Penguins fire Kehoe after missing playoffs

Posted: Wednesday, April 16, 2003

PITTSBURGH The Pittsburgh Penguins are looking for a new coach who is comfortable working with no-names and prospects, not superstars.

The Penguins, virtually stripped of the big names that made them a playoff team for 10 years, fired coach Rick Kehoe on Tuesday and began looking for a replacement who understands winning won't come easily, or immediately.

Kehoe's record of 55-81-14-10 was the worst of any Penguins coach since the mid-1980s, and he was the first since Bob Berry (1984-87) to miss the playoffs in consecutive seasons. The Penguins were 27-44-6-5 this season, their worst record since Mario Lemieux's rookie season in 1984-85.

Still, Kehoe was all but absolved of blame by general manager Craig Patrick, who said the team's moneysaving moves all but made losing inevitable.

The Penguins have traded away or lost stars Jaromir Jagr, Alexei Kovalev, Robert Lang the last two years, leaving a cast of little-known players and developing prospects.

Lemieux, the owner-player who came out of retirement 2 1/2 years ago, also is only a formal announcement away from retiring for a second time.

I talked to Rick today, and I said I wasn't blaming him,'' Patrick said. It was bad circumstances. I wish we had done better, but it wasn't (Kehoe's) fault. I'm not blaming him for our failures.''

Kehoe, a player, scout or coach with the Penguins for 29 years, ranks fourth in career scoring with the team. He is expected to stay on in an undetermined role, as are assistant coaches Randy Hillier and Joey Mullen.

Patrick said the Penguins need a coach who is comfortable working with young players and is a good communicator.

It's a different era, we're rebuilding. We're a lot younger and we've got different personnel to coach,'' Patrick said.

The Penguins made the playoffs every season from 1991 to 2001, winning two Stanley Cups, but financial restrictions forced them to dump their top-salaried players to keep Lemieux's ownership group solvent. The team emerged from bankruptcy in 1999 when Lemieux's group bought them.

Lemieux recently ordered Patrick and team president Ken Sawyer to make a top-to-bottom evaluation of the organization. Patrick said the team is in a survival mode'' until a new NHL labor agreement is reached.

The firing means the Penguins will be seeking their seventh coach since the 1996-97 Lemieux's last full season before he initially retired.

Former general manager Eddie Johnston was fired as coach midway through that season and replaced on an interim basis by general manager Craig Patrick. Kevin Constantine was hired in 1997, but was fired in December 1999 after several run-ins with star Jaromir Jagr. He was succeeded by Herb Brooks, who coached the team the rest of the season but could not be persuaded to take the job full time.

Ivan Hlinka replaced Brooks, coaching the team to the Eastern Conference finals in 2001, but he was replaced by Kehoe four games into the 2001-02 season after the team got off to a slow start.

The Penguins finished the last two seasons poorly under Kehoe. They were winless in their final 10 games (0-9-1) last season, and won only twice in their final 21 games this year (2-17-2).

You can give all the excuses you want, but you still have to work with the guys you have,'' Kehoe said recently. You win as an organization and lose as an organization.''

Kehoe had one year left on a contract worth about $350,000, making him one of the NHL's lowest-paid coaches.

The Penguins' new coach will take over a team that finished next-to-last in the NHL's overall standings, ahead of only Carolina. Because the Penguins are expected to lose about $3 million this season, no major offseason player moves are expected.

Forwards Martin Straka and Aleksey Morozov and goalie Johan Hedberg will be the top returning players next season, but the defensemen might be the weakest group in the NHL. The players acquired during the late-season roster reshaping have had little success in the league, a group that includes Rico Fata, Mikael Samuelsson, Guillame Lefebvre, Dan Focht and Richard Lintner.



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