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Behind every failing coach is a befuddled GM

Nov 6, 2010, 4:24 PM EDT

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The Score’s “Houses of Hockey” blog featured an updated list of coaches on the hot seat, spotlighting Buffalo’s Lindy Ruff, New Jersey’s John MacLean and Anaheim’s Randy Carlyle.

I agree with the list, but I think it’s a shame that coaches are almost always the “fall guys” when the truth is that a team’s general manager is just as much to blame (if not more). With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the blunders by the Sabres, Devils and Ducks GMs.

Sabres GM Darcy Regier - Regier deserves some benefit of the doubt for dealing with working in small market Buffalo. That and the small town’s cold weather makes it harder for the team to land big ticket free agents.

Still, it looks like Regier made some tactical errors. For one thing, he depended on two players continuing to play over their heads. Ryan Miller is a genuine elite player, but counting on him to top (or maintain) his 2009-10 level of performance is asking a bit much. Regier also seemed to expect Tyler Myers to be at least as good as he was during his unexpected run to the Calder Trophy, but the super-tall defenseman is regressing a bit. Even if talk of a “sophomore slump” is a bit overblown, Regier put too much stock in Myers, allowing top defensemen Henrik Tallinder and Toni Lydman leave via free agency for cheaper options.

He left Ruff (pictured to the right) with a makeshift defense, an OK but by no means elite group of forwards and a shoddy, bargain-basement backup in Patrick Lalime. Both Ruff and Regier have been in Buffalo a long time, but it seems like the longest tenured coach in the NHL might be the scapegoat instead of Regier.

Devils GM Lou Lamoriello – People will naturally gravitate toward the Ilya Kovalchuk signing and – in some ways, rightfully so – even if it’s more of a symbolic mistake. It signifies a break from the team’s tradition of avoiding big free agent risks and never putting one player above the whole.

But when you look at it, the team’s been moving in the wrong direction for years. Trading for Jason Arnott made the team worse from a 5-on-5 perspective and I must admit that I was a little shocked by how excited many people were by the signing of a very average backup in Johan Hedberg. Let’s not even get started on the contract he handed to Brian Rolston.

Really, it comes down to their threadbare defense, though. Some moves have been related to bad luck, from Anton Volchenkov (pictured) being injured* to Scott Stevens retiring and Scott Niedermayer wanting to play alongside his brother in Anaheim. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that he let Paul Martin and Brian Rafalski walk; maybe those two received more money than they were worth, but how many blows can a blueline take before it falls apart?

Perhaps it’s not as much about MacLean being a bad coach as it is about how deft Jacques Lemaire was at camouflaging the team’s defensive blemishes. Either way, the Devils woes can be traced back to a common combination of bad luck and bad decisions. Lamoriello earned his protected place as one of the league’s most respected general managers, but perhaps he’s lost a step or three over the years.

* – Though I think it’s fair to say that signing a guy who blocks that many shots to a big contract is pretty risky, considering the fact that laying down in front of a puck is hockey’s answer to Russian Roulette.

Ducks GM Bob Murray – After beating the Pittsburgh Penguins last night, I think Carlyle (and Murray) are much safer than they were a week or two ago. Still, the Ducks could very well waddle their way back into trouble, so let’s take a quick look at their issues.

Much like Lamoriello, Murray (pictured) faced a combination of bad luck and bad decisions when it came to the team’s once-proud defense. Then again, Niedermayer has been mulling retirement for years, so it’s not as if he could have been blindsided by the decision. Trading Chris Pronger for prospects was seen as a bottom-line decision, but they didn’t save as much money as expected considering the fact that one-dimensional forward Joffrey Lupul doesn’t make much less cash. Since winning the Stanley Cup, the Ducks lost Pronger, Niedermayer, Francois Beauchemin and James Wisniewski among other defensemen.

Mysteriously enough, the team is allowing the most shots in the league and their talented offense and above average goalie are given too much of a burden for consistent success. Perhaps Carlyle deserves some of the blame, but Murray blamed the players, at least publicly … and Murray is the man who chose them.

***

So, that’s my take on those three situations. I’m not saying that coaches deserve none of the blame and general managers should be given all of it. Yet much like a middle manager getting fired even if it’s hardly his or her fault, coaches often get canned even if the real problem is one step higher up the food chain.

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