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They're changing on the fly

Early-season overhaul rattles Philadelphia

Ken Hitchcock won't find trouble finding work, because with that 1999 Cup (see: Dallas) in his back pocket, the work will find him -- sooner rather than later.

"Hitch," canned last Saturday night by the Flyers, could have his pick of NHL head coaching jobs in the next few hours, with the promise of October about to turn into the excuse-making and disappointment of November. Here in the Hub of Hockey, the Bruins aren't about to ditch Dave Lewis, but if this were Year No. 3 of his deal, and not the end of Week No. 3, he would be in the crosshairs. The early going on Causeway Street has been rough, and it could get rougher, but first-year coaching staffs, especially when hired by first-year general managers, arrive with extended honeymoons written into their deals.

Hitchcock, 54, bargained a two-year contract extension in Philadelphia only last month. Between now and the spring of 2009, he'll pull down another $3 million, all of it to be paid by the Flyers unless another club takes him off the Philly dole for a sum agreeable to team chairman Ed Snider and friends.

Is there better proof of a panic move -- the Islanders' turfing of GM short-timer Neil Smith aside -- than firing a veteran, respected coach only five weeks after adding two years to his deal? In an attempt to explain, the 73-year-old Snider said Hitchcock had lost the team, all in all a hackneyed reach into the they've-tuned-him-out bag of tricks so often offered by a general manager.

Of course, in Philly, the 'splainin' was left to Snider, because the GM, Bob Clarke, officially turned in his keys last weekend, too. In a rare and frank admission of having lost the lust it takes to do the job effectively, the 57-year-old Clarke told Snider & Co. that he no longer in good conscience could keep on keepin' on in the front office.

"I just got tired of firing people," Clarke explained a couple of days later. "I wasn't doing a very good job."

Clarke indeed appeared somewhat addled at the June draft in Vancouver when he took to the podium and forgot the name (Claude Giroux) of the club's first-round draft pick. The walk from the Flyers' draft table hadn't been that long.

"I felt I should have recognized it earlier," Clarke said at a news conference last Sunday, attempting to explain the career burnout that had crept into his psyche. He added that he first began to detect it during the draft, where "I realized I was a bystander."

One of the game's greatest and nastiest (meant here as a compliment) competitors, Clarke was the franchise face, the heart and soul of the two-time Cup-winning Flyers in the '70s. The game in those days was a cauldron of spilled blood, guts, and cowboy courage. Clarke gave out plenty, but only ounces more than he received. For anyone who watched his sweat and will and determination, to see him later in life, wearing a tailored suit and polite smile, there was always this initial reaction of, "That's Bobby Clarke?!"

For the most part, Clarke's teams mirrored his playing style, and that did not play well in the New NHL, with its emphasis on skill and speed and total disdain for anything edging toward thuggery. The club that he surrendered over the weekend to Paul Holmgren (promoted to interim GM) has a couple of skilled forwards but a plodding defense and a very questionable pair of goalies (Antero Niittymaki and Robert Esche). Clarke's perennial blind spot was in net.

Had he been more on his game prior to the June draft, perhaps he could cobbled together a deal for Roberto Luongo, the star netminder who was dealt from Florida to Vancouver on the eve of the draft. During his tenure, Clarke also missed opportunities to land the likes of Dominik Hasek, Nikolai Khabibulin, Miikka Kiprusoff, Curtis Joseph, and Eddie Belfour. Who knows how different Flyer fortunes might have been with any one of them in net?

Clarke and Hitchcock were joined at the hip, both in friendship and philosophy, but that didn't mean Hitchcock had to go. However, the players were grousing (gee, golly, shucks), the icon was packing it in, and Snider, rather than reach in with the steadying hand of experience, ditched Hitch in favor of assistant coach John Stevens. Excuse No. 1 from the Fire the Coach Handbook: Lost command of players.

"You have to look deeper, a lot deeper," said Hitchcock, objecting to Snider's view, "if you care enough to do it."

He got a new grip on training

Zdeno Chara grew up in Slovakia with a backyard gymnasium that his father, a world-class Greco-Roman wrestler, fashioned out of the family fruit trees. The athletic setup included ropes and pullup bars, all manner of homemade devices the young Z would employ intermittently between chores.

Feed the chickens, do a dozen pullups, return to the tool shed. Weed the garden, climb the rope. Not the stuff of the local health club, for a $59-a-month membership fee.

When the work was finished, Chara's father, a member of Slovakia's 1976 Olympic squad, also schooled him in the fine art of Greco-Roman wrestling. Although avid, if not fanatical, about his workouts, Chara no longer keeps up his Greco-Roman training.

"No, it's not possible," the 6-foot-9-inch Chara explained. "You need the ropes, and the special mats -- the mats are very important, for falling and hitting the floor all the time."

Not to mention, what's one wrestler to do without a willing partner?

"Exactly," said Chara. "The training isn't just lifting weights, it's lifting other bodies. And you're lifting bodies that are trying [to escape holds]. That's not easy, let's face it. You are trying to lift people and they are trying to scratch your eyes out."

Kiprusoff must redouble his efforts

The Flames are struggling to remain near the .500 mark, and as in the early going last year, their power play is paltry (6 for 54, 11.1 percent, going into last night).

But last year, they could always bank on the dependable Miikka Kiprusoff, who won the Vezina Trophy as top goalie and finished third in MVP balloting with a 42-20-11 record, 10 shutouts, and a 2.07 goals-against mark.

This season, Kipper's numbers look bloated by comparison (3-4-1, 1 shutout, 2.76 GAA, .908 save percentage).

Kiprusoff's 2.07 was the best GAA in the league last season, and it followed his league-best 1.69 in 2003-04. Since expansion in '67, only three other netminders -- Dominik Hasek, Ken Dryden, and Bernie Parent -- have posted the best GAA in consecutive seasons:

Hasek, Buffalo -- 1.95 (1993-94), 2.11 (1994-95).

Dryden, Montreal -- 2.05 (1977-78), 2.30 (1978-79).

Parent, Philadelphia -- 1.89 (1973-74), 2.03 (1974-75).

Maple Leafs netminder Johnny Bower was the last goalie to finish with the lowest GAA in three straight seasons, posting marks of 2.11, 2.38, and 2.25 from 1963-64 through 1965-66.


Born in the USA
With Paul Holmgren named interim general manager in Philadelphia upon Bob Clarke's resignation, there are now 16 current NHL GMs who were born in the US or went to a US college. Holmgren, 50, was born in St. Paul and played one season (1974-75) at the University of Minnesota. He turned pro the following season with the WHA's Minnesota Fighting Saints, joined there by ex-Bruins Mike Walton and Johnny McKenzie.

Home arena
Ex-Bruin Sergei Samsonov, not happy as a spare part in the Montreal offense, bought the home of ex-Habs goalie Jose Theodore (now in Colorado) upon signing in July. The expansive home is in Nun's Island, a short commute to downtown Montreal. The Magical Muscovite had better be quick on his feet around the house. Theodore's, uh, downfall last year began during the Olympic hiatus around the time of a slip and fall at home that left him with a fractured heel.

Gill has been a plus
The Bruins, in need of many things to prevent their season from slipping out of sight in the next week or two, may have no option other than to wheel P.J. Axelsson for depth on defense -- a reliable second-pairing guy. Meanwhile, Hal Gill has been just that guy in Toronto, where he is averaging more than 21 minutes per night (up nearly 3 minutes over last year) and is among the Leafs' very few plus players (plus-2 into last night's play). Coach Paul Maurice credits Pal Hal for helping to bring along rookie D-men Ian White and Brendan Bell, and often has the ex-Bruin pairing with White to work against the opposition's top line. Maurice on Gill: "His range keeps the puck to the outside, gives the younger defensemen a half-second more to make a decision." Maurice said he consulted with ex-Bruins coaches Mike Sullivan and Wayne Cashman prior to the Leafs signing Gill to a three-year deal of just under $6.3 million. The Bruins see the Leafs for the first time Nov. 9. Meanwhile, Toronto's top goalie, ex-Bruin Andrew Raycroft, has struggled of late, letting up seven goals to the Senators Thursday.

Read his mind, not his lips
There is no denying Scotty Bowman's coaching genius, but Bruins coach Dave Lewis can attest that his former boss sometimes operated on a tricky frequency. Take the day Bowman, with Lewis and fellow assistant coach Barry Smith with him behind the Detroit bench, barked out orders for a line change. "Scotty was going, 'Fedorov up! Fedorov up! Fedorov up!', and he must have yelled for Fedorov four or five times," said Lewis. "Everybody on the bench heard it. Barry heard it. I heard it. The trainers heard it. So Fedorov goes. Then Scotty turns to Barry and says, 'What's Fedorov doing out there? I said Yzerman!' Then Barry says, 'Well, you said Fedorov.' And Scotty goes, 'Yeah, but I meant Yzerman.' "

Powerful difference
The Red Wings, finally showing their age and, to some extent, what it's like not to be able to add on talent at whatever the price, headed into last night with a lowly 6-for-52 power play mark (11.5 percent). Only six teams, including the Bruins, are worse with the man-advantage. The Wings scored 102 times on the man-advantage last season, for a league-high 22.1 percent efficiency.

The Swiss watch
Alexandre Daigle, drafted No. 1 in 1993 and projected as the cornerstone of the Senators, has followed in Joe Thornton's footsteps to Switzerland. Last week, the 31-year-old Daigle stood as the top scorer in Davos (Jumbo Joe's home during the lockout), after splitting last season between Minnesota (AHL) and Manchester (AHL). Through 13 games, Daigle had 9 goals and 15 points. Ex-Bruin Landon "Of The Lost" Wilson played in Davos last season, but switched over the summer to league champion Lugano, where he had 7 points (5 goals) in seven games.

Thinking outside the box
Ex-Bruins winger Jeff "The Not So Artful" Odgers settled in Atlanta after wrapping up his playing career there in the spring of 2003, and these days he handles radio color commentary for Thrashers games. Odgers, 37, wrapped up his career with 2,364 penalty minutes. Headed into last night, center Jim Slater, ex- of Michigan State, led all Thrashers with 20 PIMs. Twenty minutes! Barely the break-a-sweat level by Odgers standards.

Hisspace . com
Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin couldn't have been more pleased recently to receive an autographed picture of a Russian cosmonaut, as well as a taped message from space. Asked by Edmonton Journal reporter Jim Matheson if one day he would like to take a trip into space, the great AO said, "No, I am in space right now -- the NHL is my space."

New foot soldier joins ranks
The Black and Gold will have a tinge of purple in the front office this week when Holy Cross grad Matt Chmura takes over as the Bruins director of public relations. Chmura, from Taunton, recently was vice president of communications for the New York Red Bulls (MLS). He'll take over many of the duties handled in recent years by faithful Causeway employee Heidi Holland, who now will handle a variety of other publicity roles in the front office. Chmura, prior to going to the Red Bulls, interned for the Patriots, Titans, Revolution, and Boston Herald. He packed up his soccer gear Friday and could begin on Causeway tomorrow.

Kevin Paul Dupont's e-mail address is; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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