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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.

Can Ken Hitchcock save the Oilers?

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Continuing a staggering run of coaching changes around the NHL this month, the Edmonton Oilers put Todd McLellan out of his misery on Tuesday, replacing him with … Ken Hitchcock?

No, it’s not surprising to see McLellan out of a job; yes, it’s a little bewildering to see Hitchcock come out of “retirement” to get this shot with the Oilers. Will the gamble pay off, though?

Band-Aid solution?

At the moment, it seems like a short-term fix, which makes sense since Hitchcock is 66 years old.

Actually, it’s amusing to see several of the positive spins revolve around “hey, the Oilers put themselves in a great position to maneuver in the likely event that GM Peter Chiarelli gets fired.” It’s yet another painful reminder of how low the expectations have sunk for a team that employs hockey superhuman Connor McDavid.

In trotting out a longer argument for why Hitchcock was a smart hire, Sportsnet’s Mark Spector hit on a lot of the notes you’d expect, such as experience, which makes sense since Hitchcock is third all-time in coaching wins.

Of course, Hitchcock’s willingness to ruffle feathers is maybe the standout quality of this decision:

Discipline: Hitchcock isn’t in this thing for the long term, so he has nothing to lose, and no friends to make.

Then again, one person’s “experience” is another person’s clue that someone might be behind the times. Being a “strict disciplinarian” can also mean that you’re making players miserable, and failing to connect.

Those who respond with something along the lines of “tough luck” or “rub some dirt on it” should consider that Hitchcock crashed and burned with the Dallas Stars, and saw his Blues teams mostly disappoint in the postseason. His lone Stanley Cup win came in 1998-99. McDavid was born in 1997. It’s tough to imagine many key Oilers being in awe of Hitchcock’s accomplishments if he’s barking at them over and over again.

Inconsistency mixed with incompetence

Let’s not forget, either, that many of these Oilers have been given a long span of instructions over the years.

To recap this run of ineptitude and misery, ponder this list of Oilers head coaches since 2009-10:

  • Pat Quinn (2009-10)
  • Tom Renney (2010-11 to 2011-12)
  • Ralph Krueger (2012-13)
  • Dallas Eakins (2013-14 to 2014-15)
  • Todd Nelson (remainder of 2014-15)
  • Todd McLellan (2015-16 until Tuesday)
  • Ken Hitchcock

That list is almost as embarrassing as Peter Chiarelli’s record of trading, or the Oilers’ run of biffing just about any prospect who isn’t a no-brainer. (That trembling you felt to the point of almost hearing was Jesse Puljujarvi‘s anxiousness regarding inevitable trips to Hitchcock’s doghouse.)

Diminishing returns?

The thing is, the disciplinarian angle might be where all the gains are made, because it’s really difficult to imagine that Hitchcock can get much more out of this team from a schematic standpoint.

The Oilers haven’t been an outright-terrible team from various puck possession standpoints, as you can see from sites like Natural Stat Trick. For the most part, Edmonton’s slightly positive in areas like shots for versus against, Corsi For %, and have generated a bit more high-danger chances for than against.

Could Hitchcock goose those numbers up a bit? Sure, but it’s difficult to imagine Edmonton making a quantum leap.

In other words, this isn’t exactly like the Penguins going from a stuck-in-quicksand nightmare of a bland team under Mike Johnston to an attacking team that accentuated its strengths (and survived its weaknesses) during Mike Sullivan’s best moments.

Instead, this feels like the Oilers are replacing a quiet, defensive-minded, somewhat old-school guy in Todd McLellan to … a defensive-minded, old-school guy who has a reputation for yelling a lot in Hitchcock. How much of a difference will that really make, aside from allowing people to soundtrack sad Connor McDavid moments with Simon & Garfunkel?

Bright coach, but more of the same?

Look, Hitchcock is a bright hockey mind. He really deserves credit for adapting to the game as much as anyone could reasonably expected, as he did particularly well when he experienced a lull between his time with the Blue Jackets and taking over the Blues.

Hitchcock had some fascinating things to say about the game back in 2012, as you can see from this piece in The Globe & Mail.

“You’re trying to get 22 and 23 year olds playing like 27 year olds, so you’re trying to get some sort of order in your game but you’re doing it with much younger players, and I think that’s why, for me, the biggest change I’ve had to adjust to is the next day,” Hitchcock said. “Not the game day, the next day.”

Again, it’s possible that Hitchcock could be a nice tactical upgrade over McLellan, for all we know.

Sometimes you’ll also see teams get a quick burst from making a coaching change, something that might be easier to see in a younger, seemingly less-optimized team such as the Oilers than an older team that might just be out of gas, like the Kings.

A bump for goalies?

One thing that could be intriguing: maybe Hitchcock could get Jake Allen on the right track?

Say what you will about the old coach, but several goalies have enjoyed their best years under his watch. Steve Mason was a sensation. Pascal Leclaire had nine shutouts during one season.

(No, you didn’t just dream that back in 2008-09.)

Could this be a boon for Cam Talbot and/or Mikko Koskinen? Stranger things have happened, and if nothing else, Edmonton’s goalies should be motivated.

Chia’s growing mistakes

While it’s plausible that Hitchcock might find solutions where McLellan could not, this also feels like an organization stuck in its ways. Saying all the right things really rings hollow when Kevin Lowe is still receiving a high-level paycheck, and Chiarelli’s actions aren’t those of someone who’s learned from mistakes.

“I’m certainly not absolving myself of any responsibility on the player personnel and this isn’t just an indictment of Todd or the players,” Chiarelli said, via TSN’s Frank Servalli. “This is a collective thing. It’s our job to get to the playoffs. We owe it to our fans and I felt this was the right move for it”

That sounds reasonable enough, but Chiarelli is allowed to keep swinging despite strikeout after strikeout. That defense that can’t pass well? He signed them, let Jeff Petry go, and believed guys like Kris Russell were the solution. Chiarelli hired McLellan. He thought Milan Lucic was worth adding, even if it meant trading away Taylor Hall. And on and on.

Now, Chiarelli’s gambling that a sage-like (but also sage-aged) coach can swoop in and save Edmonton’s season. Oh yeah, it also feels like a pretty slap-dash solution:

[Can the Oilers keep going on like this?]

Hitchcock’s walked into rocky situations before, and in several instances, he left them better than when he came in.

The Blue Jackets were a mess, and Hitchcock brought them to their first-ever playoff berth. He seemed to provide a nice boost to the Blues, at least in a brief way. He’s forgotten more about hockey than we’ll likely ever know.

This Oilers gig seems like mercenary work, and might be the toughest bounty this old hand has ever experienced. Hitchcock is bright enough to possibly make it work, but it all still feels like a longshot.

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.

Under Pressure: Jeff Blashill

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Here’s an understatement for you: Mike Babcock is a tough act to follow.

In the hearts and minds of Red Wings fans, Jeff Blashill may very well face an impossible task in trying to supplant the scowl of Babs. It cannot be easy to jump from the AHL to replacing one of the most respected bench bosses in recent history.

That said, for all the well-earned hero worship Babcock often inspires, there’s an argument that Detroit needed a breath of fresh air.

The Red Wings were as dominant as ever from 2006-07 to 2008-09, making three conference finals, two Stanley Cup Final rounds and winning one ring. They’ve been solid-yet-mostly-unspectacular since then, however:

  • Just one division title (in 2010-11).
  • Three first-round exits in their last six postseason berths, including two straight years of one-and-done. The Red Wings haven’t made it beyond the second round in that span, either.
  • They struggled to make the playoffs more than ever in recent years.

This is likely a case of oversimplifying, yet some may look at this situation in one of two ways:

A) Babcock squeezed every standings point possible out of a fading team.

B) Conversely, the franchise was begging for a jolt of energy.

It’s worth noting that the Red Wings remain a quality possession squad, although their exact rankings vary based on which specific metrics you use. The bottom line is that there’s a solid chance that Blashill has a decent group to work with, even if this obviously isn’t the stupidly dominant group many long associated with the Red Wings brand.

When your team is currently on a record 24-season playoff streak, expectations are inevitable, and Blashill faces a tall task. For all we know, setting the bar so high might not be such a bad thing.

If only Hurricanes had more time …

To most, 82 regular season games is an awful lot for a sport as rugged as hockey. If you ask Kirk Muller, it’s a shame that at leastthis campaign wasn’t, say, 90-or-so games long.

When the News & Observer’s Luke DeCock asked Muller if the team would be a playoff team if only Muller had time, the coach responded “I do; I really do.” DeCock goes on to make some “What if?” insights and even compares the Muller turnaround to the renaissance the team experienced when it switched to Peter Laviolette during their Stanley Cup run.

The baffling loyalty of Peter Karmanos and Jim Rutherford to Paul Maurice has once again cost them millions of dollars — and cost this market the fun of another trip to the playoffs.

If only Maurice hadn’t been brought back after last season’s colossal failure; if only Muller had been brought in a week or two earlier, when there was still time to turn things around; if only. Alas, the damage was done, and now the Hurricanes are running out of time.

It’s easy to put too much stock into late runs, which all too often fail to carry over to the fall. The Hurricanes are hoping, as was the case in the spring of 2004 and the fall of 2005, after the season lost to the lockout, the tone set in the spring will be the tone taken in training camp.

As noted in this space many times, the similarities between the circumstances that led to winning the Stanley Cup and these circumstances — new coach, new attitude, new labor agreement — have not been lost on the players.

Carolina’s players took about a month or so to adjust to Muller’s message, but they’ve certainly been a more dangerous team once the calendar changed to 2012. The most obvious – and considering the top-heavy nature of the team, probably most important – changes come in the work of Eric Staal and Cam Ward. They went from wildly disappointing (and thus overpaid) to the kind of franchise cornerstones who seem capable of keeping the Hurricanes reasonably competitive from year-to-year.

If you ask the team, their coach and at least one of the local columnists, the Hurricanes now have a coach to be competitive – they’ll just have to wait until next season to prove it.

Hurricanes fire Paul Maurice; Kirk Muller named new head coach

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It’s a bad Monday to be a head coach in the NHL as the Carolina Hurricanes have fired coach Paul Maurice as their bench boss. Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford announced the move today just hours after Washington fired Bruce Boudreau and brought Dale Hunter in there.

In this case, Rutherford says the team will announce a new coach later today and TSN’s Bob McKenzie says that it will be Kirk Muller that gets the call to take over. Muller has never been a head coach in the NHL but spent time in Montreal as an assistant to Jacques Martin and was the head coach of the Predators’ AHL team in Milwaukee this year.

(Update 12:09 p.m. ET: Hurricanes officially announce Kirk Muller to take over as head coach)

Maurice’s second term in Carolina ends as roughly as his first go-round did winding up getting fired in both cases. The last time Maurice was fired, Peter Laviolette took over and led the Canes to a Stanley Cup in 2006. The Hurricanes this time around would love to have the same thing happen here but Muller’s hands will be full in trying to get Eric Staal’s season turned around and helping the rest of the team figure themselves out.

Muller’s main goal will be to get the team’s defense straightened out as they’re last in goals allowed this season and in last place in the Southeast Division, just 14th out of 15 in the Eastern Conference. The Hurricanes just missed out on a playoff spot last season but have been beyond miserable this year. Muller’s task ahead is a tough one for a team that seemed to lose their skills over the summer.