NEW YORK (AP) _ Colin Campbell fell victim Wednesday to the inept play of the NHL's highest-paid team when he was fired as coach of the New York Rangers less than a year after he took them to the Stanley Cup semifinals.

No successor was chosen, although the leading candidates appeared to be John Muckler, the former Edmonton coach, and E.J. McGuire, coach of the Rangers' American Hockey League affiliate in Hartford.

The Rangers, who will resume play next Thursday after the Olympic break, are 17-24-16 and six points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference despite a payroll of $44 million, highest in NHL history. But the team also is the oldest in the league and lacks both speed and size.

In announcing Campbell's firing, general manager Neil Smith emphasized that ``the coach wasn't getting through to the players. I think (Campbell's) voice couldn't be heard, or ears were being turned deaf to the voice.''

``I just felt without this change, we were on a spiral right out (of the playoffs),'' Smith said. ``We may be still be out. We've got a tough hill to climb.''

Smith said he had waited as long as he could to see the Rangers ``turn the corner.''

``I never saw the corner turned,'' Smith added. ``We weren't improving. We were going backwards ... I probably did a disservice to Colie keeping him this long, but I kept hoping the team (would improve). This team and this coach weren't working together.''

Smith immediately refrained from naming a successor, saying only that it would be announced within about the next 48 hours. He said he was ``99 percent'' sure who it would be, adding, ``I'm just trying to finalize conversations with the person.''

Wayne Gretzky, the team's highest-paid and highest-profile player said he was ``a little surprised and disappointed'' by Campbell's firing.

``I feel bad for Colin,'' Gretzky said in Nagano, Japan, where he is playing for Canada in the Olympics. ``He was good to me and he's a good person. But whenever you're not winning, a coaching change is going to be made. I'm frustrated that as a team we didn't do better.''

The disappointment for the Rangers extended to the Olympics.

Three of their high-priced stars, center Pat LaFontaine, defenseman Brian Leetch and goalie Mike Richter, were members of the U.S. team that was eliminated in the quarterfinals at Nagano. Another Ranger, defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, was dismissed from the Swedish team after it was disclosed he held passports from both Sweden and the United States.

Campbell, 45, was associate coach under Mike Keenan of the 1994 Rangers, who won the team's first Stanley Cup in 54 years. He became head coach when Keenan left after winning the championship and had a regular-season record of 118-108-43 in 3 1/2 seasons.

In each of Campbell's three full seasons, the Rangers got at least to the second round of the playoffs. Nonetheless, he was on the brink of being fired last season, when the team started slowly.

But he ended up guiding them to fifth place overall in the East, then took them to the conference finals, where they lost in five games to Philadelphia. He was rewarded with a contract extension that pays him $2.4 million through 2000.

``Of all the people in the organization that helped us get where we got in the playoffs, he probably did the most of anybody,'' Smith said after last season.

But this year, the most significant thing the Rangers did was play ties _ their first four games were ties and they're tied with Colorado for the NHL lead with 16.

Their biggest stars have been mediocre at best.

Leetch, MVP of the Stanley Cup run and winner of the Norris Trophy last season as the league's best defenseman, is minus-28 in plus-minus rating and the 37-year-old Gretzky has scored only 13 goals.

Richter, a hero of the Stanley Cup victory and MVP of the U.S. World Cup win in 1996, has given up some soft goals despite a respectable average of 2.49 goals allowed per game.

As for successors, there were varying reports.

The New York Daily News said Campbell's likely replacement was the 64-year-old Muckler, who spent considerable time in the Rangers' organization and was most recently director of hockey operations for the Buffalo Sabres. The newspaper speculated that Muckler wuld help rebuild the team, then turn the club over to Craig McTavish, currently an assistant with the Rangers.

But the New York Post said Muckler had turned down the job and that McGuire, who was an assistant to Keenan in Chicago and Philadelphia, was the likely successor.