Islanders fire coach Peter Laviolette

Wednesday, June 4th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

UNIONDALE, N.Y. (AP) -- Peter Laviolette did something no other New York Islanders coach had done in a long time. He returned the once proud team to the playoffs.

On Tuesday, he did something many Islanders coaches have experienced under general manager Mike Milbury. He got fired.

Two years ago the Islanders gave Laviolette his first head coaching job in the NHL. New York was a long way from the four straight Stanley Cups it won in the 1980s, and the Islanders just wanted to get back in the playoffs for the first time since 1994.

Laviolette did that right away.

In his first season, he led the Islanders to the fourth best turnaround in NHL history. They doubled their win total to 42 before losing in seven games to Toronto in the first round of the playoffs.

The promise for the future seemed high. But one year later, after a second straight playoff appearance, Laviolette is out.

"I'm not talking about strictly the results," Milbury said. "I'm talking about a methodology in coaching and communication with players. If you don't have it, it's pretty tough to succeed. And it looked to me as if it had been lost."

Milbury has fired seven coaches, including himself twice, in the 71/2 years he has been GM. Laviolette was replaced with minor league coach Steve Stirling, who coached in the AHL the last two seasons.

"I'm not happy about being here, and was looking for any possible way around this," Milbury said. "While we accomplished some significant things in the last two years, in the end I thought we were backtracking."

The Islanders went into the playoffs this year on the heels of a 6-11-5 slide, but Laviolette proclaimed that his team was better than top-seeded Ottawa. His players looked like they would prove him right by stomping the Senators 3-0 in the series opener.

That would be Laviolette's last win behind the Islanders bench. He went out as the third-winningest coach in Islanders history with 77 victories -- 81 including playoffs.

"There's a lot of good things about Peter to believe in, but the one thing that kept coming back to haunt me is when a coach and a team part company, it's not very often that they reconnect successfully," Milbury said.

Milbury said he won't stand in the way of Laviolette seeking another NHL job.

"He'll surface again and I hope shortly," Milbury said. "I think he's learned some things from the experience. I know I have."

In conducting interviews with players following the playoffs, Milbury said he was surprised how wide the gap became between Laviolette and the team. He was concerned that the club became "cliquey."

"Ultimately this decision was made because the line of communication between the players and the coach snapped," Milbury said.

Laviolette set an NHL record by winning his first four road games in 2001-02. The team picked up his contract option at $500,000 last December, but now has changed its mind.

"We're a good enough team to have advanced a lot further," defenseman Adrian Aucoin said after the Islanders were eliminated. "We won games last year because we played a lot harder. It's a whole group of guys, not just one or two."

But it's the one, Laviolette, who lost his job.

"The lack of having fun was noted," Milbury said. "I don't know how anybody in this profession, treated the way these people are treated and paid the way they're paid, could possibly -- unless something was dramatically wrong -- not have a good time."

In his first season with the Islanders, Laviolette helped them to the best start in franchise history, 9-0-1-1. The Islanders started 5-11-1 this season, but managed to secure the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference on the last weekend.

"The measuring sticks by which I hold a team and a coach accountable are conditioning, discipline and motivation," Milbury said. "By the team's own admission, by the coach's admission, we came up short. We were not an inspired group at the end."

Assistant coach Kelly Miller also was fired. The status of fellow assistant Jacques Laperriere has not been determined.

Stirling was The Hockey News' minor pro coach of the year in 2001-02 after taking Bridgeport to the AHL finals. In his two seasons with the Sound Tigers, Stirling was 83-51-19-7.

Milbury knows him well and didn't pursue a coaching search.

"I think I know what's out there," Milbury said. "He knows everybody as well as anybody in the organization, so I think we can make a smooth segue."

Greg Cronin, an Islanders assistant the last five seasons, will succeed Stirling in Bridgeport.