Peter Laviolette (Getty Images)
Many NHL head coaches in new situations – such as Peter Laviolette in Nashville – are enjoying success early in the season. But that's not necessarily a great thing for the profession in the bigger picture.
The coaching business in the NHL is about to get crazier thanks to the pending free agency of Red Wings bench boss Mike Babcock, who almost assuredly will set a new record for a coach’s salary whether he stays in Detroit or moves on to a new place of employment. So, that has to mean better times are ahead for all coaches, right? A whole, “rising-tide-lifts-all-boats” thing, right?
Not so fast. Because although Babcock’s pending spike in pay may very well result in higher salaries for more members of the coaching fraternity, there’s other forces at play here: the increasingly rapid turnover of coaches at the NHL level – and this year, the early success of most off-season coaching changes.
There were six such changes in hockey’s best league this summer. Let’s take a brief look at how they’re working out: In Nashville, Peter Laviolette has the Predators off to a 5-0-2 start (including a big 3-2 win over Chicago Thursday) that makes them the last team in the league without a loss in regulation. In Washington, former Predators coach Barry Trotz has steered the Capitals to a strong showing out of the gate (just one loss in regulation in six games) and his relationship with star winger Alex Ovechkin is beginning on the right foot. In Pittsburgh, Mike Johnston is working with a significantly rejigged roster, but the Penguins have points in four of their first six games and should be fine. In Vancouver, Willie Desjardins has reinvigorated a Canucks squad that had been wholly deinvigorated under John Tortorella.
Things aren’t working out that well for all the new coaches.
In Florida, Gerard Gallant hasn’t been able to get his Panthers to score via committee, individual player, or charity and they’ve struggled as a consequence; and poor Bill Peters doesn’t have a whole lot to work with in Carolina thanks to injuries and an overall lack of depth and skill possessed by the Hurricanes. Coaching changes can’t solve every situation. However, the fact two-thirds of the coaching changes made in the off-season are yielding positive results can be seen as a vindication of the choices made by the higher-ups of those teams.
But that doesn’t mean the news is uniformly positive for the profession. Could you argue the opposite and point out this success might make owners/GMs of mediocre teams more easily persuaded all they need is a new voice behind the bench and eschew more substantive and necessary changes to improve their team in favor of a quick cashiering of whichever coach is unfortunate enough to struggle for a few months? I think you could. If coaches are seen as disposable as razors, there will be fewer chances to build tenure as Trotz did in Nashville and as Lindy Ruff did in Buffalo, to build trust and understanding with players. Owners and GMs will give up on them faster. Fans will turn on them sooner.
Sometimes there’s no question a team needs to make a change of coach. But there’s too much hair-trigger churning-and-burning of coaches going on. And in many ways, the coaching business in the NHL is starting to resemble what it’s like building a team: stars at the top of the food chain (Babcock) setting the bar and naming their price, and at the other end, near-constant turnover and instability.
The haves and have-nots, and nothing between.