When the NHL Broadcasters' Association chooses hockey's coach of the year in a couple of weeks, one of the leading candidates will be Bryan Clarence Murray of the Washington Capitals.
There is no assurance of Murray's selection, however, because a lot of folks around the NHL attribute the Capitals' remarkable improvement to General Manager David Poile and "The Trade."
According to that theory, Murray merely had to hand a puck to Rod Langway, Brian Engblom, Doug Jarvis and Craig Laughlin, and await the arrival of opponents prepared to hand over two points.
Actually, coaching any professional sports team is not a simple assignment, because it involves dealing with egos inflated by runaway salaries and fan idolatry, not to mention plain old every-day frustrations.
Murray managed to deal adroitly with some bruised egos the other night, and the result not only quashed a possible rift in a smoothly running machine approaching its first playoff competition, but contributed mightily to Thursday's 5-3 victory over New Jersey.
The players involved were Alan Haworth, Bob Carpenter and Laughlin, the trio Murray assembled into a line on Jan. 17. In the 29 games that followed, they accounted for 35 goals and scrambled many an opponent's game plan geared to stopping the No. 1 offensive unit of Bengt Gustafsson, Dennis Maruk and Mike Gartner.
Although the Capitals were breezing along with a four-game winning streak, Murray pulled the three players aside after the second period of Wednesday's game with Vancouver and asked some pointed questions. By game time Thursday, Carpenter was centering Gaetan Duchesne and Chris Valentine, while Milan Novy moved between Haworth and Laughlin.
The move paid big dividends Thursday, as Novy scored the first goal and Carpenter both the tying goal and the winner. More important, it halted a disintegrating situation before it created something more serious.
"At one point, it was our best line," Murray said. "They played extremely well for a few weeks. But after a while, the puck wasn't being moved among them as it had been and should be. Obviously, they were having problems communicating on the ice.
"One guy would chase the puck and the other two would head for the bench. One guy came off 20 seconds after a faceoff once. They were three young guys playing together, and who knows whatever happens with young people these days. Against Vancouver, they were particularly poor as a line, so I took them aside and told them they were disappointing.
"When we talked, it turned out they were all unhappy, because none of them felt the other two guys were helping him do what he could do best. All season I've tried to make guys realize their strengths and shortcomings and these three were aware of their own problems, but not of how to resolve them as a unit.
"So I decided to break them up, at least for a while. It's no big deal, other than I expected quite a bit and I wasn't getting it. This setup gives Gaetan more ice time and he's played with Bobby Carpenter once before with some success. Who knows, maybe now we'll have four good lines."
Carpenter responded positively, working well with Duchesne and Valentine as his two goals turned the New Jersey game around. But Carpenter laughed when asked if he had sought a change in his assignment.
"Are you kidding?" Carpenter asked. "You don't say anything around here. You don't even ask to go to the bathroom. You just do what the coach tells you to do. I'll play wherever and with anybody he tells me.
"We had trouble going against Vancouver and it seemed like everybody expected each other to do the work. Maybe it was time for a change. It certainly worked out well. Gaets is a hard worker who always gives 100 percent and Chris is a great playmaker. If we stay together, I think we can become a pretty good line."
Laughlin agreed that the breakup was necessary, but he said he expected to be back with Carpenter and Haworth fairly soon.
"Bryan saw that some things weren't working out," Laughlin said. "We were out for the same goal, but when we weren't producing, we sometimes got down on each other. It caused some friction.
"When things are going well, nobody says anything. But when they're going bad, everybody gripes. We play as well together as anybody, but this has given us a chance to talk about it and try to resolve our problems. There's not going to be any dissension.
Haworth, troubled by a sore hip, did not practice yesterday, but is expected to play, alongside Novy and Laughlin, in tonight's 8 o'clock Capital Centre contest against Pittsburgh.