- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

George McPhee had been pondering the painful decision for weeks. The team’s first winning streak this season gave the Washington Capitals’ general manager hope that he wouldn’t have to make it.

But the three straight one-sided losses that followed convinced McPhee to fire second-year coach Bruce Cassidy yesterday and replace him with assistant Glen Hanlon.

“We were in a spiral and I couldn’t sit back any longer,” said McPhee, whose hugely disappointing team is last in the 30-team NHL at 8-18-1-1. “We completely lost our momentum after [losing Game 3 of the playoffs to Tampa Bay in overtime] and I don’t know if we’ve gotten it back this year. There seemed to be a shadow over training camp, that we all felt like we failed in some way. …

“I don’t know if it will change the performance of the club, but I do know that if we didn’t do something right now, we’re going to lose all hope of making the playoffs.”

Even with the recent defeats in New Jersey, Los Angeles and Colorado by a combined score of 14-4, the Caps were a respectable 5-7-0-1 in their past 13 games, nine of which were on the road.

“We definitely needed a spark whether it be a trade or a firing,” goalie Olie Kolzig said. “It got to the point where I don’t want to say that losing became accepted, but I don’t know if we were as upset about it as we should have been. Look at our team on paper, and Butch didn’t get the most out of what we had. But now the pressure is on the guys. The coach has been changed. It’s up to the players to respond.”

Although defenseman Brendan Witt said that Cassidy’s insinuation after last Thursday’s loss to the Devils some of players were more concerned about their family situations than their jobs might have been the last straw, McPhee said those comments weren’t a factor.

“I made this decision based on our record and our performance,” said McPhee, who believed this summer that the Caps’ potent offense would overcome a defense that, after Witt and Sergei Gonchar, is very inexperienced.

“We have four or five players who are playing exceptionally well, four, five or six who aren’t playing anywhere near their capabilities and the rest [are] just there. I thought by making the change, we’ll have the heart and soul guys pull up their socks and play better.”

Indeed, elite forwards Robert Lang, Jaromir Jagr and Peter Bondra, along with Dainius Zubrus, have produced 63 percent (44 of 70) of the team’s goals.

In contrast, Mike Grier, Jeff Halpern and Witt have a dreadful combined minus-37 defensive rating. And Kolzig’s 3.11 goals-against average is easily the worst of his seven years as the Caps’ No.1 goalie.

The Caps have the ninth-highest payroll in the league ($51.1 million) but have the third-fewest victories (eight).

Hanlon, 46, has never coached an NHL game, but unlike fellow minor-league winner Cassidy, whom McPhee chose in June2002 after Ron Wilson was fired, Hanlon has extensive NHL experience.

A goalie for 14 seasons, including four as McPhee’s teammate on the New York Rangers, Hanlon was an NHL assistant for nine-plus seasons. The first eight of those came in Vancouver where McPhee was the assistant GM.

McPhee hired him to coach Washington’s American Hockey League team in Portland, Maine, in 1999. Hanlon was voted the AHL’s top coach that season and posted a 110-94-29-7 record in three years with the Pirates.

“Glen’s a very well-respected guy, a very well-liked guy,” McPhee said. “He has a very good understanding of the game. Glen said that he had been ready for this for a long time. It’s the enthusiasm that I really like the most. Players really respond to that approach.

“We can take losing if we’re competing like [heck]. We’ve been known as a hard-working team, a tough team to play against. We want to get back to that.”

That’s the upbeat Hanlon’s plan, no matter the uphill battle he faces.

“We have a lot of things in place and we can’t lose sight of that,” Hanlon said. “You start focusing on the things that have gone wrong and you start forgetting how great some people really are. That’s what we have to work on here. I’m going to be very patient.

“The coach really believes in the players. And we’ll make sure that they’re totally prepared to be able to compete. I will guarantee that we will create an environment where all the players want to be responsible to the group. We don’t have time to change a lot of things, nor do we need to. Bruce implemented a lot of good things here. To wipe the slate clean would be a waste. We need to learn from what’s happened and move on.”

Cassidy, reached at home yesterday, declined to comment.

Notes — With Witt likely out two games with a bruised shoulder, the Caps recalled defenseman Dwayne Zinger from Portland. … McPhee said rookie left wing Alexander Semin will probably join Russia’s World Cup team today and not return until early January. Randy Carlyle and goalie coach Dave Prior will remain as Hanlon’s assistants. … Hanlon and McPhee have opted to keep the system of three assistant captains at home and three others on the road with no one wearing the traditional “C.”

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