Few people inside or outside the hockey industry were shocked to see TSN report the Canucks would fire head coach John Tortorella Thursday. The marriage between the mercurial menace and the team was a high-risk gamble to begin with, and the result couldn’t have been worse. His antics – whether it was playing the bull to Bob Hartley’s matador or pulling one of his patented “Look, everybody, scratching a key veteran hurts me more than it does him!” routines for a second straight season – went over like a thong party at The Vatican, and with the franchise looking at a long-term rebuild, a win-now-and-at-all-costs presence like his wasn’t going to be any better of a fit for the Canucks in 2014-15.
Similarly, nobody is surprised to see the speed with which NHL teams change bench bosses anymore. The coaching business no longer is a carousel – it’s one of those Polar Express rides that spins you silly with dizzying speed at a local fair. In the NHL’s salary-cap era, firing a coach is often the only option for teams that either can’t or won’t break up underachieving rosters.
That’s why there have been 12 coaching changes (not counting Tortorella’s dismissal from Vancouver) since 2013, and 32 coaching changes in the past three years. Thanks to no-trade clauses, albatross contracts and internal budgets situated well below the cap ceiling, franchises have one hand tied behind their backs when it comes to effecting meaningful change when things don’t go as planned. And because of that, coaches have gotten to a point where they’re nearly substitute teachers: technically in control for a short span, but always on the verge of moving on to the next assignment.
Forget, for a second, the coaches who’ve recently been let go as examples of the increasingly fleeting tenure of the position. We know Barry Trotz (dismissed after 17 years) was the anomaly and that someone like Petr Horacek (who never had the interim tag taken off him as coach of the Panthers before he was sent packing this week) or Adam Oates (who had one full 82-game season in Washington before being fired) is closer to the norm these days. The real indication of the fickleness that surrounds the profession is found in Ottawa, where, less than one year after Paul MacLean won the Jack Adams Award, there was speculation he could lose his job. Apparently, MacLean somehow went from being the NHL’s best coach to one who deserves to be scouring help wanted ads. Such a notion is preposterous – do you think Ottawa’s struggles had anything to do with the inconsistency of goalies Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, or the departure of captain Daniel Alfredsson? – but it’s now floated out there as a “reasonable” response to a team’s woes.
The changes are only going to continue from here. In Toronto, many Leafs observers will be stunned if Randy Carlyle doesn’t get the hook sometime soon; Todd McLellan’s time with the San Jose Sharks could be at an end after a crash-and-burn performance against the Kings in the first round of this year’s playoffs; Kirk Muller’s stock took a big hit in Carolina this season and new Hurricanes GM Ron Francis may go in another direction if not in the summer, then early next year; and a second-round letdown by the Penguins might push Dan Bylsma out the door in Pittsburgh.
Coaches at the professional level understand they operate in a results-oriented business. But where once the NHL afforded them bit of breathing room in which to do their jobs, coaches now are asked to work in the equivalent of a cash grab booth, frantically lurching and clutching, often at nothing other than thin air, in a confined space while a clock counts down the seconds before they have to get out.
In the NHL world, they tell you to enjoy the ride because you never know how long it will last. But with coaches, this isn’t true anymore. They need to enjoy the ride because it almost assuredly will be over before they know it.