NHL

KELLEY: Lacroix throws Granato into the fire

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Jim Kelley

 
   
 
You have to say this much about Colorado general manager Pierre Lacroix: He certainly believes the mess in the Pepsi Center is not of his making. How else do you explain making Tony Granato, a complete and utter neophyte as a coach at any level, the new man behind the bench? Granato came to the after the end of his playing days with the San Jose , where he had carved out a useful role as a utility forward and culminated an NHL career that lasted a very respectable 773 games. He first came to the team as a replacement for Bryan Trottier, who left in the off-season to take the head-coaching job of the New York . He hasn't been in town long enough to close escrow on a house. Given the Avs' payroll (some $60 million) and the extremely high expectations — nothing short of a championship will do — this situation is like asking the trainee on the fry vat at McDonald's to take over as Chief Operating Officer AND run the Burger King into exile in the process. Just being a, not the, assistant is one thing. Now the 38-year- old Granato is being told to tell goaltender how and when he can play. He's in charge of reorganizing a defense that is still blending in new players, and he's responsible for igniting a group of forwards that has more experience and more championship rings then he's likely even seen, let alone worn. A fresh face is not something unheard of in the hockey world, especially during a mid-season shakeup. History has shown us that, in the short term at least, such a move can work. Yet promoting Granato isn't like the Dallas taking a chance on Dave Tippett or even the of Anaheim taking a flyer on Mike Babcock. Both those men are new to the spot behind an NHL bench, but they have extensive head coaching experience in the minor leagues and, in Tippett's case, even put some serious time in as an assistant with an NHL club just to complete the learning process. Granato has nowhere near that kind of experience. While there's little doubt he'll bring some fresh enthusiasm and passion to the position, he still is swimming among sharks in the Western Conference, an arm of the NHL that has many of the best coaches in the game and has produced the Stanley Cup champion in six of the last seven seasons. In fact, informed sources told FOXSports.com in the wake of Hartley's firing that Lacroix was likely to reach out to either Larry Robinson, the coach of the New Jersey when that team interrupted the Western Conference run of championships, or former Dallas rival Bob Gainey. There were even rumors that one William Scott Bowman, the winningest coach of all time in the NHL, might be tempted out of retirement to have a go with the team he beat in a stirring seven-game Western Conference final last spring. Instead, Lacroix opted to go with Granato, a man who's best known accomplishment in the game is having won the Masterton Trophy after recovering from a serious brain operation and continuing to play hockey. It's a stunning if not arrogant decision, the kind Lacroix has made in the past and the kind that has often had other NHL general mangers shaking their heads. There's a school of thought in the NHL that says the Avs are a really, really good team and organization, and have been for years; but they could have won more Cups if they had invested in top-drawer coaching over the Lacroix era. It's arguable, given that they did indeed win two championships, but that they also lost far too many Western Conference playoff series, especially to Dallas. Those loses often came when it was perceived that the Avs had the better team. The theory then was that coaching was the difference. Granato, of course, had no role in that. He thinks he's ready. He said so in the press conference Wednesday, making a point of stating that if he wasn't ready, "I wouldn't have said yes. The (lack of) experience is no problem at all. I'm very experienced. I've been in this game a long time. I know what I can bring to a team and I'm looking forward to the challenge." Putting aside the stunning naiveté for a moment, a challenge is what it will be. In naming Granato, Lacroix is betting that his team is so good, so talented and so ready to win that even a man with no head coaching experience at any level can direct it past the Detroit , the Dallas , the San Jose , Los Angeles or even the Edmonton , who just happen to be Colorado's next opponent and a team already higher in the standings than the stumbling Avs. He's asking the rookie to reinvent one of the league's worst power plays (22nd overall on the day he was anointed), teach it how to kill penalties (30th in a 30-team league) and even learn how to score goals and win at home. Those are things the Avs used to do with regularity, but now find themselves as incapableof doings as teams like Buffalo and Atlanta and other bottom-dwellers in the game. Colorado has just three home wins this season. He's betting that this team, which lost 10 games in the playoffs last spring and barely survived challenges from Los Angeles and San Jose before falling to the eventual champion , hasn't started to slip a bit. It's a given Granato will get a bump in that he's new and teams generally refocus after they've managed to get a coach fired (see San Jose and, to a lesser degree, Calgary so far this season), but the reality is that it's a long, hard road to a championship, and this team already has its doubts. The doubts go all the way back to Game 7 of their loss to the when their ace, , was lit up like the White House Christmas tree. The Avs haven't been the same since. The problems are mounting. Roy hasn't looked very good this season. The power play is failing in part because star defenseman is having a poor season. The offense is faltering because and don't seem to be able to play with just one puck, the younger players aren't carrying their share of the load and Lacroix made early-season changes in the team chemistry by trading away popular and effective players like and . Factor all these in, and it's clear that there are problems in Colorado that even an experienced coach like Hartley couldn't fix. Lacroix went on record Wednesday as saying that this team is perhaps the best in the organization's history and that he made the coaching change because it wasn't playing that way. He may be right, but given the problems it's shown all season the assessment smacks more than a little of the emperor admiring his own handiwork with a needle and some thread. What Lacroix has done here is to ask Granato to prove that this collection of talent is so good that having an experienced coach behind the bench doesn't really matter. He's saying that anybody not named Hartley can do the job. That's saying a lot, but then Lacroix has been down this road before. Rest assured that if the Avs fail under Granato as well, it still won't be a mess of Lacroix's making. Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address, jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Flames, Red Wings, Kings, Stars, Devils, Avalanche, Sharks, Ducks, Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Chris Drury, Stephane Yelle, Peter Forsberg

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