Connor Carrick

NHL season marked by coaching carousel, changes

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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.'”

Devils vs. Flyers livestream: How to watch Wednesday Night Hockey

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with the Wednesday Night Hockey matchup between the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Devils opened the 2019-20 campaign dropping their first two games of the season. They blew a 4-0 lead Friday night at home, falling to the Jets 5-4 in a shootout, and were dominated the following night in Buffalo, losing 7-2.

Last season the Devils finished tied for sixth for most goals/against per game (3.30), while starting three different goalies throughout the year. Through two games this season, the same problem remains as New Jersey has allowed 5.50 goals/against per game.

“We’re playing like we want to have an easy game,” said Devils head coach John Hynes. “We can talk about it nine different ways but that’s the reality of where we’re at right now.”

The Flyers dealt Wayne Simmonds to the Predators in exchange for Ryan Hartman and a 2020 4th round pick at the 2019 trade deadline. Now a member of the Devils, Simmonds makes his return to Philly and will play against his former team for the first time after spending the past seven-plus seasons with the franchise.

“In a perfect world maybe it could have worked, but for what my goal is and where I’m trying to get to, I think it was a bad fit to be quite honest,” said Simmonds. “With all the pieces they have there in place, there’s a reason why I did get traded. Obviously, I wasn’t a piece they needed anymore.”

Philly will be tacking on thousands of sky miles to start the season. The Flyers played a preseason game overseas in Switzerland against Lausanne HC of the Swiss Elite League, before traveling to Prague, Czech Republic, to open the regular season against the Blackhawks. They host the Devils Wednesday night in Philly before making their Western Canada road trip.

[WATCH LIVE – COVERAGE BEGINS AT 6:30 P.M. ET – NBCSN]

WHAT: New Jersey Devils at Philadelphia Flyers
WHERE: Wells Fargo Center
WHEN: Wednesday, Oct. 9, 6:30 p.m. ET
TV: NBCSN
LIVE STREAM: You can watch the Devils-Flyers stream on NBC Sports’ live stream page and the NBC Sports app.

PROJECTED LINEUPS

DEVILS
Taylor HallNico HischierNikita Gusev
Jesper BrattTravis ZajacKyle Palmieri
Blake ColemanJack Hughes – Wayne Simmonds
Miles WoodKevin RooneyJohn Hayden

Sami VatanenP.K. Subban
Andy GreeneDamon Severson
Will ButcherConnor Carrick

Starting goalie: Cory Schneider

FLYERS
Claude GirouxKevin HayesJakub Voracek
Oskar LindblomSean CouturierTravis Konecny
James van RiemsdykScott Laughton – Carsen Twarynski
Connor Bunnaman – Michael RafflTyler Pitlick

Ivan ProvorovJustin Braun
Travis SanheimMatt Niskanen
Robert HaggShayne Gostisbehere

Starting goalie: Carter Hart

On Wednesday night’s season debut of Wednesday Night Hockey on NBCSN, NHL fans will be able to get a sneak peek to a yet to be released Green Day song called “Fire, Ready, Aim”. The song will serve as the opening theme song of Wednesday Night Hockey throughout the 2019-20 season and will be featured on NHL on NBC Sports broadcasts throughout the season.

Produced by NBC Sports, the high-energy show open features the band playing their new song on a hockey rink interspersed with action shots of more than a dozen NHL players, including Tuukka Rask of the Boston Bruins, Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks, Dylan Larkin of the Detroit Red Wings, P.K. Subban of the New Jersey Devils, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, among others.

It’s New Jersey Devils Day at PHT

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Each day in the month of August we’ll be examining a different NHL team — from looking back at last season to discussing a player under pressure to identifying X-factors to asking questions about the future. Today we look at the New Jersey Devils.

2018-19
31-41-10, 74 pts. (8th in the Metropolitan Division, 15th in the Eastern Conference)
Playoffs: Did not qualify

IN
Jack Hughes
P.K. Subban
Wayne Simmonds
Nikita Gusev
Connor Carrick
John Hayden

OUT
Kurtis Gabriel
Brian Boyle
Keith Kinkaid
Ben Lovejoy
Kenny Agostino
Stefan Noesen
Drew Stafford
Eric Gryba
Eddie Lack

RE-SIGNED
Will Butcher
Mirco Mueller

2018-19 season review

Season grade: F
Offseason grade: A+

Yes, it appears it can all change that quickly for some teams.

Much like the Florida Panthers, who I wrote about last week, the New Jersey Devils can rest easy knowing that last season is going to feel like a distant memory after the summer Ray Shero and Co. put together.

The Devils were very bad last season, so bad that, for the second time in the past three seasons, they were rewarded (thanks to a bit of luck) with the first-overall pick back in June.

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

They came into the draft lottery with the third-best odds but moved up to spots for the honor of selecting Jack Hughes.

They then shook up the hockey world, dropping a massive trade bomb on the second day of the draft as they acquired P.K. Subban to fortify their blue line.

Getting Hughes and Subban in the same weekend helped take the sting off a poor season where they couldn’t score much and couldn’t stop the puck a whole lot at the other end of the ice.

Just two players cracked the 20-goal plateau, only one player hit 50 points and their goaltending was abysmal. It didn’t help that Taylor Hall was limited to just 33 games because of injury and then there were the rumors of his long-term future not being in Newark.

Some of those questions still remain, especially between the pipes, but there’s a reason for optimism after such a big summer.

Aside from Hughes and Subban, the Devils also added some grit in Wayne Simmonds. It’s a one-year ‘prove it’ sort of deal that will keep Simmonds hungry as he goes searching for a longer-term deal next offseason.

And they added a player some consider the best who wasn’t playing in the NHL in Nikita Gusev, a former Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick who was then signed by the Golden Knights last year and then traded to New Jersey in July.

A lot of good has happened since the Devils played their final regular-season game of 2018-19. They’ve had to keep up in an arms race across the Hudson River as the New York Rangers took Kaapo Kakko right after New Jersey took Hughes and added Artemi Panarin in free agency and signed Jacob Trouba to a long-term deal.

Either way, gone should be the days where the Devils aren’t considered a perennial playoff contender.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Where do Hughes, Kakko fit in respective lineups?

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The top two picks from the 2019 NHL Entry Draft have both signed their entry-level contracts. Finnish winger Kaapo Kakko signed his deal with the New York Rangers on Thursday, while American center Jack Hughes inked his contract with the New Jersey earlier this morning.

Barring an injury, both Hughes and Kakko will be in their teams’ respective lineups once the regular season kicks off in October. But how will they fit into those lineups? Will they both get to play an offensive role for their team this year?

Let’s start with Jack Hughes. 

The Devils have to sign restricted free agents Pavel Zacha, Mirco Mueller, Will Butcher and Connor Carrick, so they still have almost $20 million in cap space to do so. Even if they bring every one of those players back, they still have to money to add a quality player or two via free agency (there’s not much left) or via trade.

Currently on their roster, the Devils have Nico Hischier, Zacha and Travis Zajac down the middle. When Taylor Hall was healthy last season, he spent a good chunk of time playing with Hischier, so there’s no reason to believe that those two won’t be reunited again once the training camp starts. That duo could either play with free-agent signing Wayne Simmonds or veteran Kyle Palmieri.

Of all the forwards on the Devils roster, Hischier spent the most time on the ice with Palmieri, so a top line of Hall, Hischier and Palmieri could terrorize opposing teams all season. If head coach John Hynes decides to play those three together, what’s left for Hughes?

Again, assuming they don’t add a major piece to the roster between now and the start of the season, Hughes could end up centering the second line with Wayne Simmonds on one wing. Simmonds isn’t the same player he was a couple of seasons ago but playing a big-bodied veteran who isn’t shy about throwing his weight around next to Hughes could be a good idea.

Playing the 18-year-old on a second line would also allow him to get “easier” matchups, as teams will likely focus their energy on stopping the top three offensive weapons.

Hughes will also certainly contribute on the power play, as he has the speed and offensive instincts to be a difference maker in that area right away.

The Devils have been conservative with Hischier’s ice time in his first three seasons (he’s averaged 16:19, 18:23, and 18:06). Will they automatically give Hughes 20-plus minutes per game? That’s unlikely. But Hughes might be more NHL-ready than Hischier was at the same age. So don’t be surprised if he’s somewhere in the 17 to 19-minute range when his first year is over.

How about Kappo Kakko?

Well Kakko’s adjustment to the NHL might be a little smoother because he’s probably going to break into the league as a winger. Playing at this level at 18 years old is never easy, but the fact that he doesn’t have to worry about the defensive responsibilities of playing center should help facilitate offense.

The Rangers have made some improvements to their roster this summer. Their biggest splash came in free agency, as they were able to sign Russian forward Artemi Panarin to a long-term contract. Panarin, who immediately becomes the best winger on the roster, could line up next to Mikka Zibanejad, who is the best center on the team. Head coach David Quinn could add Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich to that line, or he could also place Kakko there depending on how aggressive they want to be with their prized rookie.

After Zibanejad, the Rangers are extremely young down the middle. Brett Howden and Lias Anderson are 21 and 20 respectively, and they’ll be leaned on heavily to contribute offensively this season. But do the Rangers really want to line up a rookie with another young player trying to learn how to play center? Probably not.

So there’s a very real chance that Kakko could get quality even-strength minutes next to Zibanejad and Panarin. If that doesn’t end up happening, he’ll likely play with a young center and a veteran like Chris Kreider or Pavel Buchnevich.

Like Hughes, Kakko will see a good amount of time on the power play. The 18-year-old has put up points at every level which says a lot about his offensive upside. Giving him added time and space on the man-advantage could make his first year a season to remember.

We should witness a great battle for the Calder Trophy this season.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

With Hughes in Devils camp, it’s easy to overlook Ty Smith

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NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — With Jack Hughes in the New Jersey Devils’ development camp, it’s easy to overlook Ty Smith.

Hughes was the No. 1 overall selection in the draft last month and much is expected of the playmaking center. It’s almost certain he will be on the Devils’ roster when the regular season opens in October and the packed-crowd at the team’s training rink in the Prudential Center roared on Wednesday when he was introduced before a four-team, 3-on-3 competition.

Much like the other three dozen young players at the weeklong gathering, the 19-year-old Smith received polite applause.

What people tend to forget is Smith was the Devils’ first-round pick a year ago – 17th overall – and he nearly made the roster after a tremendous training camp.

A year later, Smith may be ready to take that next step. The puck-moving defenseman has added about 8 pounds since last year and he is coming off a great season in the Western Hockey League. He had seven goals and a career-high 62 assists, the second-highest single-season total in league history.

Devils coach John Hynes said Smith appears to have matured in the past year, noting his body is thicker and he looks fit.

”He is not a wide-eyed kid here that is taking everything in for the first time,” Hynes said of the WHL defenseman of the year. ”It’s the second time he is coming into the culture of what we are doing. He sees the needs and knows what you are talking about. He seems a lot more confident. I don’t want to say on a mission, but he seems a little more focused as opposed to taking everything in for the first time.”

Hynes expects Smith to be a motivated player when training camp starts in September.

Smith will be trying to break into a veteran defensive unit. It’s led by captain Andy Greene and recently acquired Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban. Sami Vatanen, Damon Severson, Will Butcher, Mirco Mueller and Connor Carrick are returning from last season’s team.

Despite being a little bigger and stronger, Smith doesn’t believe he has lost any quickness or agility.

”I like to get the puck and give the puck to the forwards,” Smith said. ”My dad always tells me ‘Get the puck to the skill and then support it.’ They’ll make the play and then join the rush in the second wave and create offense.”

Smith refuses to speculate when he will play in the NHL. He saw action in the preseason last season and was sent back for another year of junior hockey, helping the Chiefs get to the semifinal round of the WHL playoffs.

”I feel confident in myself, that I can play,” he said. ”Whenever the Devils want me to. It’s up to them. I have to be the best I can possibly be and come out and compete, compete for a job. It’s not easy to make the NHL. It’s up to them.”

NOTES: Hughes’ team won the 3-on-3 competition, posting a 1-0 win over a squad that included Joey Anderson, his roommate for the camp and a player who saw some time with the Devils last season. … Xavier Bernard, a fourth-round pick in 2018, had the only goal in the deciding game. Akira Schmid, a Swiss native who was a fifth-round pick last year, had the shutout.

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports