Maybe Kevin Duckworth will take tip from Unseld

April 25, 1994|By Phil Jackman

LANDOVER -- To put it in straight, blunt terms, perhaps Kevin Duckworth will assess the situation and, with admirable nobility, resign his position on the Washington Bullets as his coach Wes Unseld has.

In a move that contained some elements of surprise even though hardly unexpected, Unseld returned to duties in the team's front office yesterday after the Bullets ended another unsatisfactory season with a 117-99 victory over the Charlotte Hornets.

In the final analysis, Unseld's career coaching mark says it all: 202 wins, 345 losses, including this season's 24-58 record.

Now begin the arguments over whether Unseld was provided with the necessary talent and raw materials to win by general manager John Nash and his predecessor, Bob Ferry, or if Wes was ever cut out to be an NBA coach. Nearly 550 games would appear to be ample time for one to prove himself.

The player who hurt Unseld's cause more than any other throughout the season was Duckworth, who showed up woefully out of shape, never hit any kind of stride, did more than his share of complaining and proved totally unprofessional on several occasions by not fulfilling his obligations.

The worst part is, because he has a year remaining on a contract that pays him in excess of $2 million annually, the Bullets won't pull the plug on Duckworth. Henceforth, he has promised to work on his condition, but Wes Unseld, for one, will believe it when he sees it.

* Yes, the Washington Capitals have been in this predicament before, leading the Penguins, 3-1, heading into Game 5 of the playoffs tonight (Ch. 20, 7:30 p.m.) in Pittsburgh. The difference between now and a couple of years ago when the Pens climbed out of the hole and went on to win the Stanley Cup is the ravages of time.

Most of the guys who peopled those Cup champions are still around, including the inimitable Mario Lemieux, who can still make plays even good players can only dream about. But several can't take the pounding anymore, they're slower both physically and in reaction time and, most important, can't execute the playoff-type defense they have in the past.

Fact is, if you look at their 84-game statistics, you come to the conclusion that many of the Penguins forwards didn't bother playing much defense all season.

Imagine beating out Buffalo, Boston and Montreal for the Northeast Division title, scoring 101 points with a 44-27-13 record (third in the NHL) and having several of your stalwarts with horrible plus/minus marks. This stat registers the goals that are scored for and against when a guy is on the ice.

Kevin Stevens, for example, a scorer who has a reputation for mixing it up, finished with a minus 24 despite scoring 41 goals and 46 assists for 87 points. Rick Tocchet was minus 15, Bryan Trottier minus 12, Tomas Sandstrom minus seven and Ron Francis minus four.

Meanwhile, the Capitals, in a struggle to finish seventh in the Eastern Division with a pedestrian 39-35-10 mark, had only one front-line forward on the negative side of the ledger: Dale Hunter -3.

Despite Lemieux being out for three-quarters of its games, Pittsburgh still had enough firepower to finish among the league's top five in scoring. But only the weakest teams in the league, the teams now sitting at home, gave up more goals.

For all their offensive potential in 1992 and 1991, it was the willingness of the Penguins' attacking lines to forecheck and backcheck combined with conservative and solid performances by defensemen such as Larry Murphy, Ulf and Kjell Samuelsson, affectionately known as "Slash" and "High Stick," that got Pitt past the Caps.

In the last three games of the '91 series, the Penguins prevailed, 3-1, 3-1 and 4-1. They completed the comeback two years ago after being down, 3-1, by winning the seventh game, 3-1. Try as they might and to this point at least, Pitt has been unable to summon up anything like this suffocating defense.

In fact, it it wasn't for a 34-stop masterpiece turned in by Tom Barrasso in Game 2, the Pens probably would have been swept. And we're talking about a Washington team that hasn't been completely sure who among its defensive corps would be dressing for games every other night.

It has probably helped the Capitals' cause, Al Iafrate being traded and backliners Sylvain Cote and Jim Johnson being injured. Besides backup defensemen John Slaney and Shawn Anderson coming through, the wingers and centermen have taken it upon themselves to become a big part of the overall defense and they've been stifling.

These days, coach Jim Schoenfeld has been putting his lines together with defense in mind and they've performed that way. Against the trio of Kelly Miller, Michal Pivonka and Dave Poulin, the Penguins are only an even bet to advance beyond the neutral zone and that's with Lemieux out there. Mike Ridley, Randy Burridge and Steve Konowalchuk have been almost as good and Joey Juneau is a puck-swiper of the first order, too.

It doesn't take a high-powered scoring machine to be successful when the opposition has scored just one goal in the last 170 minutes of play as Pittsburgh has.

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