Which NHL Head Coaches are on the Hotseat?
A Paradigm Shift in NHL Coaching Job Security
We have all heard the expression “You can’t fire 20 players, but you can fire one coach”. Being a head coach in any professional league has never provided a great deal of job security.
When the 2022-23 NHL season began, 10 of the NHL’s 32 teams had new head coaches. They are:
1) Lane Lambert – New York Islanders
2) Bruce Cassidy – Las Vegas Golden Knights
3) John Tortorella – Philadelphia Flyers
4) Peter Deboer – Dallas Stars
5) Paul Maurice – Florida Panthers
6) Luke Richardson – Chicago Blackhawks
7) Jim Montgomery – Boston Bruins
8) Derek Lalonde – Detroit Red Wings
9) Rick Bowness – Winnipeg Jets
10) David Quinn – San Jose Sharks
Of course, only three of those 10, Lambert, Richardson and Lalonde, are in their first NHL head coaching gigs. Everyone else is on, at least, their second stop – with Bowness on his sixth, Tortorella and Maurice on their fifth, DeBoer on his fourth and Cassidy his third. Of that group, only Tortorella has won a Stanley Cup and that was nearly 20 years ago.
What seems to have escaped the news thus far is the fact that not one of the 32 NHL head coaches have been fired at the mid-point of the season. Perhaps you wouldn’t expect coaches in the first year of multi-year contracts to get axed given that they are guaranteed contracts. That still leaves 22 bench bosses who have made it to the 41-game mark and beyond.
For morbid fun, the media and Twitter Scribes like to identify which coach will get the axe first at the start of the season or which coach is under the most pressure to perform. I am guessing nobody chose a square in that pool beyond the end of 2022.
By this time last season, Jeremy Colliton & Alain Vigneault had been fired. Travis Green was shown the door along with Jim Benning in Vancouver. Joel Quenneville had departed Florida, but that was tied to the Kyle Beach story. In a strange turn of events, Paul Maurice had also resigned from the Winnipeg Jets job in December. Dave Tippett and Dominique Ducharme failed to survive the entire season, being let go in February.
In all, seven mid-season coaching changes were made.
Before the end of the pandemic season of 2021, Claude Julien and Ralph Krueger were also shown the door during the 56-game bubble season. Obviously, others fell when the season ended. However, this sort of churn has not been unusual throughout the season.
Pre-Pandemic, Mike Babcock was fired in Toronto in November 2019. Bill Peters resigned amid the Akim Aliu affair that same month. In fact, there was an NHL record tying eight mid-season changes in 2019-20 before the season was interrupted by Covid-19. The 2018-19 season wasn’t far behind with seven mid-season changes.
Who could forget Gerard Gallant being fired by the Florida Panthers in November 2016 only to be left to find his own transportation to the airport?
Yet for some reason, despite the usual list of underperforming teams, general managers have yet to pull the trigger and have chosen to let it ride.
Who are the underperforming teams that normally would have been candidates to get new coaches?
I guess it would be easier to identify who wouldn’t be first. The following teams seem to have met or exceeded expectations.
Exceeded Expectations – Seattle Kraken, Boston Bruins, Vegas Golden Knights, New Jersey Devils, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings, Winnipeg Jets, Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadiens.
Suffice it to say, no one saw the Seattle Kraken doing what they’ve done this season, nor do I think the Boston Bruins expected to have five regulation losses after 42 games.
The Vegas Golden Knights finished like a tire fire last season. The hope is always that a new coach will inject new life into a team, but first in the division and fourth overall in the league? I am guessing even they are pleasantly surprised.
The New Jersey Devils were expected to be better this season. Flirting with the division lead? No one saw that coming.
The Los Angeles Kings made acquisitions in the off season to get better. Again, fighting for the division better?
The Winnipeg Jets expected to be competitive. However, with a new head coach and the Blake Wheeler captaincy maneuver, many wondered if they could get over the hump. They sit first in the Western Conference.
The Capitals were my pick to plummet this year with their injury situation. The fact that they sit in a wildcard position after having just gotten Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson back from LTIR may not be a surprise to them, but it was to me.
Finally, the Montreal Canadiens had visions of Connor Bedard dancing in their fans' heads to start the season. While they are a long shot to make the playoffs, no one expected them to be as competitive as they have been. No one will say it publicly, but my guess is that the organization expected to struggle this season. They may even make moves to ensure that happens.
It’s easy to see how Dave Hakstol, Jim Montgomery, Bruce Cassidy, Lindy Ruff, Peter Deboer, Todd MacLellan, Rick Bowness, Peter Laviolette and Martin St. Louis are on solid ground for the moment. Teams exceeding expectations never change head coaches.
It’s also interesting to note that only four of the nine coaches started in their positions this season. Seattle, New Jersey, and Montreal all missed the playoffs last season and stuck with their guy. Washington went out two years in a row in round one with Peter Laviolette, yet he is still their bench boss. Todd McLellan is in year four as the Kings bench boss and has two years of no playoffs and a first-round exit in his tenure. He still has life.
Met Expectations – Toronto Maple Leafs, Tampa Bay Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Islanders, Detroit Red Wings, Buffalo Sabres, Philadelphia Flyers, Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild and yes, the Ottawa Senators.
There is a 21-point gap between the highest scoring team in this category (Carolina) and the lowest (Ottawa Senators). You may wonder why teams like the Leafs and Hurricanes weren’t in the exceeds expectations category when their records are similar to teams like Vegas, New Jersey, Winnipeg and Dallas. In my pre-season assessment, I expected both of those teams to be where they are. In fact, I expected the Leafs to be in first.
At the same time, you may wonder why I would put the Senators, sitting seven points out of a playoff spot, as meeting expectations. I saw the Senators as a competitive, yet short of a playoff spot, team to start the season. Despite having hit pay dirt on all of their off-season acquisitions, with the loss of Norris after five games and never having sufficiently replaced Formenton, I am amazed they have done as well as they have.
I have already made my feelings clear about the long-term viability of DJ Smith as the Senators Head Coach. However, like the rest of the teams in this category, I see no reason to let him or any of these coaches go before the end of the season, if at all. That said, coaching changes have been known to happen in the second half of the season as well. It doesn’t take much for a coach to fall out of favour.
For now, the coaches of these teams seem to have done enough that no one should be calling for their heads for the time being. All are either in the mix for a playoff spot or weren’t expected to be anyway.
Below Expectations – Florida Panthers, Columbus Blue Jackets, Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks, Arizona Coyotes, Anaheim Ducks, Chicago Blackhawks.
If any coaches would have been let go at this point in the season, it would seem to me they would have emerged from this group.
The Florida Panthers were supposed to have stolen Matthew Tkachuk from the Calgary Flames and moved Johnathan Huberdeau out as a way of shaking things up after being swept by the Lightning in round two. Of course, they may have underestimated the loss of Mackenzie Weegar who went along with Huberdeau and the loss of Ben Chiarot to free agency. Nonetheless, this lineup should, on the surface, be at the very least, a wild card team. Tkachuk has held up his end. Maurice is now on his fifth stop. He is in the first year of his deal. How long before Bill Zito starts to feel the heat for his offseason selection?
I understand the Columbus Blue Jackets have missed Zach Werenski for the majority of the season and Patrik Laine has missed his share of games as well. Prized acquisition, Johnny Gaudreau, has performed offensively though he is -14. This team was poised to be much better this season than last, when they were nearly .500, and they are not. They barely put up a fight in the Senators recent 4-0 shutout. How long does second year head coach, Brad Larsen, have to right the ship?
The Colorado Avalanche have had their share of injuries to key personnel this season. You’ll get not an ounce of sympathy from any Senators fan. That team is loaded for bear and yet they sit six points out of a playoff spot. Of course, we are talking about the defending Stanley Cup champions. If we weren’t, would Jared Bednar be feeling the heat? Had they bowed out in round three last year instead of going on to the eventual championship, would Bednar have the runway he needs to right the ship? He isn’t going anywhere, but the expectations are surely that he will find a way to the postseason. If they don’t make it this year, he will be under pressure to get it done the following season.
The Vancouver Canucks set themselves up to make a run this year and it has been a disaster almost from day one. They started without a win their first seven games; JT Miller has publicly chastised his own teammates out on the ice and refused to own his behaviour. Media have been calling for Bruce Boudreau to be gone since October and yet there has been more talk now about moving Bo Horvat and Brock Boeser than getting rid of Boudreau.
Despite Erik Karlsson having an all-world season, the San Jose Sharks have regressed. They didn’t have any real expectations of being competitive this season. That said, did they expect to be lottery bad? Is there any sense in getting rid of a coach like David Quinn in his first season? I suspect not.
The Arizona Coyotes have been the running joke of the NHL for some time now. You have to feel for former 67s bench boss, Andre Tourigny, who was brought in to see them through this pain. Then again, DJ Smith survived the rebuild and got a two-year extension with the club option on a third. Perhaps, things will play out in a similar fashion for him in Arizona.
The Anaheim Ducks, with Dallas Eakins, are positioned to miss the playoffs for the fifth year in a row. Should he finish this season, it will be the fourth in row with him at the helm. The Ducks exercised their option on Eakins to bring him back this season and, after watching them play, one can’t help feeling a sense of resignation from Eakins knowing the direction the organization has taken. If you are tanking for the Bedard lottery, why mess that up with a coaching change?
Finally, Luke Richardson went into the Blackhawks situation eyes wide open and, after waiting patiently for his first head coaching job, he is suffering the pains that even Senators fans didn’t feel. Again, he is in the first year of his contract and the goal is to be bad. Why interfere with a coach that is meeting that expectation?
In terms of what drives general managers to make coaching changes, the factors that weigh into it would seem to be:
a) Organization Window – Teams with a win now window because of contract status or a cap crunch might feel a need to be less patient. The Florida Panthers would seem to fit those criteria with their core coming of age and with division obstacles to overcome like Boston, Tampa Bay and Toronto, they need to strike while the iron is hot. Teams like Arizona, Anaheim, Chicago and San Jose aren’t in that kind of window and prefer to see how it plays out.
b) Coach’s Contract Status – With 10 coaches in the league in the first year of their deal, it would be embarrassing for any GM to admit he was that wrong. As well, some teams just don’t have the money to pay a new coach and an outgoing coach. Not every team in the league has the pockets to pay Mike Babcock for nearly four full seasons to not coach.
c) Availability of Suitable Replacement – Most mid-season coaching changes come with some sort of interim tag as they usually involve promoting someone from within. As of right now, in terms of experienced people to bring in from outside an organization, Mike Babcock is still being paid for the final year of his Leafs deal. Barry Trotz would likely have gotten one of the 10 newly filled seats at the table had he not chosen to step away for personal reasons. After that, it becomes a case of recycling coaches who have yet to win it all. Perhaps the devil you know beats the devil you don’t.
d) Mid-Season Change effectiveness – By now, surely there is enough data to show if a mid-season coaching change can lead to a championship. We all know how the Mike Yeo change for Craig Berube turned out with the Blues winning the Stanley Cup. However, when Yeo was replaced, the Blues were 7-9-3 on November 20th. On December 31st, the Blues were in last place with a 15-18-4 record. The first 18 games of Berube’s tenure were very pedestrian. Suddenly the lights went on and the Blues finished the season 30-10-5. Clearly this was an aberration much like the Claude Julien for Dominique Ducharme pandemic fluke run to the finals. Ducharme didn’t last the following season. Most of the time, a coaching change seems to lead to short term success followed by an Eminem “Back to Reality” where you discover the problem may not have been the coach after all.
e) Paradigm Shift – When you consider what the Vancouver Canucks have done given their season, they seem intent on changing personnel on the bench rather than behind it. Perhaps Boudreau’s day will come. However, it may be clear to management that it wouldn’t matter who was coaching that team right now. Perhaps you can fire multiple players rather than one coach?
It's the last three items that, it would seem to me, may be changing in the landscape of coaching decisions. Perhaps patience is becoming a virtue in that field as well and managers are getting less likely to make knee-jerk decisions that could ultimately come back at them later. Maybe NHL general managers are realizing that it’s time to hold players at least as accountable as the coaches that are paid to lead them.
I, for one, would find that refreshing. I am not saying that NHL coaches shouldn’t be fired mid-season. I am simply saying that, if a GM resorts to that, the season is, in all likelihood, a done deal regardless. Lightning in a bottle like the St. Louis Blues in 2019 doesn’t happen often enough to make that a viable strategy. At most, you will get a bump in the standings and maybe a playoff berth.
Based on the teams in the exceeds expectations category, the best time to make a coaching change is in the off season when you have a better idea of availability of suitable candidates. For teams like the Hawks, Ducks, Sharks and Coyotes in the below expectations category, if you are going to bomb, do it in a draft year with a generational talent up for grabs. Your odds of success in the draft lottery are better than winning a Stanley Cup with a mid-season coaching change.
By Pat Maguire | Sens Nation Hockey