Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: So, Doug Armstrong is out as the Stars GM and Brett Hull and Les Jackson are in as interim replacements. Armstrong and Atlanta coach Bob Hartley are the only casualties so far this season. Surprised?
Damien: Surprised that there haven't been more casualties? Well, I think you and I could list a half-dozen teams or more, and we probably will, that are looking at big shake-up moves. Dallas and Atlanta shared one thing in common: big U.S. markets in which the team was nervous about losing the attention of its audience. The Stars have drawn well for years, but have a boring team now with few stars. The Thrashers have good, exciting, young players, but a dicey market. Don't you think the nature of their markets played a role in both situations?
Scott: I think that's definitely at play in both cases, although I think it's interesting that owner Tom Hicks decided, almost on his own from the sounds of how the Armstrong dismissal went down, to pare from the top instead of taking the tried-and-true route of tossing coach Dave Tippett overboard. In Atlanta, ownership doesn't really have a clue what its team is about, so Bob Hartley was sacrificed. The Stars, who have exactly two more points than Atlanta, seemed to have identified a different source of the problem: the team's structure. I wonder if we'll see more general managers facing similar treatment, which might be more fair than just whizzing the coach because you've got to do something to satisfy the locals.
Damien: But here's the rub. Clearly, the Thrashers have responded, at least short term, to the change and Waddell's coaching. A move behind the bench can do that. I'm not sure how changing the GM can have the same short-term effect, particularly since there are candidates for the job that might otherwise be employed and would be free at the end of the season. Teams respond to a new coach. A new GM? Not much history of that.
Scott: But I think that's the point. The Stars are what they are, and that's one of about eight mediocre teams in the Western Conference. But their chances of being anything more than that beyond this season are tied up with who's building the team. I'm not sure Brett Hull, the "Ambassador of Fun," is the guy to help, but I give Hicks credit for saying, "We're not going to play this out any longer. Let's move on." In Atlanta, there are significant pieces, like the league's top goal scorer, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Marian Hossa, that Waddell has gotten more out of, explaining the team's 8-4 record since the shake-up. But they're still a team that's been poorly constructed and it's just a question of whether or when ownership gets around to fixing it. The thing that may save Waddell is that his team is now back in the playoff hunt, and while it doesn't mean they're any better, it just means they're as mediocre as the next guy, and that may be enough to save his job.
Damien: That's certainly part of the difference in the two cities. While Dallas has the always mercurial Tom Hicks -- how did that A-Rod contract work out? -- the Thrashers, to my understanding, are still embroiled in the same ownership mess that they were in when Sherman torched the town.
Scott: Well, the ownership picture may be coming a little more into focus with the current group, Atlanta Spirit, more likely to be in the picture long-term than at any time in the past couple of years, but it doesn't address a pretty big gap between the reality of how the team has been put together and the ownership's handle on it. Which is to say, they don't have a handle on it. But do you think there's a direct relationship between whether a team makes a move in terms of sacking the coach or GM and how much noise there is about it? People have been pushing Ron Wilson toward the firing line from the opening faceoff this season, but I doubt he's in danger unless San Jose goes into a huge tailspin. Or do you think now that there's a couple of former Cup-winning coaches in Hartley and Pat Burns available, that will make changes more imminent?
Damien: I don't think the "noise" in a city has much to do with it, or they'd be changing the coaches in New York, Montreal and Toronto on a biweekly basis. And it's always important to remember the supply of NHL-level coaches always exceeds the demand. There's also a new one out there if you don't like the one you have.
Scott: I guess, but I think it was easier for Columbus to pull the plug on Gerard Gallant last season when they knew they could get Ken Hitchcock in for an interview. I used to think changing coaches was the ultimate cop-out. You look at how well it worked out for the Flyers last season (dead last when they fired Hitchcock, dead last at the end of the season under John Stevens), but then you also see where it can change the direction of a team, not just short term, but long term, as was the case with Andy Murray in St. Louis.
Damien: Too true. It really does vary from place to place. And Stevens looks like he knows what he's doing now, doesn't he? Well, let's go through the possible places where the coach and/or GM could be in a dicey spot. Interestingly, and this could be misleading, the two places where the coaches seem to be under significant fire are Calgary and New Jersey. And Mike Keenan and Brent Sutter just got there!
Scott: But don't you think that no matter how bad it gets in either place -- and they are in that great grey mass of mediocrity that defines most of the NHL these days -- that ego would prevent either GM, Darryl Sutter or Lou Lamoriello, from firing those guys exactly because they were brought on board with such fanfare?
Damien: My inclination would be to agree with you, especially in New Jersey. That has as much to do with lost free agents, the absence of Colin White and nine road games to start the season as anything else. Calgary may be different. I'm getting reports that suggest the Flames' players already detest Keenan. Maybe that's just his modus operandi. But the wins better follow soon because, right now, that's a terribly demoralized-looking squad. What's your take on Pittsburgh?
Scott: I think the Penguins represent a fascinating illustration of how expectation changes a team's personality. They seem unable to get back to the flow-and-fun style of hockey that made them so exciting and successful last season. And it's obviously not Sidney Crosby's fault. But the goaltending is iffy and I think GM Ray Shero made a huge mistake in not getting an adequate backup (I'd have signed Curtis Joseph, but no one asked me). Hard to imagine Michel Therrien can go from a genius who made those young players a playoff team to being the scapegoat. I think he's earned a much longer leash. You? How do you feel about the Wilsons in San Jose? That's a popular hot-seat locale.
Damien: Let's stay with Pittsburgh for a moment. Expectations are enormous in that town, and there's no quick fix for goaltending unless you believe Andrew Raycroft would morph into Al Rollins in Pennsylvania. Problem is, they're getting trouble from both ends of the age spectrum. Neither Gary Roberts nor Mark Recchi looks to have much left, while Jordan Staal (29 goals last season) is completely stalled with one goal in 18 games and a minus-8. Shero's a very, very patient guy, but Therrien better make sure he keeps Crosby onside, or he's toast.
Scott: Well, that's going to be the case whether the team is 40-0, right? If Crosby wakes up one day and decides he'd like a change, he's going to get it by dinnertime. But, and I am loathe to speak for Crosby (again), I think he's all about finding the answers in the dressing room and not fishing for another guy behind the bench. If ever a team called for patience, isn't this Penguins team it? The fact is they're probably exactly where everybody thought they'd be if you'd asked them two seasons ago.
Damien: San Jose is a situation that confuses me. Some days, the Sharks look like the next great team; some days, they resemble Boston when Joe Thornton was there; some days, it looks like Ron Wilson has run out of time; other days, like Wednesday night, he still seems able to flick the right switches. In both San Jose and Pittsburgh, I think goaltending will be their great undoing. But is that coaching?
Scott: Well, especially in San Jose, if the GM didn't think in the offseason that the guy behind the bench was the guy to take them to that next level (and expectations are Stanley Cup high in both Pittsburgh and San Jose), then the time to make a switch was in July, not November. I think the issues are more complicated in San Jose because they haven't been able to live up to what seems to be a perfect blend of size, speed, skill, youth and veteran experience and their goaltending hasn't been all that bad. Or are you saying the Leafs made off with the prize Sharks netminder? Hard to imagine, no?
Damien: Naw. I've just never been a big Evgeni Nabokov booster. We'll see how it all plays out. It's not like Vesa Toskala is making the Leaf Nation totally happy. Only the Leafs, a team that's traditionally awful in the shootout, would swing a big trade for a goalie who has NEVER WON a shootout. Here, the coach looks solid, it's the GM who is under the gun. And could they be having a weirder season? From the Mark Bell jail term to Jason Blake's illness to Bryan McCabe's own goal to Jiri Tlusty's Paris Hilton moments, it's been strange and stranger.
Scott: Luckily for both Paul Maurice and GM John Ferguson, ownership couldn't organize a one-car parade, so they'll both likely make it to the end of the season. And who would have thought such strangeness would emanate from the center of the hockey universe? Young men and their camera phones. Go figure. Are we done?
Damien: I think we've done all the damage we can. For this week.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."