Tuesday, November 9, 2010
The coaching change effect in NHL
By Scott Burnside
NEWARK, N.J. -- To fire, or not to fire? That is the question not just for New Jersey Devils president and GM Lou Lamoriello, but every GM of an underachieving NHL team.
The same debate percolates in Buffalo, where the Sabres have just 10 points in 15 games (29th in the NHL); on Long Island, where the Isles have lost seven straight; in Calgary, where the Flames have lost four straight and look like anything but a playoff team; and in Toronto, where the Leafs haven't made the playoffs since 2003-04 and have won just once in their past nine games.
With all due respect to the coaches in those cities, we would suggest that if their GMs haven't at least considered whether a coaching change would help their clubs, they are not doing their jobs.
Firing a coach is almost always a last resort, an admission of defeat on the part of everyone connected with the team, from the GM on down. And for every coaching change that sparked a dramatic turnaround, there's another that provoked little change with events having already spiraled out of control.
Here's a look at some recent coaching changes and how they worked out (or didn't):
Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon got the heave-ho on Thanksgiving Day in 2007, just 21 games into the season. At the time, the Caps were languishing in last place, but replacement Bruce Boudreau had the team in first place in the Southeast Division by the end of the regular season before earning home-ice advantage in the first round. Although the Caps lost in Game 7 to Philadelphia, Boudreau went on to win the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
Speaking of the Flyers, John Stevens took over for Ken Hitchcock just eight games into the 2006-07 season. The Flyers still went 21-42-11 and finished dead last in the NHL. The following spring, Stevens' squad upset Washington and Montreal before losing to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference finals.
After losing in the first round against Pittsburgh in 2009, Stevens' Flyers got off to an uneven start last season. The team was 13-11-1 with 27 points and out of the playoff picture in early December, when GM Paul Holmgren decided to bring in Peter Laviolette, who had won a Cup in Carolina in 2006. The move paid off as the Flyers snuck into the playoffs on the final day of the regular season (in a shootout, no less) and marched all the way to the Stanley Cup finals.
After guiding the Thrashers to their only playoff berth in the spring of 2007, coach Bob Hartley couldn't get them out of the gate the following season and was fired after a 0-6-0 start. GM Don Waddell took over behind the bench with a big hand from assistant coach Brad McCrimmon, but the Thrashers just fell short of the postseason. John Anderson couldn't get the team back to the postseason in two tries, so it is now up to coach Craig Ramsay to get the team their first playoff series win.
Hall of Famer Denis Savard lasted just four games into the 2008-09 season before Blackhawks president John McDonough replaced Savard with Joel Quenneville, who Chicago hired that offseason to help out with scouting. McDonough had a gut feeling his talented team wasn't going to get where it needed to be with Savard, and GM Dale Tallon made the move a day after the Blackhawks won their first game of the season. It was a gutsy call, especially given that the Hawks had played well for Savard the previous season. But the call worked. Quenneville guided the young squad to an unexpected Western Conference finals berth in 2009 and to its first Stanley Cup since 1961 this past spring.
Back to Ken Hitchcock. After coaching his brains out in getting the talent-challenged Columbus Blue Jackets into the postseason for the first time in 2009, the team couldn't return to that level of play last season. Claude Noel was brought on with an interim tag for the final 24 games last season and he guided the club to a 10-8-6 record. It wasn't enough to earn him a full-time gig, as GM Scott Howson brought in Scott Arniel this past offseason. As of Tuesday morning, Columbus is 8-5-0 and in the West playoff picture.
The St. Louis Blues hung with Andy Murray through a rugged first half of the 2008-09 season and they tore through the second half to reach the playoffs before being swept by the Vancouver Canucks. Last season, the Blues got off to another difficult start and were especially dreadful at home. After 40 games, Murray was fired in favor of minor league coach Davis Payne. A furious second-half rally left St. Louis just short of the playoffs. Would the outcome be any different if the Blues had pulled the plug on Murray 10 games earlier? As for this season, St. Louis is off to a blistering 9-1-2 start through 12 games.
Michel Therrien came on in relief of Ed Olczyk 31 games into the 2005-06 season and the Penguins were still a mess, finishing 14-29-8 under the iron-fisted coach. But the next season, the Pens collected 105 points and made a surprise trip to the postseason. In 2007-08, they rolled all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before losing in six games to Detroit. But midway through the 2008-09 season, the Pens seemed aimless and GM Ray Shero waited until February before firing Therrien and replacing him with minor league coach Dan Bylsma, who guided the Pens to their first Cup since 1992.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.