Shaking up the coaches is blueprint for success

March 02, 1994|By Phil Jackman

When he took over from brother Bryan as coach of the Washington Capitals in midseason five years ago, Terry Murray realized almost instant success and the team went further than it ever had in postseason play.

Even though the players knew Terry well, his having served as Bryan's assistant for years, a new spirit seemed to infect the club.

The next year, pretty much the same thing happened in New Jersey, where Jim Schoenfeld was brought in to handle the Devils. The lads from Exit 16W on the New Jersey Turnpike, a perennial and unnoticed also-ran, not only made the playoffs, they set a team record for advancement, eliminating the Caps in the process.

Ancient history.

What makes it seem relevant these days is that a bit more than a month ago, Terry Murray was replaced behind the Washington bench by Schoenfeld, who had spent the past couple of years talking about hockey on television.

The Caps, at the time were struggling, slogging along three games under .500. Even with last night's 4-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, the club shows an 11-4-2 record under Schoenfeld and is about to pass Buffalo for sixth place in the NHL's Eastern Conference any game now.

That's what the last six weeks of the season are all about, grabbing an advantageous spot in the final conference standings so as to set yourself up against a weaker foe in the first round of postseason play. Of course, any club finishing in the second division of the eight-team Atlantic and Northeast division qualifiers is playing up in the 1-vs.-8, 2-7, 3-6, 4-5 format.

Until Schoenfeld arrived on little more than a moment's notice on Jan. 27, the Capitals were giving indication they probably wouldn't be around for Stanley Cup action for the first time since 1983. Egad, what did the man bring with him?

The word that probably works best here, as was the case with T. Murray, too, is engagement. The coaches, fresh faces or at least new to the position, were able to attract and hold the attention of the players. This caused an interlocking or meshing of the talents, resulting in success.

A couple of Washington's finest seasons occurred with Terry Murray behind the bench. Even more successful was Bryan Murray during his seven-plus seasons at the helm. But, as time passed, the team began to slide, however imperceptibly.

It's not as though either Murray suddenly forgot how to prepare the team for the NHL wars or misread and misused the talent. Same goes for Schoenfeld and his work with the Devils and, before that, in Buffalo. They were teaching and preaching the same lessons, but maybe the players weren't hearing the message or carrying it out.

There's no maybe about it. The players, whether they realize it or not, swear they're playing as purposefully and with as much intensity and smarts as they ever have, but that's rarely the case. They relax, settle in, become too comfortable, take themselves and the coach for granted.

Inevitably, the results show on the ice, in the standings and at the gate and a change is ordered. As a wise man or, more accurately, the guy paying the salaries once observed, "You can't fire the players." For one thing, there's too many of them.

So here's a radical idea worth contemplating: Keep changing up with the coaches. When a successful club starts to slide, wham, hit it with a new guy. The players won't feel as comfortable; some may even fear for their jobs.

Oh, no need to vanquish the used-up coach to the unemployment line. Hold him in abeyance similar to the Chicago Cubs' "college of coaches" scheme in the late 1950s. Or the way George Steinbrenner did with Billy Martin, Bob Lemon and a few more of his managers for years.

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