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Hockey Notes

Carousel for coaches could become crowded

By Kevin Paul Dupont
April 17, 2011

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The ever-whirring NHL coaching carousel has four openings this morning, and there could be more any day now, depending on how Round 1 of the playoffs shakes out. With enough upsets, the four vacancies easily could turn into seven or eight. Far more jobs in that world than in the sports media industry right now, but let’s not make anyone cry this early on a Sunday morning.

For now, the Wild, Devils, Panthers, and Senators are without bench bosses, and the rumor mill hasn’t coughed up a clear-cut favorite in any of those cities. The most logical fit, though, would seem to be Ken Hitchcock with New Jersey, because his style is sort of a Jacques Lemaire-Pat Burns hybrid and both of those guys won a Stanley Cup for the Franchise Formerly Located at Exit 16W.

Hitchcock’s last coaching gig was in Columbus, where he was dismissed after 58 games last season, and he’ll soon begin his gig behind Team Canada’s bench at the World Championships in Slovakia (April 29-May 15). Peter DeBoer, fired immediately after the Panthers wrapped up their season last weekend, will join Hitchcock behind Canada’s bench.

If not Hitchcock in New Jersey, then who? Well, Kirk Muller is both an ex-Devil and ex-Canadien, currently aiding Jacques Martin behind the Montreal bench in the Habs-Bruins series. His double pedigree with Montreal and New Jersey also would seem to put him in Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello’s wheelhouse of hires.

Bob Hartley coached Ilya Kovalchuk for four-plus seasons in Atlanta, only one of those years leading to a playoff berth, and he coexisted quite well with the Russian superstar/magnate (31-29—60 in his first full season with the Devils). Hartley just wrapped up the first year of his two-year deal coaching the Zurich Lions and he sounds as though he intends to fulfill the pact. However, with $100 million wrapped up in Kovalchuk, the bet here is that the Devils would pay Hartley’s way out of his Swiss deal if they felt he were the perfect fit.

In Ottawa, where Cory Clouston was fired essentially on the way home from the Senators’ loss to the Bruins at the Garden last Saturday, GM Bryan Murray says he has “no particular profile’’ in mind for his next hire. Murray’s track record for hiring coaches up there is spotty, having turfed both John Paddock (2007-08) and Craig Hartsburg (2008-09) in their first years and then watching the demanding Clouston flame out over his two seasons.

The two names heard most in Ottawa right now are Dave Cameron, currently a coach in the Ontario Hockey League, and the Kingston-born Muller.

In Sunrise, Fla., where DeBoer coached the Panthers for three of their 10 consecutive DNQ seasons, general manager Dale Tallon has taken the mañana approach toward the new hire. To wit: “No need to rush, we will get the right guy.’’ Urgency has never been a Panthers tenet.

Like Clouston, DeBoer was a taskmaster, so much so that free agent-to-be Tomas Vokoun, the talented Czech netminder, had all but made up his mind to set sail out of Sunrise this summer. Now that DeBoer is gone, Vokoun sounds far more open to staying, provided the money is right (most likely a discount from his $5.7 million cap hit of this season).

Minnesota looked as if it would make the playoffs under Todd Richards, who stood a respectable 33-23-6 as late as Feb. 25, some 72 hours prior to the trade deadline. But a 6-12-2 finish plummeted the Wild to 12th in the Western Conference, and Richards was given the heave-ho by general manager Chuck Fletcher.

“This not an acceptable position,’’ Wild owner Craig Leipold told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, sounding as if he were reading from an old Harry Sinden script, especially when lamenting how the franchise hadn’t played poorly enough to be awarded prime picks in the draft (that changed here, big time, with Joe Thornton). The Wild failed to sell out 15 times this season, the only 15 times in 410 home dates.

Again, there is no clear-cut favorite for the Wild job, although Hartsburg, an ex-North Star, is one logical candidate. He went to Everett of the Western Hockey League in his post-Senators days and has coached somewhere every year since starting out as an assistant in Bloomington in 1989-90. Another candidate could be Kurt Kleinendorst, the onetime Providence College standout who coached the Lowell Devils for three seasons and spent this year behind Binghamton’s (AHL) bench.

Let’s not forget some of the recyclables either, such as the Sutters (Brian and Darryl), Pat Quinn (last active gig in Edmonton), Andy Murray (last seen in St. Louis), and of course Ted Nolan (now vice president of operations, Rochester, AHL). The carousel whirs and whirs. In October, the Thrashers, Blue Jackets, Devils, and Lightning all had fresh faces behind their benches. We already know that four will be the minimum this October.

ON THE MOVE?
Clock ticking for Coyotes Rumors circulated last week that the NHL has decided to pull the plug on Phoenix/Glendale and sell the franchise to Winnipeg interests, returning the team to its Manitoba/WHA roots. The league was quick to bat down the rumors, claiming no decision has been made about what to do with the Desert Dogs. Later in the week came a story in the Winnipeg Free Press, suggesting that True North, the group interested in buying the Phoenix franchise from the league, was about to open a season-ticket campaign for an NHL team that doesn’t yet exist. Sure sounds inevitable, doesn’t it? It was some five weeks ago that commissioner Gary Bettman announced that “time is running out’’ on the Coyotes staying put. Meanwhile, Matt Hulsizer, the Chicago-based would-be buyer who intended to keep the Coyotes in Arizona, hasn’t been able to consummate his deal because a taxpayers’ watchdog group has objected to the financial structure of the deal . . . The Penguins opened the postseason with a 3-0 win over Tampa Bay and have displayed tremendous pluck, especially given the long-term losses of superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Big-hitting defenseman Brooks Orpik rolled out the thunder in Game 1 of the series, nailing Tampa Bay star Steven Stamkos with a heavy belt into the boards only 90 seconds into the action. “That really set the tone for our team,’’ said former Dartmouth standout Ben Lovejoy. No word on Crosby’s return from a concussion. He is practicing uptempo but hasn’t spoken to the media since April 4, the club keeping him on a gag order until the day comes when he is cleared to enter contact drills in practice. Matt Cooke gets to play his “Get Out of Jail Free’’ card if the Penguins make it to Round 2.

IN THE SHADOWS
Datsyuk stars for Red Wings For far too long, slick Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk has been among the game’s most underrated superstars. Nine years into his career, and already with two Stanley Cups, the 32-year Russian wizard continues to add wrinkles to his game, as witnessed in the Winged Wheels’ Game 1 victory over Phoenix that had Datsyuk tying Coyotes defensemen in knots with his clever moves around the cage. “I think he’s the most dangerous guy we play in the Western Conference,’’ Coyotes GM Don Maloney noted to USA Today. Many miles to go in the postseason, of course, but it would be no surprise to see the Wings win the Cup and Datsyuk be named the Conn Smythe winner as playoff MVP. “He’s going to be a huge factor for us,’’ said teammate Niklas Kronwall. In 662 career NHL games, Datsyuk has amassed 651 points, including 59 points in 56 games this season . . . Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke put a slight, salty twist to the adage that, as a manager or coach, if you listen to the fans you’ll be sitting with them. During a 45-minute season wrapup with Toronto media, Burke grew slightly peeved over a line of questioning about coach Ron Wilson, a reporter noting that the fans wanted the coach canned. “We don’t give a rat’s [expletive] what the consensus is,’’ snorted Burke . . . Joe Thornton’s 70-point season in San Jose, his lowest production since posting 68 with the 2001-02 Bruins, lifted his career point total to 1,001 in 995 games. Jumbo Joe will be 32 in July, and right now it looks like he could go out in lockstep with Pierre Turgeon, who retired at age 37 with 1,327 points in 1,294 games. Turgeon posted 82 points with the 2000-01 Blues, at age 31, and never again reached 50 points over his final four-plus seasons. Thornton, who picked up No. 1,000 last Saturday against Phoenix, became the 78th player in NHL history to reach the four-figure plateau. A total of 454 of those 1,001 came while Thornton was sporting the Spoked-B . . . Former Boston University standout Colin Wilson, who bolted Commonwealth Avenue after his sophomore season, recorded his first career DNP (coach’s decision) when the Predators opened the playoffs in Anaheim. Not that he did anything wrong. “He just didn’t do enough things right,’’ explained coach Barry Trotz. Wilson was on the Bruins’ wish list when they shopped Phil Kessel in September 2009, but the Predators wouldn’t part with the former No. 7 (2008) draft pick. Trotz showed great patience in recent months with the 21-year-old Wilson, who recorded only nine points after the All-Star break — numbers even weaker than Michael Ryder.

ETC.
Maple Leafs eye Richards Brian Burke continues to say that his top offseason priority will be to acquire a first-line center. Ex-Bruins pick Joe Colborne will get a long look in training camp, but the No. 1 target will be Dallas free agent Brad Richards. Betting around Dallas is that Richards, 31 next month, wants some $30 million for his next five years of employment. If so, look for it to be structured much the same as Marc Savard’s deal with the Bruins, $28 million stretched over seven years.

Making a point In the seasons the Penguins won back-to-back Cups (’91 and ’92), they failed to finish the regular season with as many as 90 points. In 1990-91, they finished first in the Patrick Division with 88 points, then finished third in the division the following year with 87 points. The bogus OTL points distort things, but the minimum point total necessary to make it to the playoffs this year was 93, posted by the Rangers in the Eastern Conference. Chicago needed 97 points (and a Game 82 loss by the Stars) to pick off the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.

Loose pucks Three rookie blue liners, all drafted under Jim Benning’s watch when he oversaw amateur picks for Buffalo (through the 2006 draft), played key minutes for the Sabres in their Game 1 blanking (1-0) of the Flyers Thursday night. Chris Butler (No. 96/2005) logged 26:04, Marc-Andre Gragnani (87/’05) logged 19:28, and Mike Weber (57/’06) posted 20:34. Sabres coach Lindy Ruff’s assessment of the trio: “Good, great, excellent.’’ . . . Bruins icon Ray Bourque learned last week that he’ll be inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame Nov. 8, along with International Olympic Committee mover and shaker Dick Pound and Canadian Football League kicker Lui Passaglia, who played 25 seasons with the BC Lions . . . Unless Tomas Kaberle really picks it up now in the postseason, the Bruins might very well let him walk as a rental/free agent on July 1. No telling where they’d spend the $4.25 million he represents in payroll . . . Slim pickings for area colleges in the upcoming draft, set for June 24-25 in St. Paul. The highest-ranking local in Central Scouting’s final rankings was Toronto-born Jamieson Oleksiak, a 6-foot-7-inch defenseman who just wrapped up his freshman season at Northeastern. He is ranked 13th overall among North American skaters. Boston-born blue liner Connor Murphy, who played this past season with the USA Under-18 squad, is pegged 25th. BU has Matt Nieto, a 5-10 left winger, rated 43d, and Adam Clendening, a 5-11 defenseman, ranked 45th . . . New Jersey won the draft lottery and moved from eighth to fourth. The top three picks are owned by Edmonton, Colorado, and Florida, the second year in a row that the Oilers and Panthers will pick 1 and 3 . . . No doubt you’ll want to tune in to WEEI (850 AM) beginning at 9 this morning for a steady stream of hockey talk when your faithful puck chronicler co-hosts with Dale Arnold.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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