Ron Wilson was a popular early-season target to lose his job, but he's still with the Maple Leafs, who sit four points outside the playoffs. (Photo by Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images)
They say that, in the world of highly paid professional athletes, it’s much easier to fire an underachieving team’s coach than it is to fire the players. That may be true, but in practice this season the NHL is trending in the opposite direction: keeping their main men behind the benches and letting the players figure out how to improve.
There have been two coaching changes in the NHL since the 2010-11 season began: Jack Capuano replaced Scott Gordon on Long Island in mid-November; and Jacques Lemaire was hired in New Jersey to take over for John MacLean. Although it’s difficult to argue both moves didn’t pay dividends – particularly in New Jersey, where Lemaire has whipped a formerly pathetic group into one of the hottest teams of the season’s second half – neither the Devils nor the Islanders are in a playoff position or are likely to be.
So, two coaching changes. That’s down from three coaches dismissed in the middle of last season and five coaches fired during the 2008-09 campaign.
Last season, John Stevens was cashiered in Philadelphia in favor of Peter Laviolette in December of 2009; the Blues handed Andy Murray his papers the second day of 2010; and Ken Hitchcock was fired by the Blue Jackets in February.
The year before that, Joel Quenneville took over for Denis Savard in October; Paul Maurice replaced Laviolette in December of 2008; Cory Clouston was hired by the Senators in early February of 2009; Dan Bylsma grabbed the Penguins reins from Michel Therrien in mid-February; and John Tortorella took the Rangers job after Tom Renney was turfed near the end of that month.
Of all those moves, only one coaching replacement (Bylsma) led his team to a Stanley Cup the year he was hired. Of course, Laviolette came within two wins of repeating Bylsma’s feat last season, while Quenneville and the Hawks won it all in his first full season in Chicago.
Most of the time, though, any GM who fires a coach is simply moving in a new director to work on the same flawed film. And it appears GMs are learning their lesson by sticking with their bench boss and thereby underscoring for the players who really is in control.
Many times already this season, that calm approach has worked.
The jackals were out for Ron Wilson in Toronto for most of this season, but Leafs GM Brian Burke refused to pink slip him and the team has surged through the second half to have a much better shot at a playoff berth than anyone suspected.
In Minnesota, Todd Richards was under the gun right off the hop this year when the Wild began the season with a 13-13-4 mark. Instead, GM Chuck Fletcher stayed the course, retained Richards and Minny has since posted a 22-12-3 record and forced its way back into the post-season picture.
Same goes for Todd McLellan and the Sharks, a team that was a major disappointment most of the first half and lost six straight games in early January. It would have been easy at that point for San Jose GM Doug Wilson to affix a toe tag to McLellan; that didn’t happen – and because of his patience, the Sharks won 18 of their following 22 games.
Same goes with Lindy Ruff in Buffalo, Brent Sutter in Calgary and Randy Carlyle in Anaheim; the Sabres, Flames and Ducks all looked to be in serious states of disrepair, all stuck by their coach and all are back in the post-season hunt. Even teams such as the Senators and Avalanche refused to dismiss Clouston and Joe Sacco despite on-ice performances that have been about as dismal as possible.
Why the change? As one former coach put it recently, “the (salary) cap has locked in most players on a long-term basis, many with no-trade or no-move clauses, and at first glance, you’d think that would make GMs more willing to push (coaches) out the door. But sometimes that can be a good thing for coaches. If you can reinforce the message to a player that, hey, you’re not going anywhere and (the coach) isn’t either, it forces both sides to work together to figure out a solution.”
Now, the pressures of winning and the extended tenure of certain coaches may result in a ton of turnover in the summer. But it seems the days of knee-jerk, in-season fixes are on the wane.
Yeah, you can’t fire the players, but the players are having far less success pushing unwanted direction and/or discipline out the door.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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