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Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

DESPERADOS

Oilers, Panthers, Flyers and Sabres punch the panic button

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It's getting down to the wire early in the season for a handful of teams around the NHL.

The Edmonton Oilers, Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers haven't yet played a quarter of their games, but desperate times call for some measure of change for clubs with a combined record of 15-47-8. There are four major ways to shake things up: Firing the coach, firing the general manager, making a trade and signing a free agent.

Three of those things happened on an eventful Friday as the Panthers fired coach Kevin Dineen and the Oilers signed goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov and traded defenceman Ladislav Smid. Meanwhile, Flyers chairman Ed Snider vented his frustration while trade rumours swirled, and the league-worst Sabres sunk even lower with a 6-2 loss to the Anaheim Ducks.

Buffalo is 1-5 since making its first big trade, sending Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders for Matt Moulson and draft picks. The Oilers' first move was trading Smid, but the one that could have a bigger effect on the rest of the season is the signing of Bryzgalov.

"I think he's a guy that is going to be highly motivated," general manager Craig MacTavish said on AM-630 in Edmonton on Friday. "I think he has a chance to come in here and make a real impact on our team."

Bryzgalov had the worst save percentage of his career for Philadelphia last season (.900), and even if he matches that it would be drastically better than the combined .879 Oilers goalies put up in the first 18 games. Though Bryzgalov played behind a banged-up defence, the Oilers' blue-line has been similarly criticized.

But MacTavish, who was scouting a college game in New England on Friday night, predicted no more moves were imminent, citing significant progress of late.

"We're reducing the number of mistakes," he said on Edmonton radio. "We're not self-destructing to the level that we were at the start of the year."

Of course that hasn't stopped trade rumours. Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia reported that the Flyers were talking to the Oilers about potential Canadian Olympic forward Jordan Eberle, and it's a poorly kept secret that Edmonton would like to get bigger and tougher.

The Flyers have some of that, along with some extra veteran defenceman. Andrej Meszaros and Luke Schenn, formerly of the Toronto Maple Leafs, have been healthy scratches for stretches this season.

That's all part of Craig Berube's attempts to find the right mix, after GM Paul Holmgren fired Peter Laviolette after three games and named him the coach without an interim tag. The Flyers are 5-7-1 since the change and 5-10-1 overall, after beating the Oilers 4-2 Saturday afternoon.

They already made a trade in sending Max Talbot to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for Steve Downie, who suffered a concussion in a fight in his first game with the Flyers, a 7-0 loss to the Washington Capitals. It has been that kind of season in Philadelphia.

"I've been in the game for 47 years. I've never seen anything like this," Snider said at the team's practice facility, as quoted by the Courier-Post. "When Paul let Peter Laviolette go I said we can't fire all the players, and I'll see what we have. I'm hoping that they'll snap out of this and show us the kind of talent that they've shown in the past and that we believe they still have."

If the line "we can't fire all the players" sounds familiar, it's because Panthers general manager Dale Tallon invoked that sentiment Friday morning after letting go of Dineen and the rest of the coaching staff after a 3-9-4 start.

Tallon said on a conference call that it was clear the team needed a change in its "message and philosophy." More importantly, he vowed more moves were coming.

"We're on the phone constantly, and we're going to make changes as we go," Tallon said. "We're trying extremely hard every day -- numerous phone calls with numerous teams. Hopefully something will hit in the near future."

Former Leafs and Flyers winger Kris Versteeg's name has come up, though the Panthers could probably stand to listen to offers for anyone not named Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad or Jacob Markstrom. Similarly, SportsNet reported Holmgren was listening on anyone except Claude Giroux and Steve Mason.

Calgary Flames GM Jay Feaster figures it's getting close to the time when his colleagues have assessed their teams and are ready to wheel-and-deal.

"Usually it's around the time of U.S. Thanksgiving, and we're, I guess, a few weeks away from that," Feaster told reporters in Denver. "There is a lot of talk, there's a lot of chatter going on, but it's hard to get a deal done."

Feaster was glad to get something done in acquiring Smid from the Oilers, especially in the absence of captain Mark Giordano. But the Flames are in a different stage than the Oilers, so the 27-year-old defenceman had to fit into the long-term puzzle.

"It's a guy who is 27, he'll be 28 in February, so even at the end of his contract he's still only 31 years old, which we consider that to be consistent with where we're at in our rebuild process," Feaster said. "Whoever we bring it has to fit into the new culture that we're trying to create."

The Sabres appear to be steps behind the Flames in their rebuilding process. Like the Flyers, Oilers and Panthers, they have fired their coach -- nine months ago when Ron Rolston replaced Lindy Ruff -- but the roster is still a mix of unproven young players and veterans like goaltender Ryan Miller and captain Steve Ott left around to keep the team afloat.

After Vanek went to the Islanders, the impending unrestricted free agent said he didn't want to be part of a rebuild in Buffalo. Sabres GM Darcy Regier said after making the trade that he is concerned about how veterans handle the losing.

"I worry for them sometimes because in some cases maybe some players have been through a period when a team is trying to improve and that is maybe where we are," Regier said.

Miller told the Buffalo News that Friday night's debacle in Anaheim was "a disaster to be a part of." The Sabres can only hope that's not the most accurate way to describe this entire season.

The positive for the Sabres, Flyers and Panthers is that there's plenty of time to make up ground in a woeful Eastern Conference. Through Friday night, the Western Conference had six teams with more points than anyone from the East, where the threshold for making the playoffs appears to be much lower.

"By the end of the season we expect to be competing for a place in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and we expect to have taken significant steps toward achieving the goals and objectives we have set for this franchise," Florida owner Vinnie Viola wrote in a letter to the team's fans after the firing of Dineen.

"I think the guys know there's a talent there, there's ability there and they have pride and they have to understand that there's a big responsibility on their backs for where they are and what's gone on," new Panthers coach Peter Horachek said at his first practice in Ottawa. "They feel good about committing and being part of that journey right now."

The Oilers' journey has already been a long one after missing the playoffs for the past seven years. With a core built around Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle, the expectations were that this season would represent the next step.

For now, MacTavish is seeing the positives in the process.

"I feel like as bad as our record is," he said. "I see plenty of progress and maybe more important, plenty of potential in this hockey club."

-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 10, 2013 B2

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