Thursday, January 12, 2006

It's official

UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) - Steve Stirling unwillingly joined a not-so-select group: New York Islanders coaches fired by Mike Milbury.Stirling was dismissed Wednesday night by Milbury, a person familiar with the decision told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the official announcement was scheduled for Thursday. It is the eighth coaching change the general manager has made in nine years.An interim coach will be in place before the Islanders' home game against Calgary on Thursday night, and it won't be Milbury, who has had two stints behind New York's bench. The rest of the coaching staff is expected to remain and Stirling will likely be offered another position within the organization.He went 38-29-11-4 during his rookie year of 2003-04 and guided New York to its third straight playoff appearance after taking over for the fired Peter Laviolette. But a recent skid dropped the Islanders out of the playoff picture and sealed Stirling's fate.The final blow came Tuesday when the Islanders lost in Nashville to fall to 18-22-2, fourth place in the Atlantic Division.Stirling, who ran practice Wednesday morning, was hired as the 11th coach in Islanders history in June 2003. He is the second NHL coach to be fired this season, joining Pittsburgh's Ed Olczyk. New Jersey coach Larry Robinson stepped down, citing health and family issues.After the Islanders dropped a home-and-home series last weekend to Carolina, in which they were outscored 7-1, Milbury said he wouldn't sit back and watch the club fall out of playoff contention.New York, which slipped into 12th place in the 15-team Eastern Conference, traded disappointing defenseman Janne Niinimaa to Dallas on Tuesday before the 2-1 loss to Nashville.But if the move was intended to create a spark, it didn't happen instantly as the Islanders lost for the eighth time in nine games and 10th in 13 - including six straight on the road."If you win, you keep your job. If you don't win, you could lose it or you do lose it," Stirling said after what turned out to be his final practice. "I didn't make the rules, Mike didn't make the rules."Milbury has revamped the roster several times, changed coaches eight times, and has never won a playoff series since he's been in charge. Yet, his job has never been threatened by team owner Charles Wang.When Stirling replaced Laviolette after the Islanders' second consecutive playoff appearance following seven years out of the postseason, Milbury figured this was the last coach he'd be allowed to hire.That wasn't the case, and more changes might be coming.Milbury took a chance on a guy who had never led an NHL team after Stirling came off a successful two-year stint as coach of the Islanders' AHL Bridgeport affiliate.While Stirling lasted less than 1 1/2 seasons, Laviolette moved on to Carolina and now has the Hurricanes in first place in the Southeast Division, just one point behind Ottawa for the best mark in the Eastern Conference. Laviolette will also be the U.S. coach at next month's Turin Olympics.Stirling was The Hockey News' minor pro coach of the year in 2001-02, after taking Bridgeport to the AHL finals, and compiled a mark there of 83-51-19-7.He got the unexpected call to the big leagues at age 53.Stirling's only trip to the playoffs ended in a five-game loss to eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay.When the Islanders got back together after the lockout wiped out last season, they were a different club.During the offseason, New York decided against buying out Alexei Yashin's big contract to create more space under the $39 million salary cap and instead dealt away Michael Peca. Not only did the Islanders keep Yashin, Stirling named him Peca's replacement as captain.But Yashin has not become a leader on or off the ice. Despite being one of the highest-paid players in the NHL, he has produced only 15 goals and 38 points in 42 games. In Tuesday night's 2-1 loss at Nashville, Yashin took two of New York's four penalties - both for delay of game.It wasn't just the loss of Peca that left the Islanders looking for leadership, they also saw defensemen Adrian Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik and Kenny Jonsson depart, along with veteran forward Dave Scatchard. Replacing them with defensemen Alexei Zhitnik and Brent Sopel and forwards Mike York and Miroslav Satan hasn't helped.And Stirling's final three games were lost with rookie Wade Dubielewicz in goal instead of injured regulars Rick DiPietro and Garth Snow.

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