Firing coaches during the season has been relatively common in the NHL for decades. The volume is nonetheless jaw-dropping in 2019-20 – and there is still half a season to go.
Seven coaches have been either fired or forced out. Gerard Gallant of the Golden Knights became the latest casualty Wednesday when he was fired less than two years after leading Vegas to the Stanley Cup Final and being named the NHL coach of the year.
Peter DeBeor, who was dismissed earlier this season by San Jose, was hired to replace him.
Five of the firings were related to team performance. Bill Peters resigned in Calgary after it was disclosed he directed racist slurs at a Nigerian-born player in the minors a decade ago and kicked and punched players behind the bench in Carolina. Jim Montgomery was fired in Dallas for unprofessional conduct and has since said he is undergoing alcohol rehabilitation.
While underachieving teams and poor records are the leading factors for the changes, owner impatience isn’t far behind. Brian Burke, a veteran former executive for several NHL teams and a current Sportsnet analyst, thinks most are far too impatient these days.
“It is a lot easier to turn around a business in some other area than it is in hockey and pro sports, and the Berube factor does not help,” Burke said.
Indeed, Craig Berube’s remarkable coaching job a year ago raised the expectation for fast results. He took over the St. Louis Blues in November 2018 and led them from dead last in the standings in January to their first Stanley Cup title.
Mike Sullivan led the Pittsburgh Penguins to consecutive Cup titles after taking over in December 2015. A few years before that, Darryl Sutter took over the Los Angeles Kings in December 2011 and led them to their first Cup that season. There was another parade in 2014 season.
Instant success in all cases. Like Gallant, who took an expansion team all the way to the Cup Final in its first year of existence.
It has all put more hockey coaches on notice in a field that already had very little security.
Of the 31 NHL current coaches, only three have been with the same team since the start of the 2015-16 season. Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning has the longest tenure (March 2013). Paul Maurice was hired by Winnipeg the following January and Jeff Blashill joined the Detroit Red Wings in June 2015.
Including the seven firings this season (Gallant, DeBoer, Montgomery, Peters, Mike Babcock in Toronto, John Hynes in New Jersey and Peter Laviolette in Nashville), there are 14 coaches in their first season with their team this year. Berube, title in hand, has been on the job less than 14 months.
Many owners are tired of waiting for success, said Pierre McGuire, an NBC Sports NHL analyst.
“I think people look at history in the league and ownership in particular, and say: ‘What about us?’” McGuire said. “’You’ve told us about this five-year plan or four-year plan, and these guys are doing it in one year, and in some instances six months.’ That’s what leads to itchy trigger fingers.”
Change does bring some positives.
Through Tuesday, the Maple Leafs are 16-6-2 under Sheldon Keefe. The Flames are 13-6-1 under Geoff Ward. The Stars are 10-4-1 with Rick Bowness, and the Devils, Sharks and Predators are showing signs of improvement under Alain Nasreddine, Bob Boughner and Hynes, who only needed a month to find a job.
Still, only three are currently in playoff spots.
“I think (Hynes) got a rough shake with our start,” Devils defense Connor Carrick said. “Bad starts are hard enough to deal with in the NHL. I think bad starts with expectations are worse, and that’s what we were dealing with.”
In 1987, there were 21 NHL teams and 16 made the postseason. When Seattle begins play in 2021-22, there will be 32 teams – and still just 16 will make the playoffs. A postseason berth will be even more precious and frustration levels will likely grow.
“The industry has never been patient enough with coaches and it’s at an all-time low right now,” Burke said. “Casualty rates are at an all-time high, and we’re not done yet this year.”
Berube aside, history shows midseason changes rarely end with a championship.
Major League Baseball has had just two managers take over a team during the course of a season and win a World Series. Bob Lemon did it with the New York Yankees in 1978. Jack McKeon matched that in 2003 with the Florida Marlins.
The NBA has seen a midseason coaching change result in three titles. Paul Westhead replaced an injured Jack McKinney (bicycle accident) in 1980 and took the Lakers to a title. Pat Riley replaced Westhead in ‘81-82 and got LA another crown. Tyronn Lue replaced David Blatt in Cleveland in 2015-16 and led the Cavs to the championship.
Since 2000, no NFL interim coach has taken over a team in midseason and led it to the playoffs.
New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz was Predators coach for 15 seasons. He worked the entire time with general manager David Poile and the two had a plan they followed. They counted on each other.
“What happens when you’re winning, you’re the smartest guy on the planet,” said Trotz, who won a Cup with Washington in 2018. “When you’re losing, you don’t know a thing. You need people when things aren’t going well. In this business, when it’s not going well, you have the fan base on you, you have the media on you. You need someone that trusts what you’re doing and can say, ‘Hey, I believe in you and I don’t see that there’s a change needed.'”