Mike Babcock

NHL season marked by coaching carousel, changes

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.'”

Matthews, Pastrnak set up thrilling Maurice Richard race

Matthews Pastrnak Richard race
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For quite some time, it looked like David Pastrnak (32 goals) would run away with the Maurice Richard Trophy. While Pastrnak remains atop that race, Auston Matthews is knocking on that door with 31 goals. If they keep this up, hockey fans are in for one heck of a battle.

Of course, it wouldn’t be one bit surprising if this turned into a three-horse race, or more. Alex Ovechkin demands attention as the most obvious threat, and he currently sits in a three-way tie for third place alongside Jack Eichel and Nathan MacKinnon at 26 goals.

Frankly, someone could alter the landscape with a hot month (or, for all we know, a hot weekend).

Pastrnak vs. Matthews is just too fun, and close, not to pick apart, though.

Before we burrow, consider the simplest facts:

Pastrnak: 32 goals , Bruins have 38 games remaining
Matthews: 31 goals, 37 GR

(Don’t worry, potentially aggrieved other fanbases; we’ll also discuss some of the other frontrunners to end this post.)

Matthews on fire, Pastrnak seemingly shakes slight cold streak

Chalk it up to Sheldon Keefe replacing Mike Babcock or not, the bottom line is Matthews is red-hot. After scoring an already-strong 14 goals during his last 23 games under Babcock, Matthews now has a ludicrous 17 goals in 22 games with Keefe at the helm.

Luck matters just as much as coaching. That’s worth noting considering how many bounces have been going Matthews’ way lately. Matthews has scored 15 goals on just 63 SOG over his last 17 games, a 23.8 shooting percentage since December. In November, he enjoyed a comparatively pedestrian 10.6 shooting percentage.

Pastrnak wandered through dramatic shifts of his own. The Bruins winger managed an absurd 30 percent rate in 10 October games. Pastrnak barely slowed down in November, but he seemed somewhat human in December, though he was still dominant (five goals and 18 points in 15 games, limited by an earthly 9.1 shooting percentage).

Overall, they’re both enjoying some bounces, with Pastrnak at 18.5 percent and Matthews at 18.3. Cold streaks could bring one or both of them back to the pack.

Pastrnak the power play phenom; Matthews’ interesting ice time notes

“Pasta” swiped the power play wizard torch from Ovechkin at some point, it seems. Pastrnak easily leads the NHL with 15 power-play goals, with James Neal being the only other player at double digits with 12.

Not too surprisingly, Pastrnak soaks up a lot of ice time on the power play, averaging 3:39 PP TOI. Time on ice remains an interesting topic with Matthews, actually …

During much of Babcock’s run, the veteran coach was (justifiably) chastised for using Matthews less than he should have. While Babcock did deploy Matthews more in his final season (19:50 TOI in 23 games, versus 18:33 in 2018-19), Keefe is giving Maple Leafs fans more of what they want. Matthews’ average climbed to 20:42 TOI per night under Keefe.

Interestingly, that boost is coming at even strength. After averaging 3:24 PP TOI per night during Babcock’s last run, Matthews’ power play average is actually down under Keefe to 2:38.

Overall, the response is “More Matthews, the merrier.” Matthews averages more time per game than Pastrnak since Keefe took over (20:42 vs. Pastrnak’s 19:29), while Pastrnak receives about an extra minute of power play time lately.

The two might indirectly make for some interesting quality vs. quantity debates if those trends continue. (That’s not a guarantee, mind you, as certain variables can change, but it’s a factor to watch.)

Considering the rest of the field

  • This is somewhat uncharted territory for Matthews and Pastrnak. Their youth and occasional injury issues make their ceilings unclear. Alex Ovechkin, meanwhile, delivers the goods, and lingers as a huge threat at 26 goals.

Ovechkin might be the greatest sniper ever, already boasting eight Richard trophies, including two in a row, and six of the last seven.

Ovechkin is firing the puck more than usual (210 SOG for 4.67 SOG per game, his highest rate since 2015-16), possibly because his shooting percentage is “just” at 12.4. Ovechkin’s track record and durability make him a strong pick to climb the ranks.

  • Nathan MacKinnon gives Ovechkin competition for trigger-happiness with 204 SOG. He’s right behind Ovechkin in SOG (4.64 per game), improving on what was already a career-high last season (4.45 in 2018-19, his first in the four range).

As spectacular as MacKinnon is, I wonder if his tendency to be a “volume shooter” might doom him in this race. If he maintained his current 12.7 shooting percentage, it would rank as the second-highest mark of MacKinnon’s career.

  • Jack Eichel completes that three-way tie for third, getting his 26 goals on 147 SOG (17.7 percent). Another Sabres swoon might take the wind out of his sails, although who knows?
  • Leon Draisaitl stands alone at sixth place with 25 goals. Patrick Kane and Connor McDavid have 24 apiece, while Sebastian Aho and Artemi Panarin round out the top 10 at 23. There are 16 players at 20+ goals so far in 2019-20.

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.

More bad Maple Leafs injury news: Jake Muzzin out week-to-week

Muzzin week-to-week
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The Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to pile up wins … and also, unfortunately, injuries. Following bad news for Ilya Mikheyev, the team announced that defenseman Jake Muzzin is week-to-week with a broken foot.

Clearly, beating the Devils 5-4 in OT on Friday now qualifies as a costly win. Muzzin hurt himself blocking a shot, while that scary skate blade injury will cost Mikheyev months.

Muzzin suffered the injury during the first period, but kept playing and walking. Maybe that made things a bit worse?

Maple Leafs injuries accumulate

Again, the list of injuries is starting to climb, especially if you consider the season at large (with Mitch Marner and John Tavares missing substantial time).

Combine Muzzin and Mikheyev with the losses of wingers Trevor Moore (out indefinitely with a concussion) and Andreas Johnsson (leg, on IR) and things escalate. About the only “perk” is that all of those injuries alleviate short-term salary cap concerns.

Deflecting to that really feels like gallows humor, though.

Maple Leafs might need to keep outscoring their problems

OK, maybe there’s one other indirect perk: still-new head coach Sheldon Keefe gets even more incentive just to let this group loose. However you feel about Muzzin’s effectiveness since joining the Maple Leafs, he’s not really there for elite scoring ability. Theoretically, his replacements may bring more to the table and take more away. Personally, I’d be more than OK with additional games like that 8-6 thrillride against the Hurricanes, but others, are … well, grumpier. Some agree with my high-entertainment preference, though.

At minimum, the Maple Leafs appear refreshed and unleashed under Keefe compared to the dull latter Mike Babcock days.

Even grumbling critics have to agree that they’ve been better in the standings lately. Toronto’s now won six in a row, with a chance to make it seven against the Rangers on Saturday.

Are they messy sometimes? Sure, but personally, I’ll take a messy-fun hockey game over a “perfectly” played snore-fest.

And, frankly, it’s clearly the style of game that behooves Toronto’s bounty of talent. With Muzzin out week-to-week, it might not just be the best choice, but also the only choice.

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.

Maple Leafs are better, more dangerous team under Sheldon Keefe

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The Toronto Maple Leafs are starting to put it together.

Even though it was far from perfect, their 8-6 win over the Carolina Hurricanes on Monday extended their current winning streak to five games and improved their record to 11-4-0 under new coach Sheldon Keefe.

It was a wildly entertaining game, and while it showed the Maple Leafs still have their flaws (defensive play!), it also showed how much progress they have made over the past month with their new coach.

1. Quick strike offense for everybody

First, let’s take a quick look at the madness during Monday’s game.

This game was all about scoring runs and goals in bunches.

It began with the Maple Leafs racing out to a 3-0 lead in the game’s first five minutes, chasing Hurricanes starter — and former Maple Leafs goalie — Jame Reimer from the game.

The Hurricanes followed by scoring five consecutive goals, including three in 64 seconds midway through the second period, to take a 5-3 lead. After extending that lead to 6-4, the Maple Leafs responded by scoring the game’s final four goals, including three in 59 seconds. Two of those goals — Tyson Barrie‘s game-tying goal and Mitch Marner‘s game-winning goal — came just six seconds apart.

2. Marner’s domination

Marner is always going to have the spotlight on him because of his contract, but you can’t ignore the production.

He finished Monday’s game with five points and is now riding an eight-game point streak. He has multiple points in six of those games and is now on pace for 92 points in 71 games this season. That is also a 105-point pace over 82 games.

He scored two goals on Tuesday, the first of which came on an absurd spin-o-rama pass from Auston Matthews to bring the Maple Leafs within one goal.

His second goal came just six seconds after Barrie tie the game later in the third period.

3. The Keefe impact

This is never going to be a great defensive team as currently constructed. That is not where their strength is. It is not what they do best. It is not what they should be trying to do. That is where things went wrong for Mike Babcock as he kept trying to grind out 1-0 wins every night. Sometimes you just have to turn your talent loose a little bit. That is exactly what has happened in the first 15 games under Keefe.

The Maple Leafs are not only winning games and collecting points at a far higher rate, they also look like a team that has all-star level players. You could not always say that in the first part of the season.

The table below shows just how much things have changed since the coaching switch, looking at the team’s points percentage, as well as scoring chances (SC/60 and SCA/60), expected goals (xGF/60 and xGA/60), and actual goals during 5-on-5 play. They still give up some chances, but they are FAR more dangerous offensively. All data via Natural Stat Trick.

These numbers do not include Monday’s game.

They still have their flaws defensively, but they are at least letting their talent shine. All of the offensive numbers are not only higher, they are significantly higher.

One of the biggest changes has been with the freedom they have in the offensive zone, especially among their defense.

No one has benefited from that more than Barrie, the team’s key offseason addition. This is what he said five days ago on what Keefe wants from him:

You will never guess where he scored Monday’s tying goal from.

Right here…

After scoring zero goals and only seven assists in 23 games under Babcock, he has four goals and six assists in 15 games under Keefe.

No, they can’t expect to win every game 8-6. But this game was kind of fluky and should not take away from the improvement they have shown. This is a talented team that is starting to play to its strength.

Whether or not that is enough to get them over their playoff hurdles or closer to a Stanley Cup remains to be seen But they are definitely on a far better path than they were one month ago.

Related: Underachieving Maple Leafs needed this change

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Marc Crawford will return to Blackhawks’ bench after suspension

Marc Crawford Suspension
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Assistant coach Marc Crawford has been away from the Chicago Blackhawks since Dec. 2 as the team investigated incidents of player abuse during his previous NHL coaching stops.

The team announced on Monday evening that Crawford will remain suspended through Jan. 2 following the investigation, and will then return to the team’s bench.

Crawford and the team both released statements. Those statements address the incidents, the investigation, the suspension, and the steps Crawford has taken.

The Blackhawks said they do not condone his previous behavior, and during their review confirmed that Crawford proactively sought counseling in an effort to improve.

He began the counseling in 2010 and has continued to go through on a regular basis.

Crawford’s statement

Crawford issued a few more in-depth statement. Here is an excerpt.

Recently, allegations have resurfaced about my conduct earlier in my coaching career. Players like Sean Avery, Harold Druken, Patrick O’Sullivan and Brent Sopel have had the strength to publicly come forward and I am deeply sorry for hurting them. I offer my sincere apologies for my past behavior.

I got into coaching to help people, and to think that my actions in any way caused harm to even one player fills me with tremendous regret and disappointment in myself. I used unacceptable language and conduct toward players in hopes of motivating them, and, sometimes went too far. As I deeply regret this behavior, I have worked hard over the last decade to improve both myself and my coaching style.

I have made sincere efforts to address my inappropriate conduct with the individuals involved as well as the team at large. I have regularly engaged in counseling over the last decade where I have faced how traumatic my behavior was towards others. I learned new ways of expressing and managing my emotions. I take full responsibility for my actions.

You can read the full statements via the Blackhawks’ website.

The incidents

Just before Crawford stepped away from the Blackhawks, former NHL player Sean Avery told the New York Post that Crawford had kicked him back in 2006 when they were with the Los Angeles Kings. Several other players that played under Crawford also came forward with stories, including Harold Druken, Patrick O’Sullivan, and Brent Sopel.

Druken called Crawford “hands down the worst human being I’ve ever met” for his verbal and physical abuse that included derogatory comments about Druken’s background.

O’Sullivan had also shared similar stories about Crawford’s coaching tactics.

Other incidents around the league

• The stories regarding Crawford started to resurface following Bill Peters’ exit from the Calgary Flames.

Peters resigned from the Flames after it was revealed he used a racial slur against former player Akim Aliu when he was head coach of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. That was followed by defenseman Michal Jordan detailing how Peters had punched and kicked players on the Hurricanes’ bench, a claim that was backed up by then-assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour.

•  Shortly after Mike Babcock was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs, a story surfaced detailing how he made then-rookie Mitch Marner rank his teammates from hardest working to least hardest working, and then informed the players at the bottom of the list of Marner’s ranking.

• Former Red Wings forward Johan Franzen also shared his own personal experiences with Babcock, calling him the worst person he had ever met.

More: Crawford on leave from Blackhawks

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.