Coaches avoiding the axe

LANCE HORNBY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:54 AM ET

Around this time last year, three NHL coaches already had been fired, Denis Savard (Chicago), Barry Melrose (Tampa Bay) and Peter Laviolette (Carolina). A total of five others fell before Dec. 1 the two previous seasons.

But a much more competitive NHL has seen every coach keep his job so far. Before last night's games, 29 of 30 teams were separated by 19 points. The loyalty of general managers also can be traced to a plague of injuries to star players that have kept many clubs incapable of reaching full potential.

GMs such as Brian Burke, Jim Rutherford and Larry Pleau thus far have resisted calls for their coaches to be axed, while newcomers such as Minnesota's Todd Richards are getting more rope.

Ron Wilson in Toronto and the St. Louis Blues' Andy Murray also have long-term deals. Murray's original four-year contract was to be up in June, but the Blues, who jumped to 92 points last year, picked it up before the season started.

"I never have (worried about being replaced) and never will," Murray told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "What I worry about is how we're going to get that next win. You can worry so much about failure that it keeps you from thinking about the things you need to think about to be successful."

Diamond in the Ruff

The Sabres are in town tonight with Wilson being the fourth Leafs coach that Lindy Ruff has taken on since he came aboard the Buffalo bench in 1997. To outsiders, it might seem Ruff has softened after 12 years, during which every team in the league switched coaches at least once (even the four expansion teams), though he's on the playoff road again with a record of 14-7-2.

Ruff, who will turn 50 during the Olympic break when he's helping Team Canada, has backed away from post-game rants, designated elder players to take charge in the room and been more forgiving of errors, mentioning how hard the team worked in its first 10 games.

Earlier this year, the longest tenured coach in the NHL mentioned he'd tried some positive reinforcement techniques from a parenting book he happened to pick up in the summer and it's clear that working with the Canadian team at the last world championship and helping head coach Mike Babcock get ready for Vancouver has given him some new insight.

The Sabres almost are certain to use their option to bring Ruff back next season.

Survivor: New Jersey

The Devils are trying to stay in the fight for first place in the Eastern Conference, despite a glut of injuries, the latest to defenceman David Clarkson, who will be out four to six weeks. He joins forwards Rob Niedermayer, Dainius Zubrus, Jay Pandolfo as well as defencemen Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya. Three of the injuries are broken bones.

"You're just wondering when it's going to end," forward Zach Parise said.

Emery losing edge

Brian Boucher, who had done little of note since a 51/2 game shutout streak in 2002 with Phoenix, is bidding to take Ray Emery's starting job with the Flyers.

After Emery dropped four straight and gave up 16 goals, the team turned to Boucher, who has allowed five goals in four games after a 1-0 loss to Atlanta on Saturday.

Around the league

Chicago survived its often deadly "circus trip" -- a stretch of road games while the big top is at the United Center -- with nine of a possible 12 points. The Hawks have just three short-hop trips between now and Christmas Day ... Brad Boyes, who averaged 38 goals for the Blues the past two seasons, picked up just his sixth on the weekend ... Ex-NHLer Mark Pederson will coach the Serbian team at the 2010 world championship ... Nashville has a new dark blue third jersey with a lace-up collar and striping similar to Original Six teams. There is a blue-and-black checkerboard on the sleeves as a nod to the University of Tennessee's football end zones.

The week ahead

San Jose Sharks' Dany Heatley crosses paths with the Senators for the first time since his fractured relationship in Ottawa finally was broken by a summer trade ... The top two picks of the past two years meet on Saturday in Tampa, the Lightning's Steven Stamkos against the Isles' John Tavares. The most recent time two Ontario-born No. 1's would have clashed in such a game for the first time would've been 1977, Rick Green of Washington against Detroit's Dale McCourt ... Having finally achieved more wins than you can count on one hand, the Leafs will attempt to win a weekday home game against Buffalo.

LANCE.HORNBY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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