Evaluating NHL coaches is a tricky thing that nobody seems to have mastered.
Look no further than the recent “coach of the year” winners and how quickly many of them have been fired. Sometimes it is comically fast.
A lot of times what we think is a great coach with a great system can just be a team with a great goalie. Sometimes a bad coach can be an otherwise good team that is getting crushed by an underperforming goalie.
It is not just fans or media that get caught in this trap. Sometimes the teams themselves — the people that get paid significant amounts of money to make these decisions — get caught up in it as well. Sometimes they make a change too quickly and discard a good coach because the goalie isn’t stopping shots they should be stopping, or because pucks simply aren’t going in the net for too long of a stretch. Or, perhaps even worse, they can hang on too long because a superstar goalie is masking all of the team’s deficiencies.
After going through the entire 2017-18 season without a single in-season coaching change, the Los Angeles Kings decided to go in a different direction on Sunday afternoon when they fired John Stevens and replaced him with Willie Desjardins. As I wrote on Sunday night, I am not optimistic it is going to have the impact the Kings are hoping it will, and the whole thing just screams of desperation and a last-ditch effort to save what is already looking like a completely lost season.
That tends to be what happens with in-season coaching changes.
Sometimes, though, they are needed. Sometimes they do work.
In this week’s Power Rankings we take a look back at some of the best in-season coaching changes that did work.
I tried to look at this not just in terms of whether or not a team was able to win following the change, because again, sometimes it’s not always about the coach. Sometimes it is coincidental and circumstance.
I tried to look at it as which coaches actually made a tangible difference in the way a team played or the way a team went about its business.
Here we go.
1. Mike Sullivan (Pittsburgh) — The Mike Johnson era in Pittsburgh was, to say the least, forgettable.
Maybe even regrettable?
He managed to take a team with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and — for a few months before his dismissal — Phil Kessel and made them painfully boring. They were not just producing mediocre results, they were awful to watch. He seems like a nice man. He seems like he has some good ideas and is a great fit in the Western Hockey League developing young players. But he was completely out of his element in the NHL, and after needing a win on the final day of the regular season in 2014-15 just to get in the playoffs, the Penguins were 28 games in to the 2015-16 season under Johnston and looking even worse. They were on the outside of the playoff picture. They were near the bottom of the league in shot attempt differential and scoring chance differential. They just looked … awful.
Finally, on Dec. 11, general manager Jim Rutherford pulled the plug on what was his first major decision running the team (hiring Johnston) and replaced his coach with Mike Sullivan.
It was like two different teams.
After Sullivan took control behind the bench the Penguins almost instantly transformed into one of the most dominant possession and scoring chances teams in the league (going from 22nd to 2nd in shot attempt differential, seeing an eight percent jump in their overall Corsi percentage) and overwhelmed teams with a fierce, swarming attack built on speed and skating. Sullivan was aided by having a few changes to the roster, but the overall change in approach was striking. The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup in 2015-16 under Sullivan, and then again in 2016-17.
This entire scenario is very similar to what played out during the 2008-09 season when the Penguins replaced Michel Therrien with Dan Bylsma.
The Therrien-led Penguins had completely fizzled out and were going nowhere. They were getting outplayed, outshot, outchanced, and in danger of missing the playoffs after reaching the Stanley Cup Final the year before. Bylsma’s arrival in Pittsburgh produced a similar and immediate turnaround.
2. Joel Quenneville (Chicago) — Like the Penguins around the same time period, the Chicago Blackhawks went through a lengthy rebuild that saw them consistently finish near the bottom of the league and stockpile top draft picks. At the start of the 2008-09 season the Blackhawks were a young, promising team that had a solid core in place but were still mostly irrelevant in the Chicago sports scene. They had made the playoffs once in the previous 10 years, while fans were still disillusioned with the team following the Bill Wirtz era when he prohibited home games from being shown on local television and raised ticket prices to near the top of the league despite the fact the on-ice product completely stunk.
Still, there was promise!
Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith looked like the foundation of a potentially great team. The team spent big in free agency to lure players like Brian Campbell and later Marian Hossa.
But the team still wasn’t winning. It wasn’t where it needed to be even with the influx of young talent and the financial commitment from ownership.
So after two year of mediocrity under Denis Savard and a 1-2-1 start to the 2008-09 season, the Blackhawks replaced him with Quenneville who had joined the organization that summer as a scout.
Quenneville hadn’t yet won a Stanley Cup at that point but was remarkably successful with every team he had coached, and was coming off of a trip to the second-round of the playoffs with the Colorado Avalanche.
He turned out to be the missing piece for the Blackhawks’ rebuild and in his first year helped lead them to the Western Conference Final.
The next year they won their first of three Stanley Cups under his watch.
3. Bruce Boudreau (Washington and Anaheim) — Bruce Boudreau’s coaching career can be somewhat of a punchline because he has never made it out of the second round in the NHL, and because his teams have a disturbing knack for losing Game 7s or blowing series they are seemingly in control of.
And yes, all of those things count and matter when telling the story of Boudreau’s career. What also matters is that even with all of that he is still a hell of a coach and has twice helped turn around teams that were going nowhere.
He first did it in Washington during the 2007-08 season when he took over for Glen Hanlon after his two-and-a-half uninspiring seasons. What made Hanlon’s tenure so disappointing is that this was the very beginning of the Alex Ovechkin era. They were coming out of a complete teardown of the organization, were bottom dwellers for a couple of years, but had a true superstar talent they could build around. They needed to win with him. In his first two years the Capitals were a 70-point team each year, and nearly a quarter of the way through season three were on track to actually regress with one of the game’s biggest and brightest young superstars on the team. You think the Oilers are wasting Connor McDavid‘s early years? They had nothing on Glen Hanlon’s tenure with Alex Ovechkin in Washington.
Finally, in early December, the Capitals brought in Boudreau, their championship winning AHL coach to try and turn things around. He immediately proceeded to turn the Capitals’ young star players loose. The team finished the 2007-08 season playing at a 108-point pace, then won 104 regular season games over the next two years. The Capitals were not only relevant again, they were one of the absolute best teams in the league. And the most exciting. It never resulted in a championship, but the change was needed and successful and made the team a force.
Boudreau’s run in Washington ultimately ended early in the 2011-12 season when the team had stalled out after repeated early postseason exits.
He was not out of work for long.
Just a few days after being fired by the Capitals, the Anaheim Ducks, who had won just seven of their first 24 games, fired Randy Carlyle and replaced him with Boudreau. At the time the Ducks were unspeakably lousy, and just like every Randy Carlyle coached team ever were getting absolutely obliterated on the shot and scoring chance charts. They weren’t an unlucky team; they were a bad team. Almost immediately after the hiring of Boudreau the Ducks’ pace of play, style of play, and quality of play dramatically increased as they went from one of the worst possession teams in the league, to one that was suddenly flirting with the top-10. The team didn’t just improve, there was a notable change in how they played.
4. Larry Robinson (New Jersey) — The Lou Lamoriello New Jersey Devils were really something to watch because they not only won a lot, but also because Lamoriello was a complete madman in the front office that changed coaches whenever he damn well felt like it. Just consider the six year run between 1997 and 2003 when the Devils won two Stanley Cups and three Conference titles … while changing coaches four different times.
One of the most notable changes came late in the 1999-00 season when, with eight games remaining in the season and the Devils owning a 41-25-8 record, Lamoriello fired coach Robbie Ftorek and replaced him with Larry Robinson.
It was stunning because the Devils were in first place. They were Stanley Cup contenders. But nobody was happy with Ftorek. His players hated him for a lack of communication and what were described as “boot-camp practices.”
Lamoriello wasn’t happy because he “didn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel” and didn’t think they were going to pull out of a late-season slump that saw them go 5-9-2 in Ftorek’s final 16 games.
But let’s focus on the players hating him, because wow did they really hate him. Everyone that left New Jersey during Ftorek’s time behind the bench had a parting shot to deliver on their way out the door, while long-time Devils defender Ken Daneyko was one of the holdover players to speak out in support of a change.
“Let’s face it, it’s about winning,” defenseman Ken Daneyko said via the Sun Sentinnel. “Management didn’t feel the team was on the right track. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that slump in the middle, we had it at the end. [Ftorek] wasn’t getting the most out of us of late. The players weren’t responding to him. I’m not a guy who throws stones. I take things like a man. … At times you have to be adjustable and willing to change. I don’t know if Robbie was willing to change.”
So what did the Devils do under Larry Robinson? They went on to win the Stanley Cup that season, dominated the Eastern Conference the following year and were a Game 7 loss in Colorado away form winning a second consecutive Stanley Cup.
Unfortunately for Larry Robinson he, too, would eventually be one of the many Devils coaches to get fired in the middle of a season under Lamoriello getting the axe 51 games into the 2001-02 season .. only to eventually come back in 2005-06, only to resign midway through the season citing health issues.
Even if the only thing Robinson did was “don’t be hated and loathed by your entire team” that was still a massive improvement over the Robbie Ftorek era, and enough to be one of the most successful in-season coaching changes in recent memory.
5. Pat Quinn (Vancouver) — Throughout the late 1980s the Vancouver Canucks were largely irrelevant, consistently finishing in last place in the Smythe Division under coach Bob McCammon. After nearly full season of irrelevance, the Canucks fired McCammon late in the 1990-91 season and replaced him with Pat Quinn.
This was already a bizarre situation given the way Quinn joined the Canucks.
Quinn had already been in the organization serving as the team’s general manager since the 1987-88 season, but was restricted from coaching until the 1990-91 following a dispute with the Los Angeles Kings.
You see, Quinn had agreed to join the Canucks while he was still under contract with the Kings, arguing that Los Angeles had missed a deadline option on his contract that allowed him to negotiate with other teams. NHL president John Zeigler’s solution to all of this was to not allow Quinn to take over the Canucks’ front office operations until after the season, and to not allow him to coach until the 1990-91 season.
Once Quinn was allowed to coach again, he made an immediate impact on the Canucks. They saw significant improvement in the second half of the season under Quinn, and with largely the same roster (with the significant addition of a young hot-shot rookie named Pavel Bure in 1991-92) the organization did a complete 180 and became a playoff team in all three of his full seasons behind the bench. That run included a trip to the 1994 Stanley Cup Final where they would ultimately lose in Game 7 to the New York Rangers.
6. Daryl Sutter (Los Angeles) — One of the recent in-season coaching changes to result in a championship that very season. And just like the examples of Mike Sullivan and Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh, the Kings saw a pretty significant improvement in their overall play under Sutter. It is not that the Kings were necessarily a bad team prior to his arrival, but they weren’t really anything special. They didn’t have the look of a Stanley Cup contender or play like one. They were decent, they were improving, but they needed someone to push them to the next level. Under Sutter the Kings became one of the NHL’s most dominant puck possession teams and one of the stingiest defenses in the league. In his first three years behind the bench they won two Stanley Cups and were a Western Conference Finalist in the one year they did not reach the Final.
7. Bruce Cassidy (Boston Bruins) — I almost didn’t include this one from the 2016-17 season because even though the Bruins’ stalled out under Claude Julien toward the end of his tenure, they were still a pretty good team, and a lot of their shortcomings in 2015-16 and 2016-17 were more related poor decisions from the front office than anything Julien was or was not doing. And in the year where Julien was actually fired and replaced by Cassidy, the Bruins were doing a lot of good things. They were controlling the play, they were near the top of the league in possession and shot metrics, they were just getting crushed by percentages. But I also think there is a little bit of truth to the idea that after a decade a coach’s message can get stale and there might be a need for a change. And Cassidy has been outstanding for the Bruins since taking over.