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Devils try to shake up team by canning coach

Posted: Tuesday, January 29, 2002

WEST ORANGE, N.J. (AP) -- No more Mr. Nice Guy, and the New Jersey Devils have only themselves to blame.

Larry Robinson was fired as the Devils coach on Monday with the club struggling to make the playoffs less than a year after coming within a victory of winning consecutive Stanley Cups.

The easygoing and well-liked Robinson was replaced by former Pittsburgh Penguins coach Kevin Constantine, a noted disciplinarian.

Constantine, who considers himself a teacher, will make his debut on Tuesday at the New York Islanders.

''This team needs a coach of Kevin's personality, structure, discipline and accountability,'' general manager Lou Lamoriello said. ''The players are underachieving. They know why and I'll leave it at that.''

Perennially one of the NHL's strongest teams, the Devils (21-20-7-3) are in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, one spot out of a playoff position with 31 games left.

While the playoffs are within their grasp, the Devils have been inconsistent all season. Good games have been followed by bad games, and the players have shown little spark no matter how much Robinson has tried.

''Everybody says that I'm too soft to be a coach,'' Robinson said in a telephone conference call. ''Well, if that means I have to change the person that I am, to coach a club, then maybe that's not what I want to do.''

So, Lamoriello made the coaching change, the second major switch in the NHL in less than a week. Ken Hitchcock, who led the Dallas Stars to Stanley Cup finals in 1999 and 2000, was fired last week.

''I still think Larry's an excellent coach,'' Lamoriello said. ''Larry did everything and anything he possibly could. They (players) weren't responding on a consistent basis.''

To a man, the players took the blame for Robinson's dismissal.

''He's a great guy. He's a great person. We all know that,'' Devils captain Scott Stevens said. ''His best characteristic probably hurt him the worst, being a nice guy. Some people can take advantage of that.''

The Devils, who are 16 points behind first-place Philadelphia in the Atlantic Division, have not won consecutive games since Jan. 1.

The firing, which also included assistant coaches Slava Fetisov and Jay Leach, comes days after the Devils posted a 1-2-1 record on a road trip that included losses to Tampa Bay and Atlanta and a tie with Minnesota.

Lamoriello telephoned Constantine on Friday and the two met on Saturday. The general manager met with Robinson on Sunday, but he did not decide to replace him until hours later.

Lamoriello, who failed to re-sign leading goal scorer Alexander Mogilny in the offseason, and didn't find a capable backup for goaltender Martin Brodeur, accepted blame for the team's problems.

While there had been whispers in recent weeks that Robinson was in trouble, the move still caught some of the players off guard.

Center Jason Arnott was taping his stick before practice on Monday at South Mountain Arena, when he was told there was going to be a team meeting. A couple of minutes later he had a new coach.

''I'm not going to sit here and point fingers and say the team let me down,'' said Robinson, a classy Hall of Fame defenseman who won six Stanley Cup as a member of the Montreal Canadiens. ''They didn't do some things right. I didn't do things right.

''Bottom line is, Lou had to do what he felt was right for the team, to help the team win.''

Constantine also is a former coach of the San Jose Sharks. He was running a $20 million sports complex and serving as general manager of a junior hockey program in Pittsburgh before his hiring.

While he wasn't sure he wanted to take Robinson's job at first, Constantine said the chance to coach a talented team was too good to refuse.

Constantine posted an 86-64-35-4 record in two-plus seasons with Pittsburgh, a tenure that included some problems with Jaromir Jagr. He was 55-78-24 with San Jose. The Sharks improved 58 points in his first season, the biggest one-year improvement in NHL history.

Lamoriello would not discuss contract terms but said Constantine is not an interim coach.

Devils scout John Cunniff was hired to assist Constantine.

Robinson was hired by the Devils on March 23, 2000, replacing Robbie Ftorek with eight games left in the regular season.

Robinson split those games before guiding the Devils to their second Stanley Cup championship, beating the Stars in six games. Last season, the Devils also made the Stanley Cup final but lost to the Colorado Avalanche.

Robinson became Ftorek's assistant in 1999 after four years coaching the Los Angeles Kings. He was also an assistant to Devils coach Jacques Lemaire's staff when the Devils won the Cup in 1995.



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