Dean Lombardi praised Darryl Sutter so effusively it sounded as if he had just hired Sutter to coach the San Jose Sharks, instead of having fired Sutter and his assistants.

Sutter "gave us an element of respectability we truly lacked," Lombardi said Sunday, three days before hiring former Caps coach Ron Wilson as his replacement. And no, the general manager didn't think players had tuned Sutter out after five seasons, during which the Sharks increased their point total each season.

"I'm not denying that six years is a long time," Lombardi said, "but that's also one reason Darryl had success. You know who he is, and it served him very well."

If it served him so well, why was he the first NHL coach fired this season?

Team President Greg Jamison offered the usual platitudes, saying Sutter had improved the team but a change was needed to take it in another direction. Lombardi, who made the decision after the Sharks' 3-2 loss to Phoenix on Saturday, also offered little insight.

"It's certainly not an easy decision to make when you have a track record with a person for a long period of time," Lombardi said. "There's no magic formula I told him, hopefully we can talk later and analyze it."

Analyze this: The Sharks (9-12-2-2 entering Friday's game) have an identity crisis, caught between Sutter's grind-it-out mentality and a need for more speed and offense. They didn't get the bounce they expected when goaltender Evgeni Nabokov and defenseman Brad Stuart returned after resolving contract disputes, and they probably relied too much on veterans. The retirement of Gary Suter shouldn't have shattered their defense so badly, and their team defense has slipped. Was that personnel or coaching?

Lombardi said Sutter hadn't pressured him to sign Nabokov and Stuart, and both expected the team to struggle without them. But Lombardi said he was concerned by "the degree of drop-off even without those guys. It's not realistic to think we'd be 10-0 but we should be able to be X-Y-Z. We took a bigger hit than we expected."

And it was easier to fire Sutter than dump 20 players from a $47.7-million payroll.

Fleury Working to Stay in Control

When a fan taunted Theo Fleury and offered him a beer while he watched his Chicago Blackhawks teammates play the Los Angeles Kings last weekend at Staples Center, it was another test on a road full of trials.

A year ago, he might have reacted angrily. But Fleury, suspended Oct. 8 for violating the terms of his substance-abuse aftercare program, laughed, shook his head and declined. He moved to the back row of the press box with the man he calls his "life coach," Jim Jenkins, his Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor and constant companion.

"The whole idea behind having a sponsor is, he's gone through a lot of the same things I've gone through," said Fleury, who signed with Chicago last summer. "He can relate to what I'm thinking and feeling."

Fleury, forbidden by his doctors to discuss his problems, resumed practicing with the team last week and made his season debut Friday night against Anaheim, scoring a goal.

"We knew the risks when we signed him," Blackhawks GM Mike Smith said. "He's still a top-level player, and if he can keep his life in order, he can be a big help."

This Snow Has Extra Padding

New York Islanders goalie Garth Snow's new pads have drawn attention from the NHL because they're so long. He appears to have found a loophole in the rules, which govern the width of pads but not the length. However, that might soon change. . . .

Memo to Islander management: Drop those hideous orange third jerseys that turn players into giant yams. Unless, of course, the idea is for opponents to laugh themselves into submission. . . .

The Globe and Mail, a national newspaper in Canada, detailed some serious financial problems facing the Ottawa Senators. The club owes more than $350 million to creditors and has borrowed $14.3 million from the NHL, with plans to borrow more. Majority owner Rod Bryden has proposed restructuring the club's finances through selling partnerships, which were expected to raise more than $230 million. . . .

Not all is gloomy for Ottawa. Forward Marian Hossa, whose career was nearly derailed by a serious knee injury, has a 13-game point-scoring streak, the league's longest this season. He has 12 goals and 22 points in that span, a key reason for the Senators' 8-0-2 surge. . . .

It's almost spooky, but identical twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks ended long scoring droughts within a short span. Henrik scored his first goal of the season Nov. 25, then Daniel ended a 17-game slump in the next game. Their revival and the resurgence of Trevor Linden have helped the Canucks win 10 consecutive games and pass early-season leader Minnesota atop the Northwest. . . .

Former Mighty Duck goalie Guy Hebert, a team ambassador and radio commentator, believes forecasts of a work stoppage in 2004 might be hurting teams at the gate. He thinks fans could be reluctant to make financial and emotional investments if the sport's future appears gloomy. "People are not going to renew season tickets if there's a strike possibility," he said. "I think for the sake of the players and the fans, both sides have to sit down now or next season and make sure it's not something that goes on."

San Jose management had glowing words for Darryl Sutter: So why did they fire their coach?