soured on some of the youngsters and made some ill-advised deals. His harebrained swap of the 21-year-old Berard for rusty 27-year-old Maple Leafs goalie Felix Potvin earlier this month has been widely criticized.