coach firings

Maple Leafs fire Babcock, name Keefe new head coach

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The Toronto Maple Leafs actually did it. The Maple Leafs announced Mike Babcock’s firing on Wednesday, and wasted no time naming Sheldon Keefe as his replacement as head coach.

After another frustrating Game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins in 2018-19, the Maple Leafs went through a strenuous offseason. It all built up expectations (and angst) quite high, and the 9-10-4 Maple Leafs haven’t lived up to them so far in 2019-20.

An already tense situation really hit a new low lately, as the Maple Leafs have looked miserable on their way to a six-game losing streak. Despite Babcock’s significant name recognition (and his $6.25M price tag), the Maple Leafs decided it was time to move on.

Problems go from festering to boiling

If you’ve spent any time on Hockey Twitter during the last couple of seasons, you’ve likely seen people question a wide variety of Babcock’s decisions. Sometimes the nitpicking feels extreme, but other times, it’s easy to see where people are coming from. (“Why isn’t Auston Matthews on the ice more often?” is a talking point most would agree with.)

The grumbling turned to rumbling as the Maple Leafs simply haven’t been playing well lately. To pin everything on Babcock is obviously unfair, yet you wonder if Keefe might be able to play to strengths better. The Maple Leafs seemed to march to the beat of the wrong drum at times under Babcock, and that seemed glaringly true during the lowest moments so far in 2019-20.

Better synergy?

Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas is 33. Keefe (once drafted 47th overall by the Lightning in 1999) is 39. Babcock? He’s 56, and some of his “old school” tendencies would shine through. Will Keefe lean toward the Roman Polak and Cody Ceci-types as much as Babcock? Is it possible that more offensive-minded defensemen such as Morgan Rielly and Tyson Barrie might flourish under Keefe after struggling with Babcock, particularly this season?

We’ll have to see, but you can understand why some might expect Dubas and Keefe to see eye-to-eye where Babs and Dubas might have butted heads.

One can only speculate about how Dubas and Keefe will get along, and only guess about deployment choices and strategic tweaks.

What we do know is that Keefe had a strong run coaching the Toronto Marlies, the team’s AHL affiliate. The Marlies made the playoffs every year since Keefe became head coach in 2015-16, winning at least one round each time, and taking home the 2018 Calder Cup.

Obviously, Keefe’s resume doesn’t compare to what Babcock brought to the table, but while experience will be a question, one would think that Keefe might be less prone to stubbornness than Babcock, whose resume allowed him to hold some serious sway over Toronto’s decisions.

***

As shocking as this move is, it feels like it had to happen. There are a wide variety of outlooks regarding Toronto’s chances to make the playoffs (from decent to downright lousy), but the bottom line is that this team seemed rudderless for some time.

Keefe gets his first chance to steer the ship in Arizona against the Coyotes on Thursday, the third game of what turned out to be a franchise-altering six-game road trip.

MORE:
Where will Mike Babcock end up after Maple Leafs?
Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change]

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Panthers fire Boughner, seek ‘transformative’ coach

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The Florida Panthers fired head coach Bob Boughner on Sunday, not long after the 2018-19 season ended. The team also parted ways with assistant Paul McFarland.

GM Dale Tallon’s quote in the press release won’t exactly cut off speculation about interest in Joel Quenneville, as the phrase “transformative, experienced head coach with Stanley Cup pedigree” sure seems … on the nose? On the ‘stache?

“We made a tough decision today and have relieved Bob Boughner of his duties as head coach,” Tallon said. “We didn’t meet expectations this season and share responsibility for that fact. After careful evaluation, we have determined that this is a necessary first step for our young team and we will seek to identify a transformative, experienced head coach with Stanley Cup pedigree to lead our team going forward. We’re grateful to Bob, Paul and their families for their hard work and their dedication to the Panthers organization and we wish them the best of luck in their future endeavors.”

The Athletic’s George Richards reports that the Panthers want to talk to Quenneville “officially.” Hmm, interesting.

Tallon’s already called his shot about Florida aiming for the fences when it comes to using cap room, with many wondering if the Panthers might target both Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky if the two prominent Blue Jackets indeed make it to free agency.

“We’ll be very aggressive after the season,” Tallon said on Feb. 25, via the Panthers’ website. “We have lots of room now. We have lots of picks. We’ll turn this into a positive thing. We had some bunt singles, to scratch and claw to improve our organization on a daily basis, and then we’ll eventually hit the home run.”

The idea of getting Quenneville and big free agents is alluring, and could represent a symbiotic relationship: getting Quenneville might make those free agents more willing to buy into Florida being legitimate as a contender, while potentially landing big names could make Florida a more desirable destination. This is a huge letdown for Boughner, of course, but it sets the stage for maybe the most interesting summer for the Panthers … ever?

Boughner, 48, coached the Panthers for two seasons. They were unable to make the 2018 or 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, with Boughner compiling a 79-62-22 record as Florida’s head coach. Considering some of the high-end talent on the Panthers’ roster, it was fair to wonder why the team couldn’t put it all together. If you believe that the Panthers underachieved because of Boughner, then you’re likely in favor of this decision.

Still, two seasons isn’t exactly a long leash for a coach, and this organization’s continued to change course. Richards points out that Jonathan Huberdeau is set to play for his sixth coach, and the 25-year-old has only played in the NHL for seven seasons.

The Panthers appear primed to go bold, and sadly that has already cost people jobs.

More on the Panthers

Is there an easy fix for their woes?

Why they were smart not to tear apart their roster at the trade deadline.

A look at their struggles back in November.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Roslovic rocks Ducks; Duck-duck-goose truce?

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Three Stars

1. Jack Roslovic

Saturday almost makes you wonder if Randy Carlyle will be sadly muttering “Roslovic” in his sleep.

The young forward played a big role in the Jets humiliating the Ducks 9-3, as Roslovic generated his first hat trick while also adding an assist for four points. You could probably put some other Winnipeg players as 1B, as … you know, there were obviously a lot of goals to go around.

2. Vladimir Tarasenko

There were some other players who generated big nights, even ones who don’t play for Winnipeg. Ryan Pulock‘s a nice example, as he generated three assists to help the Islanders stay surprisingly hot.

Tarasenko’s three points came via one goal and two assists, so consider that a slight boost compared to others.

It’s been a tough season for Tarasenko – at least by his lofty standards – but the deadly sniper has been heating up. This three-point game extends his point streak to four games (three goals, three assists for six points). Tarasenko also fired five shots on goal and generated a +2 rating.

The Blues face an uphill battle to make the playoffs, although they’re improving their chances with strong recent play. This also really hurt Columbus, as the Blue Jackets’ losing streak stretched to five games.

3. Jonathan Bernier

There were some other strong goaltending performances on Saturday, but Bernier comes out ahead because a) he nabbed a shutout and b) had to make 35 saves to do so.

Bernier generated his first shutout as a member of the Red Wings, and his first victory since December. He’s not playing that much behind Jimmy Howard – and in all honesty, it’s probably better for Detroit that he struggles, at least for draft lottery purposes – but this had to be big for Bernier’s confidence.

Speaking of the Blue Jackets

While Nick Foligno believe that the Blue Jackets aren’t far from getting back on track despite losing five in a row for the first time in a long time, John Tortorella isn’t so easily convinced. He seemed pretty glum after the loss.

The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline reports that the Blue Jackets have a team meeting coming soon. There might be yelling.

Highlights

Lightning – Rangers had some great moments. Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov made great music together. Mika Zibanejad‘s pass on Kevin Hayes‘ goal was saucy, and Henrik Lundqvist sent Zibanejad with a great pass of his goalie-own. Lundqvist’s save on Ryan Callahan was gorgeous. So just enjoy the full highlights.

Video evidence of Roslovic’s rollicking night.

This is a hectic one. First, Tomas Hertl makes a nice play (it’s tempting to call him Tomas Hurdle, even if that’s a stretch), then Brent Burns makes some great moves to score the OT-winner.

Ridiculous goal by Connor McDavid, part bajillion.

Mad at silly geese

The next evolution of Carolina Hurricanes celebrations is “Duck-Duck-Goose,” and it’s wonderfully goofy.

But there are plenty of hockey people who do not approve of players go the way of the silly goose.

As you’d probably expect, Brian Burke remains displeased with the Hurricanes’ antics, deeming that “bush league.” (You can see his rant in the final 30-45 seconds of this Sportsnet video.)

There seems to be disapproval from younger onlookers, too, though:

Factoids

Scores

PHI 5, EDM 4 (OT)
NJD 3, MTL 2 (OT)
WIN 9, ANA 3
TOR 3, PIT 2
DET 2, OTT 0
FLA 3, VGK 1
NYI 4, LAK 2
STL 4, CBJ 2
TBL 3, NYR 2
DAL 3, NSH 1
CHI 4, MIN 3 (OT)
VAN 5, COL 1
SJS 3, ARI 2 (OT)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Ducks fans call for Carlyle’s firing after 9-3 debacle

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This isn’t the first time people have wondered if Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle might get fired, but fans are being pretty loud about it on Saturday.

And, really, can you blame them? The Winnipeg Jets had more goals (six) than the Ducks managed shots on goal (four) during a disastrous first period, and it didn’t get a lot better from there, as the Jets humiliated the Ducks to the tune of a 9-3 drubbing.

To put things mildly, fans are unhappy, and the Ducks might be reaching a point of no return. Consider this the “PG” version of a lot of the calls for Carlyle’s head:

The “bright sides” of this game were basically limited to “not allowing double-digits in goals” and “not getting shut out.”

After the game, Carlyle chalked up some of Anaheim’s struggles to the All-Star break.

“Our personnel has to understand what happened tonight is unacceptable and we’re going to hold some people accountable to the way that they’re playing,” Carlyle said, via PHT’s Scott Billeck. “With ice time, they’re going to sit in the stands. There are various ways to do it but it’s one of those things that I never expected us to perform like we did tonight with the group that we have coming off of a nine-day break.

If you want more insight on how dire things are for the Ducks, consider this: I’m not totally certain that this ranks as the worst moment of 2018-19.

It’s an epic, flat-out historic beatdown, there’s no denying that. Yet Ducks GM Bob Murray has already stood by Carlyle through some downright dark times. As you likely remember, Murray released a statement asserting his support for Carlyle on Jan. 13, even though Anaheim was mired in a bruising 11-game losing streak.

“At this time, I am not considering a coaching change,” Murray said in that Jan. 13 statement. “I am more focused on our players, specifically with who is going to step up in this situation. The way we played tonight was a step in the right direction, but we need much, much more. We have higher expectations for this group, and they should expect more from themselves.”

That wasn’t the only time Carlyle was put under the microscope. PHT made the argument that Anaheim should part ways with the embattled coach in November, and also posited that 2018-19 might have been an ideal “soft rebuild” season with injuries stacking up during training camp. So this isn’t exactly a new thing.

Sometimes an especially embarrassing loss can erode that support.

While they claim the decision was made long before it, the Oilers fired GM Peter Chiarelli during a dispiriting loss to the Detroit Red Wings. An ugly performance seemed to push Dave Hakstol out of Philly faster than truly planned. And even players sometimes have those last straw moments in blowout losses, most famously when Patrick Roy whispered his way out of Montreal.

(Carlyle, himself, was fired as head coach of the Maple Leafs after a 5-1 loss to [wait for it] the Winnipeg Jets.)

So, will the sheer rubbernecking nature of this debacle end up being the end for Carlyle?

Murray’s in an awkward situation either way. If he continues to put these failures on the players, then isn’t that an indictment of his team-building? On the other hand, firing Carlyle again wouldn’t be the greatest look for the long-time Ducks executive.

One way or another, the Ducks need to change course, and fast. Anaheim’s now on a three-game losing streak, and have only won two games since Dec. 17 (2-11-5). As weak as the competition is amid the Western Conference’s playoff bubble teams, the Ducks are risking even falling behind that sad-sack pack.

Oh yeah, and Corey Perry made his season debut on Saturday. Yeah, that might get lost in the shuffle just a bit.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Panthers must resist making same old mistakes

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If we’ve learned anything from the last decade-plus of hockey in the salary cap era, it’s that even the most well-run NHL teams sometimes need to make the not-quite-ideal decision to fire a coach during the season.

Such gambles can pay off, whether we’re talking about short-term gains or the sort of stylistic changes that powered, say, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Look at Joel Quenneville; as frustrating as it must have been for him to get fired mid-stream, he was also an in-season replacement for the Chicago Blackhawks. That ended up being a pretty good call.

So, sure, sometimes such decisions are unavoidable, as messy as they are.

It gets tougher to argue for wholesale changes when you keep doing it over and over again, and that thought bubbles to the surface as there are at least faint murmurs about Bob Boughner and the Florida Panthers.

The Athletic’s George Richards reports that Boughner’s job wasn’t saved (sub required) when the Panthers eked out a 4-3 overtime win on Monday.

Out of context, it’s reasonable to at least wonder. The Panthers came into 2018-19 as a dark horse candidate after nearly roaring into the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, suckering more than a few people (raises hand) into thinking that they could be a dangerous team.

Instead, they continue to be a day late and a dollar short, finding themselves with a mediocre 9-9-4 record, tying them for second-to-last in the East with 22 standings points.

What’s maddening is that so much is going right for the Panthers, at least when you consider the fact that they’re without sorely underrated center Vincent Trocheck for the distant future.

It stings that the Panthers are so mediocre despite Mike Hoffman being red-hot, Aleksander Barkov being Aleksander Barkov, Evgeni Dadonov solidifying himself as a great winger, Keith Yandle piling up points, and Jonathan Huberdeau actually staying healthy. If you were to give the NHL the “NBA Jam” treatment* and just boil things down to a team’s best players, then the Panthers could go toe-to-toe with anyone, more or less.

So, what gives? What’s coming down the road, and what should the Panthers do? Let’s explore.

* – Or “Open Ice” treatment, if you want to be a Midway stickler.

Trouble in net

For a budget team like the Panthers, investing $4.533 million in Roberto Luongo, $3.4M in James Reimer, and another $1.3M in Michael Hutchinson would be tough to stomach even if it was working out.

Troublingly, things very much have not been working out, and the future looks a little glum. After all, Luongo’s hated contract runs through 2021-22(!) and Reimer’s won’t expire until after 2020-21 season.

It’s tempting to give Luongo a pass because a) he’s been great for so long, not to mention often-unappreciated and b) injuries have really disrupted him lately. Still, when he’s been on the ice, he hasn’t been great, with just a .902 save percentage over nine fragmented appearances.

As a goalie who was once (mostly justifiably) a fancy stats darling, Reimer has been a big disappointment lately. Instead of flourishing with Luongo out, Reimer’s been lousy, suffering an .895 save percentage this season. Hutchinson’s been even worse.

Could some of those struggles boil down to coaching?

Possibly, but this isn’t a Randy Carlyle-type situation where a team is just bleeding chances at an alarming level. The Panthers are averaging 31.2 shots allowed per game, tying them for 12th in the NHL with the low-tempo, more-troubled Kings. That’s easier to stomach when you realize Florida is firing 35.6 SOG per game, second only to the volume-crazed Hurricanes. On paper, you’d think the Panthers could make that work.

Granted, certain numbers smile upon Boughner less than others. While the Panthers score well (to extremely well) in even-strength possession stats like Fenwick For Percentage, Natural Stat Trick’s numbers put them in the bottom-third when it comes to their balance between creating and limiting high-danger scoring chances.

However you weigh Boughner’s share of the blame, it’s not really as if the Panthers are a disaster.

They would need to be

And let’s be honest, it’s about time that this franchise picks a course and sticks with it for a while.

As Richards notes, Bougher is the fifth Panthers head coach since the team came under new ownership in 2013-14. They’ve had a bad run of pulling the plug early lately. Bougher’s merely in his second season with Florida. The Panthers also:

  • Fired Kevin Dineen 16 games in 2013-14.
  • Handled Gerard Gallant’s in-season firing as sloppily as possible in 2016-17, allowing for the notorious photo of the bewildered coaching getting into a cab after being canned. That was an awful look then, and it only gets worse as Gallant racks up achievements with the Vegas Golden Knights.
  • Tom Rowe barely got a look in replacing Gallant, and things flip-flopped again when Dale Tallon took over for the analytics-minded, briefly-lived regime (thank goodness).

That timeline doesn’t even cover how wayward this franchise has been before new ownership took over, as it seemed like there was an unending stream of new cooks in the kitchen, whether the team continuously shed coaches, GMs, or both.

Such a scatterbrained (lack of) gameplan at least partially explains why the Panthers have only made the playoffs three times since 1997-98, and haven’t won a single playoff series since that stunning run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final.

Yes, it’s best not to simply double down because of sunk costs, but the Panthers would risk making the same mistake over and over again if they gave Bougher such a short run as head coach.

Big tests

That said, the Panthers are about to play the third game of what looks like a crucial eight-game homestand. Here are the remaining six games:

Wed, Nov. 28 vs. Anaheim
Fri, Nov. 30 vs. Buffalo
Sat, Dec. 1 vs. Tampa Bay
Tue, Dec. 4 vs. Boston
Thu, Dec. 6 vs. Colorado
Sat, Dec. 8 vs. Rangers

Not exactly an easy haul, right? Simply put, playoff teams fight through tough stretches, especially when it comes down to gaining crucial points during long runs of home games. So far, the Panthers have been up-and-down, yet they’ve managed to get three of four points (1-0-1).

It’s tough for Florida to see Montreal play well above expectations so far, and for the Sabres to make the leap they dreamed about. With the Lightning and Maple Leafs delivering as expected and the Bruins hanging in there through injuries, it doesn’t look like it will be an easy path for the Panthers.

Whether they can scratch and claw their way into a playoff berth or must suffer through another disappointing season, the bottom line is that Florida needs to start churning out better results. Boughner has to know that, even if it would be pretty harsh if it cost him his job.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.