Periodic thoughts and musings from the desk of ...
The moustache is less prominent and the hairline is somewhere north of Lethbridge now. But while the follicles change, The Mike Keenan Follies don't. Not really.
Keenan is back in Calgary with his battle-tested plan of high energy, high tempo and high tension that marks his coaching reign wherever he goes - and Keenan has been so many places that Flames general manager Darryl Sutter should call his marketing department to work out a sponsorship with Samsonite. Of all the stories to keep your eye on the first month of the NHL season, three involve new coaches; Keenan, as always, is foremost among them.
This is either going to work out really well or really badly in Calgary with the NHL's sixth-winningest coach behind the bench. With Keenan, who hasn't had a winning record since he was torturing Brett Hull in St. Louis more than a decade ago, I'm guessing it will probably work out really well. For a while, anyway. There will be some ugly patches, especially concerning some of the players who don't figure to be "Mike's Guys" such as Alex Tanguay or, more prominently, Kristian Huselius, the 34-goal scorer whom Keenan had in Florida until he waived him and ultimately traded him to the Flames. But despite butting heads with name players along the way - among them Hull and Trevor Linden in Vancouver - Keenan's strength is his ability to wring more out of evolving star players than other coaches have. Keenan has, at various times, coaxed or browbeaten superior play out of Chris Pronger with the Blues, Joe Thornton with the Bruins, and Olli Jokinen with the Panthers. Forget Iron Mike. He can be Nurturing Mike.
Look for Keenan to focus his ministrations on third-year defenseman Dion Phaneuf (AP photo above), who has the highlight-reel parts of the game mastered with his heavy shot and heavier hits but still doesn't always connect the dots of the quotidian business of being a first-rate NHL blueliner. Now Calgary's best player, right wing Jarome Iginla, traditionally has responded better to honey than vinegar - his best years have come when he hasn't been coached by someone named Sutter - but Keenan is smart enough not to alienate him. If the coach leaves goalie Miikka Kiprusoff alone, the Flames, despite a poor preseason, should reintroduce themselves as a Western Conference power.
Keenan has replaced Jim Playfair, who is once again an assistant after one undistinguished season as head coach. Playfair was one of GM Sutter's myriad mistakes since the Flames' run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004. With Sutter, the ex-coach, looming in the front office last season, and Playfair trying to be Darryl and not himself, Playfair was doomed to fail ... which brings us to the Ottawa Senators, a team that, on the surface, seems to have gone a similar route.
Bryan Murray, the former coach who won a power struggle and replaced GM John Muckler, is now the GM. Former assistant John Paddock is the new head coach. Why won't this scenario blow up like it did in Calgary? Simple. Paddock is not Playfair.
Paddock has been an NHL head coach before, with the Winnipeg Jets, and simply brings more portfolio to the job. And Paddock, a solid and sometimes stolid guy, is never going to try to be anyone that he isn't. Even with Murray in the corner office - actually in Ottawa, the GM has a windowless office in the bowels of the rink - there will be much braying for Murray to return to the bench if the Senators stumble the first two months. (Don't count on it, with Dany Heatley entering a contract year and Jason Spezza dangling in the preseason.) The level of respect for Paddock within the city and the dressing room is far too great.
But there is a delicate coaching situation in Ottawa worth noting: Ron Low, the former goalie coach, is still on staff as one of Paddock's assistants. The new man on the job is Eli Wilson, No. 1 goalie Ray Emery's personal coach. Wilson and Low don't have much of a relationship, and tension is never healthy on a staff. As long as backup goalie Martin Gerber remains a Senator - and his contract makes him difficult to move - there will be certain awkwardness in Wilson working with Gerber. If Emery plays lights-out when he is fully recovered from offseason wrist surgery, the situation likely will be smoothed over. If Gerber reemerges as a No. 1 or even a No. 1A for more than the short term, this should be fun.
The final new coach of note is Darryl Sutter's brother, Brent, who has taken over in New Jersey. There usually is some hemming and hawing when a coach steps behind an NHL bench for the first time, but there has been nary a worry about Sutter. The Sutter name carries weight, of course - Brent was the only one of the six NHL-playing brothers to register a 100-point season - but his coaching record in junior hockey was so spectacular that he is virtually bulletproof. Several NHL teams had tried to lure him from Red Deer, where he coached and ran the Rebels, but he resisted their blandishments until Devils president Lou Lamoriello came calling. The situation for Sutter seemed ideal, not the least of which is the glut of young talent such as Travis Zajac, Zach Parise and defenseman Paul Martin.
Sutter, who had a 19-0-1 record as coach of Canada's national junior team, knows how to knead young players. Indeed, his hiring might prove to be the best free-agent acquisition of the summer. There is, of course, a caveat.
The star in New Jersey is never the coach but the system. Since Jacques Lemaire left in 1998, the Devils have had six different coaches, not counting separate tours by Larry Robinson and Lamoriello himself. (Not that it has mattered; the Devils have had at least 95 points in all of those seasons.) Sutter might increase the emphasis on a forecheck or tinker with breaking up checkers John Madden and Jay Pandolfo, but New Jersey, despite free-agent losses Brian Rafalski and Scott Gomez, will be the same under Sutter. Long term, probably better.