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Original Issue

Inside The NHL

East-leading New Jersey took a gamble and fired coach Robbie

The Devils' dramatic sacking of coach Robbie Ftorek last
Thursday, with eight games left in the regular season, inspired
some serious skull scratching. At the time New Jersey led the
Eastern Conference with 95 points, and Ftorek had gone
88-49-19-5 in his reign of nearly two years. Had Devils general
manager Lou Lamoriello lost his mind? Sure, New Jersey was in a
5-10-2-1 funk, but never had such a good team made a coaching
change with the playoffs so close at hand. "We weren't playing
to our ability," explains Lamoriello, who replaced the intense
Ftorek with affable assistant Larry Robinson. "I had to do
something about it."

The Devils players, for their part, were not nearly as perplexed
by the firing as they had been by Ftorek. Even while expressing
sympathy for their former coach, players spoke of how high-strung
he had been and lamented his tendency to complicate simple
things. At one team meeting this season Ftorek wrote two letters
on a marker board in the dressing room: a lowercase m and an
uppercase W. "Who can tell me what this means?" he asked. Ftorek
went around the room, demanding that players give their best
guesses. Responses ranged from, "I don't know, Coach," to "Beats
me." Finally an exasperated Ftorek said, "It's the little me and
the big We."

"How the hell were we supposed to guess that?" asks one player,
who requested anonymity. "He was always talking in riddles. He
didn't say things straight out, so you never knew where you stood
with him." Ftorek did not return requests for comment.

Harbingers of the coach's dismissal appeared as far back as last
April, when top-seeded New Jersey lost to the Penguins in seven
games in the first round of the playoffs. Ftorek was outcoached
by Pittsburgh's Kevin Constantine partly because Devils veterans
felt too distanced from Ftorek to offer suggestions on how he
might improve player matchups.

Such reticence is not likely under Robinson, who coached the
Kings from 1995-96 through '98-99 and whose weakness may be that
he is too readily influenced by his players. Last season Robinson
questioned whether he had the skills to be a head coach because,
he said, he was too nice.

New Jersey split its first two games under Robinson, including an
8-2 smashing of the Islanders last Friday. The easy victory over
a poor team was reminiscent of the Devils' season-opening 4-1 win
over the Thrashers. After that victory Ftorek appeared
inexplicably tense, and he took players aside to say he was
disappointed in them and in the team. After Friday's game
Robinson spoke cheerily with the media and praised enigmatic
defenseman Vladimir Malakhov, even though Malakhov had not played
well. Meanwhile, in the dressing room, players ate pizza and
spoke confidently of New Jersey's chances in the playoffs.

Panthers Goaltenders

When Florida acquired veteran netminder Mike Vernon from the
Sharks on Dec. 30, Trevor Kidd, the team's outstanding No. 1
goaltender, was sidelined with a dislocated right shoulder. "We
thought Trevor was done for the year," says coach Terry Murray.
Instead, Kidd returned in late February and has given hockey
observers a reason besides supersniper Pavel Bure to keep an eye
on the Panthers: Florida is the only playoff-bound team with a
goalie controversy. "Vernon has been the guy lately," Murray
says, "but there are still some games left for Kidd [to regain
the starting job]. I'm not ruling anything out."

Managing goalie dilemmas is becoming a specialty for Murray, who
successfully divided time between Ron Hextall and Garth Snow
while coaching the Flyers to the Stanley Cup finals in 1996-97.
Kidd's claim to the No. 1 job comes from his early-season
performance: He was 13-4-2 and among the league's top netminders
when he went down on Dec. 15. Since his return, however, the
28-year-old Kidd had been 1-5-0 through Sunday while Vernon, 37,
had won three straight after beating the Canadiens 4-2 last
Saturday. Also, Kidd has had only eight postseason decisions
(3-5) while Vernon has won two Stanley Cups and played in more
career playoff matches (134) than any other active goalie in the
Eastern Conference. "I know about having two good goalies," says
Vernon, who competed for ice time with Steve Shields in San Jose
earlier this season and with Chris Osgood in Detroit from 1994-95
through '96-97. "It's simple: If you play well, you play. If you
don't, you don't."

Murray will likely rely on Vernon to start the postseason, but
don't be surprised if he switches back and forth. Murray is an
impatient sort who constantly tinkers with his personnel. "I've
got to get to the point where I'm not switching line combinations
every half-game," he said recently.

When the Panthers obtained Vernon, they got more than a
top-flight goalie--they added a little intrigue as well.

Lester Patrick Award

Penguins great turned owner Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh general
manager Craig Patrick and longtime USA Hockey coach and
administrator Lou Vairo each will receive the NHL's 35th annual
Lester Patrick Award on Friday for contributions to the sport in
the U.S. Over the years entire teams have also won the
prestigious honor, including the 1980 gold-medal-winning U.S.
Olympic squad and the '98 U.S. women's gold medal club. Next year
the league should recognize the original Miracle on Ice team, the
'60 Olympic squad that won gold at Squaw Valley. That team's
thrilling 3-2 victory over the Soviet Union in the championship
round set up a 9-4 win against Czechoslovakia that legitimized
the U.S. in international hockey--an accomplishment that has been
overlooked for too long.

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA After a high-flying start, Randy McKay and the Devils had been underachieving in recent weeks.




After leading Dallas to the Cup last year, he's having another
superb season. But he could be plagued by his recent arrest for
assault, during which he allegedly offered cops a $1 billion
bribe to set him free.


After serving as Belfour's understudy during the Cup run, he was
traded to St. Louis and is having a spectacular season. It's his
first year as a No. 1 goalie, however, and he's never played in
the postseason.

The Verdict: Despite his recent off-ice difficulties, Belfour
is a proven winner, so he's our guy in the playoffs.