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NHL teams need to be wary of opening the season overseas

February 23, 2009 |  2:55 pm

Tom Renney reacts behind the bench during a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 15.

NHL teams may want to think twice before fighting over the chance to open up their respective seasons overseas.

Now that the New York Rangers have fired coach Tom Renney (hey, at least he won't have to deal with Sean Avery), each of the four teams that opened the season in Europe last October has gone through mid-season coaching changes as its squads struggle to make the postseason.

Former Kings coach Barry Melrose got the boot from the Tampa Bay Lightning after just 16 games behind the bench and former Ducks coach Craig Hartsburg was fired Feb. 2 after Ottawa GM Bryan Murray realized the passionless Senators were in danger of missing the postseason for the first time in 13 years. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who might not make the postseason despite making the finals last year, fired coach Michel Therrien last week.

Playing overseas might be a treat for players and a way for the NHL to extend its influence in non-traditional markets, but GMs need to understand the strains these games put on players. The NHL has started four seasons outside North America and most of the teams involved went on to lackluster seasons.

Japan The Ducks and the Vancouver Canucks opened 1997-98 with two games in Tokyo to help promote the NHL's involvement with the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympic Games. Both teams finished the season at the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

Four more teams played season openers in Japan over two of the next three seasons. Two teams -- the 1998-99 San Jose Sharks and the 2000-01 Pittsburgh Penguins -- made the playoffs.

Spring forward to 2007-08 when the Kings and Ducks opened the season in London. The Kings, as expected, missed the postseason and fired coach Marc Crawford, but the Ducks, an early season favorite to repeat as Stanley Cup champions, had the third-most points in the Western Conference before losing to the Dallas Stars in the first round.

Of the seven franchises that played overseas prior to this season, only two have made the postseason and only one advanced past the first round (2000-01 Penguins). Furthermore, teams that have dropped the puck outside of North America in regular season play have a collective 369-397-124 record.

Granted, some of these squads were long-shots to make the postseason (like the 2000-01 Nashville Predators), but it's hard to ignore the straining effects that off-the-continent road trips can have on a team. The NHL already has one of the longest and most grueling schedules in professional sports, so why would any GM risk rocking the boat any more than needed (at least Renney can say he won a cup -- a Victoria Cup).

Of course, next year could be different. The Detroit Red Wings, a team that is a perennial Stanley Cup contender, is scheduled to open the 2009-10 season in Europe along with the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues and the Florida Panthers.

If the Red Wings get off to a bad start, then you know European road trips are a bad idea. And the chances of them struggling could go up a notch if they're playing for a Stanley Cup in June. Hopefully, Detroit's seven-strong Swedish contingent won't burn off all their steam playing in front of their countrymen and the very talented Mike Babcock will still be employed.

We'll see...

-- Austin Knoblauch

Top photo: Former Rangers coach Tom Renney reacts behind the bench during a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 15. Credit: John Dunn / Associated Press. Lower photo: Japanese fans show their team spirit during the Ducks game against the Vancouver Canucks on Oct. 5, 1997, in Tokyo. Credit: Jeff Vinnick / Reuters.