NHL Head Coaches: Hot Seat and Respecting the Job

In the NHL – and many other sports’ leagues – the decision to change the head coach is treated like a magical potion that will cure everything. Missed the playoffs? Fire the head coach. Star players underperforming? Fire the head coach. Advanced one less round in the postseason than last year? Fire the head coach. Haven’t won a Stanley Cup in four or five years? Fire the head coach.

It isn’t that changing head coaches is never the right decision, but it’s also a pretty well accepted fact that the man behind the bench is often “scapegoated” and made accountable for problems that go far beyond the realms of his influence.

In a salary cap era and in a league where there is as much parity as there ever has been, being a successful NHL head coach is tough. New coaches enter the league every year and only a select few make it past their first two seasons on the job. Coaches who enjoy initial success and are unable to maintain it don’t have the longest lifespan either.

In fact, even coaches who bring a Stanley Cup to a franchise usually only have a few seasons before job pressures begin to grow again – see Dan Bylsma, Randy Carlyle and Peter Laviolette in the post-lockout era.

Laviolette is an interesting case in point. It is clear that he is a quality NHL head coach. He won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2005-06 and reached the Finals again with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2009-10. He is now coaching the Nashville Predators, who are sitting atop of the Central division after missing the playoffs in each of the previous two seasons.

There’s definitely an argument that Laviolette’s message is a little unsustainable. However, he pulled Philadelphia together for what was a near remarkable run to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2010, he followed that up with two second round defeats during a period when the Flyers over-hauled their team trading away Mike Richards and Jeff Carter before the 2011-12 season. He was fired just three games into the 2013-14 season. Craig Berube has hardly improved on those achievements so far with the team set to miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

His Carolina team just barely missed the playoffs in 2007-08. They were 12-11-2 the next season when Laviolette was relieved of his duties. They’ve reached the postseason on just one occasion since. It’s easy to fire the head coach, but NHL teams with bad records usually have bigger problems than just their head coach.

Of course, there are always counter arguments. The Pittsburgh Penguins halfway through a season hired Bylsma at a time when Michel Therrien had the team playing above .500 hockey, after reaching the Stanley Cup finals one year earlier. Only a couple of months later, the Penguins were champions and the decision to change coaches was considered a big part of that success.

Darryl Sutter was also hired as a head coach to replace popular incumbent Terry Murray. The Kings had made a so-so- start to the 2011-12 season, but Murray was widely credited as the experienced coach who had helped the franchise reach consecutive postseasons for the first time since the early 2000s. Sutter’s success in LA is now legendary with two Stanley Cup championships to show for it.

General Managers are also in a pressure situation and most need to be seen as doing a proactive job if they want to keep it. Firing the coach is often the only obvious move they can make, especially in a league where the salary cap can make it difficult to shift bad contracts.

However, at the core of most successful franchises is alignment throughout the organization. The coach, general manager and executives work together on a clear vision, particularly as it relates to personnel and style of play. That’s been fairly obvious in many of today’s most successful partnerships including; Ken Holland and Mike Babcock in Detroit, Dave Tippett and Don Maloney in Arizona, Claude Julien and Peter Chiarelli in Boston, Darryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi in Los Angeles, and Joel Quenneville and Stan Bowman in Chicago.

These relationships don’t always have to bring about a Stanley Cup - Todd Richards and Jarmo Kekaleinen in Columbus, Jack Capuano and Garth Snow on Long Island, and Bob Hartley and Brad Treliving in Calgary are evidence of the progress that franchises can make over longer periods of time when GM and coach are on the same page.

The challenge of coaching an NHL team and the lack of job security are worthy of respect.

There’s already been four in-season head coaching changes in 2014-15 with Paul Maclean (Ottawa), Peter De Boer (New Jersey), Randy Carlyle (Toronto) and Dallas Eakins (Edmonton) losing their jobs. Here’s a quick look at the coaches who could be on the hot seat this spring with the playoffs and offseason fast approaching.

Todd McLellan – San Jose Sharks
McLellan is the longest tenured coach in serious trouble this offseason. There is a feeling that San Jose has missed its championship window and McLellan was loyally entrusted with that window. The Sharks must win all of their remaining games to stand much chance of reaching the playoffs and even then the odds are actually quite slim. Maybe the organization will put their faith in the fact that McLellan can coach, which he clearly can, but it feels more likely that he will be lost in the overhaul.

Adam Oates/Scott Stevens – New Jersey Devils
It doesn’t seem likely that the Devils will start the 2015-16 season with a dual coaching set up. The team has played better under the Oates and Stevens combination, but not great. In fairness, it’s a pretty flawed roster. It’ll be interesting to see if either of these coaches gets the chance to take the job full time this offseason, or whether Lou Lamoriello looks outside of the organization for his man.

Ted Nolan – Buffalo Sabres
The Sabres have a horrible record and no coach with that sort of record is likely to survive without questions. Nolan has inherited this situation more than he has created it, but Buffalo’s organization will presumably be making some big decisions about future direction after the next few games are out of the way.

Craig Berube – Philadelphia Flyers
Berube has lost in the first round of the playoffs and then missed the playoffs altogether. We’d point towards injuries and a flawed roster as a big source of that, but none of that saves Laviolette. Philadelphia have some core pieces, which should enable them to turn things around quickly, but will Berube be a part of that?

Bruce Boudreau – Anaheim Ducks
It’s only fair to point out that the Washington Capitals ultimately fired Boudreau because regular season success didn’t marry up to postseason success, but it certainly hasn’t gotten any better for them since he left. That doesn't change the fact that if Anaheim doesn’t make some sort of a run in this season’s playoffs, Boudreau’s job could be on the line.

Mike Yeo – Minnesota Wild
After two seasons of consistent improvement, the Wild have endured an erratic 2014-15 campaign. It appears that Yeo has “saved” it with a strong second half run pushing seemingly securing a postseason spot, but an uncompetitive effort in a playoff series could still prove costly.

Paul Maurice – Winnipeg Jets

Maurice hasn’t had long to work with the Jets and he has them as close to a playoff spot as they have been since returning to Manitoba. However, if they lose out on a playoff spot to the Flames and Kings, expect Maurice’s job to be under review for an organization that's starting to lose patience.