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In the NHL, even the good guys have the same 'win or get lost' pressures

In pro hockey good guys don’t always finish last, but when they don’t win, they move on.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

Don Maloney is a good man who, by all accounts, did a very good job as general manager of the Arizona Coyotes.

But his team didn’t win so he lost his job.

That’s the way it is in pro sports -- win or get lost.

So even though Maloney has nicely pieced together a team that is on the cusp of being a playoff contender in the Western Conference, he was sent packing after nine years on that job. That’s what happens when your team misses the playoffs for four years in a row.

It doesn’t matter that Maloney was named the NHL’s general manager of the year in 2011 or that The Hockey News ranked the Coyotes prospects No. 1 in the NHL in its annual Future Watch edition. It doesn’t matter than both Max Domi and Anthony Duclair, who are each 20 years old, stepped in and made an immediate impact on the Coyotes or that Dylan Strome (THN’s No. 1 prospect in FW) will do the same next season.

Nor does it matter that for much of Maloney’s tenure there was a distinct possibility that the franchise would up and move. Talk about working with a black cloud hanging over your head.

Not that it is any consolation for Maloney, but he is not the first good man to lose his job. I recall the early 1990s when it seemed like the New York Rangers were getting close to winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940 under coach Roger Neilson. It didn’t happen and after missing the playoffs in 1992-93 Neilson was replaced by Mike Keenan.

I had grown close to Neilson over the years, both of us having spent a great deal of time in Peterborough, Ont., so when I was asked to write a column about his firing for THN, I gave my old pal a courtesy call so he didn’t feel ambushed when the magazine was published. I explained to Neilson that I understood where Rangers GM Neil Smith was coming from in making the coaching switch and that I thought it was the right move for the franchise. Neilson was upset at being fired and understandably upset that I was endorsing the move in a column, but I heard later that he appreciated the heads up.

Oh, and the Rangers went on the win the Stanley Cup under Keenan in '94.

Neilson, it turns out, was a pretty good set-up man on his way to being inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2002. Neilson coached the Florida Panthers in their first two seasons and the team reached the Stanley Cup final in Year 3 with his replacement, Doug MacLean, running the bench.

Ken Hitchcock, coach of the St. Louis Blues, is one of hockey’s most decorated coaches. The Jack Adams Award winner as the NHL’s coach of the year in 2011-12 with the Blues (he was the runner-up in 1996-97 with the Dallas Stars) has won the Stanley Cup and has been a member of Canada’s coaching staff winning three Olympic gold medals, a World Championship gold and a World Cup of Hockey gold. Needless to say he knows his way around a chalkboard.

And yet Hitchcock has a target on his back. That much we knew when the Blues handed him a one-year contract last summer. The message from above was quite clear: Win or skedaddle.

The Blues have a team that most people believe should go deep into the playoffs and compete for the Cup. Since Hitchcock began his tenure in St. Louis the Blues have finished third overall three times, fourth once and sixth the other season.

Yet they have never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs and in the past two seasons they lost in the opening round.

This season, after yet another third overall finish, the Blues drew the unenviable challenge of facing the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. On one hand the Blues could take solace in the fact no team has won back-to-back Cups since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998. On the other hand, this is the Blackhawks we’re talking about. They may or may not not repeat as champs, but they are not a team anyone wants to play in the first round.

Depending on how the series goes, Hitchcock could be looking at a multi-year extension or, worst case scenario, looking for work. That’s how things work.

UCLA Bruins football coach Henry Russell (Red) Sanders said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.” (The great Vince Lombardi borrowed the saying from Sanders and is often incorrectly credited with having said it first.)

Maloney will likely work in hockey again. He has enjoyed enough success to make himself a valuable commodity and, of course, he’s a good guy. Just like Roger Neilson and just like Ken Hitchcock.

In pro hockey good guys don’t always finish last, but when they don’t win, they move on.


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