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Cunneyworth works his magic

Randy Cunneyworth always was a tireless player and a selfless person, so it wasn't surprising when he deflected the credit for his coaching success this season with the Rochester Americans. He praised the scouts, complimented his players, insisted the reward was watching people come together.

But the true test of a good coach is when you hand him chicken feed and see if he can return with chicken a la king. The cupboards were almost bare in February after the Buffalo Sabres raided his roster amid injuries. Florida couldn't have helped much, either, because if it had prospects worth playing they would have been with the Panthers.

And, somehow, the Amerks still made the playoffs.

Cunneyworth was among the best coaches in professional hockey this season. You think coaches have it tough with general managers looking over their shoulders? Try three. He juggled the demands of GM Darcy Regier, GM Jacques Martin and Amerks GM Jody Gage and equated the experience to having a good time.

"From a standpoint of everybody working together and getting along, we had a lot of fun," Cunneyworth said. "You have to enjoy what you're doing. You can't have the success we've had without loving what you're doing. We've tried to make a conscious effort to enjoy ourselves and at the same time get the work accomplished."

If that passes for fun, it must have been a barrel of laughs watching his best players leave for Buffalo for the stretch run. Clarke MacArthur led the Amerks in scoring, was gone for nearly two months after Maxim Afinogenov broke his wrist, and never lost his spot atop the list. Drew Stafford was fourth in scoring despite playing only 44 games.

Daniel Paille, Mike Ryan, Patrick Kaleta, Michael Funk, Mark Mancari, Andrej Sekera and Mike Card all spent time in Buffalo. At one point, the Amerks were down to Marek Zagrapan and Dylan Hunter. With so many players shuffling through the door this season, it's a wonder they didn't have names taped to their helmets.

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff often used the word "seamless" when describing the transition. He was right. The Sabres placed one player on the injured list and simply inserted another from Rochester. They hardly missed a beat and in the process developed their young players for next season and beyond.

Buffalo finished with the best record in the NHL while Rochester entered the weekend with the second-best record in the North Division. I'm not sure which was more impressive, but I'm leaning toward the Amerks. They will open the playoffs against Hamilton, coached by ex-Sabres assistant coach Don Lever.

It makes for a promising future, but it also makes you wonder how long Cunneyworth will stick around before an NHL team comes calling for him. He's been coaching for seven years and has aspirations to become an NHL head coach. After this season, he deserves an opportunity.

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Coaches take on the world

Kenmore natives Jon Christiano and Barry Smith, two of the best coaches ever to come out of Western New York, are headed for the World Championships in Russia. Christiano will serve as an assistant coach for Italy while Smith helps out with Team USA.

Christiano, finishing off his third season as a Sabres' scout, spent five years as an assistant coach in Rochester. He's worked in Italy several times over the past 25 years and built good relationships with the hockey people there. The World Championships, which start April 27, will help him keep an eye out for prospective players.

"It's a great way for me to scout," Christiano said. "You have some great players playing. It's a win-win for everybody. I can kill two birds with one stone."

Smith will be sticking around Russia much longer. He signed a contract with SKA St. Petersburg of the Russian Elite League, where he'll be a head coach and director of hockey operations. He resigned last week as Wayne Gretzky's underboss in Phoenix, which is going through a transition period after firing GM Mike Barnett.

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Don't abandon Fleury

Marc-Andre Fleury failed miserably and was pulled from his first NHL postseason game, but the Penguins shouldn't make any drastic changes in goal no matter what happens against the Senators.

Pittsburgh had a great year, but this season is about gaining playoff experience. The Penguins kept Mark Recchi and traded for Gary Roberts to help their young players understand how to cope with playoff pressure. Winning would be a bonus.

The postseason can only help Fleury, who was bombed in a 6-3 loss in Game One and had little help from his teammates. It will be long forgotten next year, when Fleury comes back stronger and more mature. Ryan Miller is a perfect example.

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Leafs payroll is fat

We'll see how many more times the Maple Leafs miss the playoffs before realizing they need to make a bold move and dump Mats Sundin, who isn't worth anywhere near the $7.6 million he pocketed this season.

The Leafs aren't going to the Stanley Cup any time soon whether or not he returns at age 37, so they might as well rebuild without him at that price. He had 27 goals and 76 points in 75 games, but he scored only once in his last 20 games.

Sundin, Bryan McCabe and Pavel Kubina made nearly $20 million combined this season. They can't expect to win when they have those three players eating up about 45 percent of their payroll. GM John Ferguson either hasn't learned how to manage the salary cap or fails to see the weaknesses in his own team.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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