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Lewis gets ax from Bruins

Habscheid also relieved of duties as bench to receive an overhaul

The description of Dave Lewis, heard at every turn on the NHL carousel, was the following:

Good guy.

But good coach, given his firing yesterday afternoon after only one season behind the Bruins' bench, wasn't as common.

"Yeah, surprised me," said Lewis last night.

According to Lewis, general manager Peter Chiarelli called him into his office at TD Banknorth Garden yesterday at approximately 4 p.m. to deliver the news. Associate coach Marc Habscheid also was relieved of his duties, and Chiarelli said both will be reassigned within the club.

"I sat down and he said, 'You're no longer going to be our coach,' " said Lewis, who will meet with Chiarelli after next week's draft to determine his future with the organization. "He has to do what he has to do. I understand the business. But that's what happened today."

The 53-year-old Lewis, who coached the Detroit Red Wings for two seasons (96-47-21) before being replaced by Mike Babcock, was one of Chiarelli's first hires. After dismissing former coach Mike Sullivan, Chiarelli announced Lewis's hiring last June 29, signing Scotty Bowman's longtime lieutenant to a four-year contract. Lewis became the 27th head coach in team history.

Lewis espoused a defense-first style that leaned more toward caution than aggressiveness. The Bruins played a system with an emphasis on dump-ins rather than offensive creativity and heavy forechecking.

While rookie Phil Kessel, playing center and wing, blossomed into a solid pro, there was a drop-off in the play of several key contributors.

Patrice Bergeron (73 points in 2005-06) was a team-worst minus-28, scoring 70 points this past season and only 32 during even-strength situations. P.J. Axelsson, a checking-line winger his entire career, played most of his minutes on Boston's No. 1 line with Marc Savard and Glen Murray. Zdeno Chara, the NHL's biggest free agent acquisition last summer, was a shadow of his former surly self, recording zero fighting majors while logging a minus-21.

"One of the things I observed throughout the year was inconsistency," said Chiarelli. "We'd go through long stretches of good play, then we'd have long stretches of poor play. I know the hockey season is ups and downs. But that showed me a level of play we could attain. I don't expect to be at that top level, but pretty darn close. That signaled it was time to make a change."

Now only assistant coach Doug Houda -- who is not under consideration to replace Lewis -- remains from a staff that led the Bruins to a 35-41-6 record, a last-place finish in the Northeast Division, and a 13th-place finish in the Eastern Conference. At the conclusion of the season, Lewis and Chiarelli said they expected the Bruins to fight for the eighth spot in the conference for the 2006-07 playoffs.

The timing of the announcement -- late Friday afternoon, nearly two months after the Bruins' final game of the season -- startled not only Lewis but every NHL insider who heard the news. On March 31, Chiarelli informed Lewis that he and his staff would return for 2007-08, and the Bruins proceeded through exit interviews on the assumption that no changes would take place behind the bench.

"I thought we'd compete at a higher level and I thought we'd be more successful," said Lewis, when asked if he was optimistic about next season's club. "I thought the chemistry would get stronger and the on-ice performance would get stronger. There's a good group of guys that are willing to get better. The core was identified and we'd build around the core. But for me, those questions are moot now."

Chiarelli conducted a postseason review in which he concluded, among other things, that the Bruins didn't forecheck aggressively enough and that Lewis did not hold his players accountable in the style the GM preferred.

"I did say they'd be back, but in fairness, I wanted to assess it myself," said Chiarelli. "I thought it would be unfair to make any decision at that time. I went through the process and came up with this result."

Chiarelli will now look to hire Lewis's replacement. He didn't reveal any prospects, although he said he wanted to fill the position before July 1, the opening of free agency.

One candidate is Providence coach Scott Gordon, who, along with assistant Rob Murray, most recently led an injury-riddled P-Bruins to the second round of the AHL playoffs. The ex-Boston College Eagle, a former NHL goalie, has coached many of the younger Bruins, including Bergeron, Andrew Alberts, and Hannu Toivonen.

"I'm shocked that this came," said Gordon, an Easton native, when informed of Lewis's firing. "If the opportunity presents itself, great. But I don't concern myself with it. I'm working for the Bruins in Providence and I love it."

Other possible candidates include ex-New Jersey Devils coach Claude Julien, sacked April 2 by GM Lou Lamoriello after less than a season in the Meadowlands. Randy Cunneyworth, coach of the Rochester Americans, the AHL affiliate of the Buffalo Sabres, could also be under consideration. Cunneyworth has ties with Jim Benning, Boston's director of player personnel and Buffalo's former director of amateur scouting.

Chiarelli's hire will become the seventh Bruins coach since 2000.

"These two individuals are not completely to blame," said Chiarelli of Lewis and Habscheid. "The players have to shoulder some of the blame, as do I for not recognizing it, seeing it earlier, and trying to rein it in and correct it. We all have a part in it."

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at FShinzawa@globe.com.

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