Some seats warming up even in NHL in short season

The Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets broke the seal on

firing season in the NHL, showing some teams are short on patience

even in a lockout-delayed year.

Buffalo got rid of Lindy Ruff, its coach since 1997, last month,

just more than a week after Columbus fired general manager Scott

Howson following five-plus years.

Some men behind benches and in front offices may not be resting

easy these days.

Nashville Predators coach Barry Trotz said each time the puck

drops, it could be the last game for one of his colleagues.

He would know.

”There were times I knew I was on the hot seat,” Trotz

said.

Trotz can recall vividly being told he kept his job Nov. 8,

2003, because Nashville rallied from a three-goal deficit to win

4-3 at Detroit. And Trotz still has his gig, trailing only San

Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich in longevity among North

America’s four major pro leagues.

”I’ve been fortunate,” acknowledged Trotz, who has been

Nashville’s only coach since it joined the league in 1998.

Others might not be so fortunate this season.

San Jose coach Todd McLellan has helped the Sharks to the

Western Conference finals twice, and won three straight division

titles before finishing second last year. But he’s coming off a

first-round exit with a franchise that hasn’t hoisted the Stanley

Cup.

And, his slumping-yet-talented team wouldn’t be in the playoffs

– for the first time in a decade – if the tournament started today

after winning just two of their last 12 games.

”It starts with the coaching staff,” McLellan said. ”We’ve

got to go in and give them a plan, give them something they feel

they can use in a game that can help them. We try to do that every

day. After that, a lot of it is leadership, but it’s individuals,

too. It’s reverting back to what you do well, what got you here,

what skill set you have and are you applying it to the game night

in and night out.”

Arguably, no one in the league has more talent than Washington

Capitals superstar forward Alex Ovechkin. Even with the two-time

MVP, though, Washington, with an Eastern Conference-low 15 points,

is in danger of not playing in the postseason for the first time

since 2007. First-year coach Adam Oates probably will keep his job

even if the franchise doesn’t make the playoffs. Capitals owner Ted

Leonsis likely would allow Oates to have a honeymoon into next

season, but general manager George McPhee may not have the same

fate if the team’s season ends April 27 in its regular-season

finale.

Even though Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan is in just his

second season, he’s the third coach that has tried to get the

once-proud franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since

2008. Gulutzan, whose team is in a logjam between the Nos. 4 and 12

clubs in the highly competitive West, said scrutiny is simply a

nature of his chosen profession.

”Do I consider myself on the hot seat? I think every coach

does,” he said. ”You want success and this is a tough league and

you’ve got to get it.

”If fear is your motivator, it doesn’t last long.”

It’s been a long five years since the Minnesota Wild were in the

playoffs. They tried to end the drought by making a splash last

summer, signing highly touted free agents Zach Parise and Ryan

Suter to $98 million, 13-year contacts.

When Parise had a game-winning goal in overtime Tuesday night

against the Calgary Flames, Minnesota coach Mike Yeo didn’t hide

the fact that he was fired up about a victory in the face of

pressure.

”I’m emotional right now, for sure,” he said. ”That’s who I

am. I’m not going to hide that. But I’m great. For me, personally,

I love it.”

Ruff and Howson loved their jobs, too, and did everything in

their power to help their franchises win.

The former Sabres coach, who was the franchise’s winningest, was

fired with a 6-10-1 record this season and replaced by interim Ron

Rolston, called up from the AHL.

Ruff saw it coming, leading a team that was getting booed – and

even jeered when they crossed the blue line Feb. 19 in a home loss

to Winnipeg – during a slow start nearly two years after Terry

Pegula bought the team and instilled championship-level

expectations. He wasn’t surprised when Buffalo general manager

Darcy Regier showed up at his door to deliver the news.

Regier insisted he wasn’t worried about his future when he

announced Ruff was fired.

”It’s not about me,” he said.

It was Howson who helped the Blue Jackets make their only

postseason appearance in 2009, but it wasn’t a surprise when he was

let go Feb. 12. A day later, Columbus president of hockey

operations John Davidson hired Jarmo Kekalainen, reuniting with him

after they worked together in St. Louis

The beginning of the end for Howson was when Davidson was hired

in October to report directly to majority owner John P. McConnell

and to oversee a lame-duck GM.

”I look more at the big picture,” Davidson said when he fired

Howson.

Other teams may do the same soon.

AP Sports Writers Rusty Miller, John M. Wawrow, Joseph White,

Josh Dubow, Schuyler Dixon, Dave Campbell

Follow Larry Lage on Twitter: http://twitter.com/LarryLage