Peter Laviolette

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.'”

NHL on NBCSN: Can Hynes, Predators warm up against hot Blackhawks?

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators. Coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

The Blackhawks and Predators both find themselves out of the playoffs, but their stories have been very different lately.

While injuries pile up, Chicago is hot by recent standards. The Blackhawks are keeping their shaky playoff hopes alive with wins in six of their last nine games, scoring enough to offset problems. Their overall record sits at 19-19-6 (44 points in 44 games).

Meanwhile, the Predators keep grasping for answers.

Predators, Hynes running out of time

Nashville fans looking for an instant success were out of luck in Hynes’ Predators debut. The Bruins dispatched the Predators by an unsettling score of 6-2.

The larger recent picture looks dim. Nashville only won once in its last five games, and that was a win against the lowly Los Angeles Kings. The Predators head into Thursday with a mediocre 19-16-7 record (45 points in 42 games).

While games in hand matter, the Predators also realize that they need to stop squandering them.

“We’ve been [saying] the same stuff over and over again,” Rinne said shortly after the Predators fired Peter Laviolette and hired Hynes. “[There’s] a lot of time, a lot of time, a lot of time. But time is running out. You’ve got to change the way you do things. The bottom line is enough talking, we’ve got to start playing.”

[Our Line Starts: Is Hynes for Predators?]

Early impressions

Of course, in Rinne’s case, it would help to … you know, get some stops.

Hynes endured terrible goaltending with the Devils. Rinne and Juuse Saros disappointed wildly so far in 2019-20, and the first game under Hynes didn’t provide meaningful changes on the scoreboard.

Then again, the Bruins rank as one of the league’s toughest opponents, and that first game was a rushed process. Even with that in mind, Hynes made some early impressions on the Predators. While Craig Smith pointed to some excessive complexity during Laviolette’s latter days, Matt Duchene and others describe Hynes’ message as “crystal clear.”

“It was simple and easy to grasp,” Austin Watson said of Hynes’s practice, via the team website. “I’m sure we’ll make adjustments as we go forward or add some different tweaks, but for today, I thought it was great. You back it up with some video and then go on the ice and just try to get better today.”

[Discussing some changes Hynes can make in replacing Laviolette]

Rinne mentioned that the Predators are running out of time. They’re also running out of excuses. While the Blackhawks are finding ways to win, Nashville cannot lose games like these. Thursday figures to be a significant test for the Predators and their new coach.

Brendan Burke and Pierre McGuire will call the action from United Center in Chicago. Paul Burmeister will anchor Thursday night’s studio coverage with Keith Jones and Mike Johnson.

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.

PHT Morning Skate: The case for boring Buffalo Sabres; John ‘Norris’ Carlson?

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Leaning toward a boring style of hockey might not excite Sabres fans, but injuries might force Buffalo’s hand. (Die By the Blade)

• Speaking of the Buffalo Sabres, how can they jumpstart Jeff Skinner once he returns. Travis Yost explains it pretty simply: put him back with Jack Eichel. (Buffalo News)

• Bill Daly admitted to ESPN on Ice that the league is concerned about Alex Ovechkin and others skipping All-Star Games. Frankly, it’s tough to imagine this trend ending during a time when sports teams are becoming more intrigued by “load management.” Maybe the NHL should expect less in this regard, at least for high-mileage veterans like Ovechkin and Marc-Andre Fleury? Just saying. (ESPN)

• The Flames signed defenseman Rasmus Andersson to a significant extension. It’s a six-year deal with a $4.55 million AAV. Wow. (Flames)

• The Predators fired Peter Laviolette, but GM David Poile blames the players, not the coaches, for the team’s predicament. (On the Forecheck)

• Capitals defenseman John Carlson continues to enjoy a season for the ages — and aged. Alex Ovechkin calls him “John Norris,” so is Carlson’s middle name Chuck? (Five Thirty Eight/Featurd)

• Add Dylan Strome to the concerning list of Blackhawks injury. If you’re like me, the screenshot of Strome’s injury will make you cringe. Yikes. (NBC Sports Chicago)

• The Stars loaned defenseman Stephen Johns to the AHL. Consider this a fantastic sign, as Johns hasn’t played since 2018-19 because of “post-traumatic headaches.” Here’s more information on post-traumatic headaches, as that term feels fairly new. In a nutshell, it sounds like migraines might rank among Johns’ concussion-related symptoms? A smart person can feel free to chime in on that. (Stars)

• Adam Gretz goes deep on “the Kris Letang discussion.” (Pensburgh)

• Which players should the Avalanche target at the trade deadline? (Mile High Hockey)

• Speaking of the deadline, Mark Borowiecki acknowledges being anxious about his fate with or without the Senators. (TSN)

• Micah Blake McCurdy posted an interesting thread that spotlights skyrocketing scoring in the NHL, among other trends. (McCurdy’s Tweets)

• “They’re coming for you one day — all of us, no matter what, you’re going to get fired.” That’s what Paul Maurice had to say about the many coaching firings recently. Interesting to hear that from Maurice, who is one of those coaches who’s quietly found work for a staggering amount of time relative to his teams’ modest successes. (Chris Johnston’s Tweet)

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.

Our Line Starts podcast: Is Hynes the answer in Nashville?

Paul Burmeister, Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp discuss the Predators firing Peter Laviolette and whether new coach John Hynes can boost them into the playoffs. The guys debate if Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl can carry the Oilers into the postseason, as well as evaluate a handful of teams on the playoff bubble. Plus, Pierre McGuire sits down with Rangers president John Davidson.

0:00-1:42 Intros
1:42-14:40 Laviolette out, Hynes in for Nashville
14:40-34:30 Pierre interviews John Davidson
34:30-39:40 How far can McDavid and Draisaitl carry Oilers?
39:40-end Evaluating teams on playoff bubble

Our Line Starts is part of NBC Sports’ growing roster of podcasts spanning the NFL, Premier League, NASCAR, and much more. The new weekly podcast, which will publish Wednesdays, will highlight the top stories of the league, including behind-the-scenes content and interviews conducted by NBC Sports’ NHL commentators.

Where you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports

Can Hynes succeed with Predators where Laviolette failed?

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The Nashville Predators actually did it. They fired Peter Laviolette, and then hired John Hynes in a dizzying span.

The dream is that Hynes can sculpt this lump of underachieving clay back into contending shape. How well do such imaginings line up with reality, though? Let’s consider the way things might or might not change for the Predators.

Good Cop/Bad Cop?

In sports, teams sometimes opt to rotate approaches. First, you hire a “yeller” to scream out the procrastinators. Then you soothe various wounds with a “player-friendly” coach … or vice versa.

The Predators might be aiming for such a dynamic.

While plenty (including Babcock-blasting Mike Commodore) showed fondness for Laviolette over the years, the word “intense” comes up over and over in describing the coach. The Tennessean’s Joe Rexrode summed up some of that intensity in a May 2017 column:

This is a man whose default setting is “cold glare” when he enters a room. A seemingly humorless man, a professional sourpuss, a coach who can detect bad intentions in the most harmless of questions.

When Hynes was fired, it was striking to see just how many people went out of their ways to support him. The praise ranged from players including Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier to former front office members.

Affixing Hynes with a white hat and Laviolette with a twirly villain’s mustache would, again, be a bit extreme. Laviolette showed a sense of humor in being the butt of a joke, after all, while some wonder if Hynes favored veterans over younger players in New Jersey.

Still, in a broad, “macro” sense, you could argue that the Predators shifted from a stern to a gentler touch.

Hynes upgrading offense after it wilted under Laviolette?

After hiring Laviolette, Predators GM David Poile (understandably) hyped Laviolette’s “aggressive offensive philosophy.”

Laviolette justified such claims — for a time. After all, a franchise that once spent first-round picks to land Paul Gaustad was now emphasizing offensive acquisitions from Filip Forsberg to Ryan Johansen to Matt Duchene.

Whatever happened along the way — maybe the message faded, perhaps the league passed Laviolette by — the Predators’ offense plummeted. This thread from Micah Blake McCurdy argues that Hynes may improve Nashville’s system, even just by default.

Hynes provides a clean slate for those who fell in Laviolette’s doghouse

Following Sunday’s uglier-than-it-seemed shootout loss to the Ducks (which may have been the final straw for Lavy, depending upon whom you ask), Preds winger Craig Smith implied that Nashville’s system became bogged down by details.

“Sometimes maybe we overthink our system and play a little (lax) and sit back on our heels,” Smith said, via The Tennessean’s Paul Skrbina. “In the third (period Sunday) I think we just said eff it; let’s get after it a little bit. Read and react. Just play hockey, making hockey plays. That’s what we did.”

Could Hynes help them just play hockey? Maybe, maybe not.

In a fascinating discussion of Hynes’ Devils days, CJ Turtoro told On the Forecheck that Hynes’ system could also get too complicated.

Turtoro: One weakness for this particular team seemed to be complexity. As I mentioned, his system aims to create space, but that can create chaos that makes it difficult for players to support one another if they’re not on the same page, or not where they’re supposed to be …

The dream would be for Hynes to boost the Predators’ offense without taking away too much defense. Basically, the fantasy would parallel Craig Berube finding the right mix for the Blues after Mike Yeo leaned too defense-heavy. File that under easier said than done, of course.

Either way, the Predators may simply get a boost from Kyle Turris and others getting a clean slate.

Personally, I get the impression that Turris has paid for past sins. He struggled last season, injuries or not, but there’s compelling evidence that he shouldn’t have been a healthy scratch. Certainly not a frequent one.

Don’t underestimate the power of getting out of the doghouse.

Plenty of work to do

It’s kind of cruel that Hynes is going from one of the worst goalie duos to one of the league’s other terrible tandems.

If nothing else, it’s far more surprising to see Pekka Rinne and Juuse Saros struggle that it was to see the Devils’ motley crue produce dismal results. So maybe Hynes can help them achieve more, particularly behind a far, far superior defense than the one he deployed in New Jersey?

Hynes and the Predators don’t have much of a margin for error, so this should be interesting to watch.

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.