It had to be among the easiest decisions of St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong’s tenure at the helm of an NHL club, the decision whether or not to remove the interim tag from coach Craig Berube’s title. It had only been earlier that season that Berube had been promoted from his role as associate bench boss and into the top job, but he had guided a once-foundering Blues team to not only the one of the 10-best regular season records, but a storybook playoff run.
It began in November 2018, when Berube was handed the interim and took over from Mike Yeo, and over the next several weeks, he transformed St. Louis from a listless club into a possession juggernaut that was far more than a perceived also-ran in the Western Conference. And on the strength of his guidance and a rookie goaltending performance for the ages from Jordan Binnington, Berube and the Blues not only made their way through the first round, second round and earned a Western Conference crown, St. Louis went out and won the whole thing, hoisting the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
Though it was all but certain to come, it was less than two weeks after that historic worst-to-first victory that the Blues made it official and removed the interim tag from Berube’s title. He earned himself a three-year pact to become the 26th coach in Blues franchise history, and prior to the stoppage, he and his St. Louis charges looked prepared to defend their title. The Blues led the Western Conference and Central Division with 94 points. Only six point separated St. Louis from top spot in the NHL.
And while there doesn’t appear to be another Berube-esque story waiting to be written this season, there are several interim bench bosses who are awaiting their fates. So, who stays and who goes once the 2020-21 campaign rolls around?
Geoff Ward, Calgary Flames
No interim coach has had the job longer than Ward, who stepped in in late-November and put in more than a half-season’s work before the season interruption. And, at the risk of spoiling the direction of the rest of this rundown, there may not be another current interim coach who has a better shot at having the interim tag removed. Calgary has been one of the league’s top teams since Ward took over, with the Flames’ .616 points percentage since Nov. 26 – Ward’s first night running the bench – the eighth-best mark in the NHL.
Even the underlying statistics are somewhat promising. While Ward’s Flames don’t play the same incredibly possession-heavy style as they did under predecessor Bill Peters, Calgary has had a more aggressive attack. While shot attempt, shot, scoring chance and scoring chance against rates at 5-on-5 have all increased by modest amounts, the Flames have also generated more in each category and, in some cases, the additional attacking power outweighs the slight defensive downturn. Such is the case in high-danger chance percentage, which has increased from 47.8 percent under Peters to 52.5 percent under Ward. The Flames’ expected goals percentage has also risen from 49.6 percent to 50.8 percent since Ward took over.
Rick Bowness, Dallas Stars
The Stars had an 18-11-3 record at the time Jim Montgomery was let go by the organization and they’ve had similar success since Bowness took over, posting a 20-13-5 record in his 38 games as coach. Four-thousandths of a point separate the winning percentages of the two bench bosses. And while that may seem like reason enough to keep Bowness around, there’s ample reason why it might be time for a change.
For the analytically inclined, for instance, there’s the across-the-board downturn in the Stars’ 5-on-5 play. But more pressing might be the need to find a coach who can not only make this team successful, but get Dallas a bit more return on their investment from the top players. Offensively, the Stars have struggled greatly and the results prior to the season suspension were concerning, to say the least. Dallas had dropped six straight, had scored nine goals over that span and were in peril of falling out of their spot in the Central Division. The Stars were a mere two points up on the Winnipeg Jets and four points ahead of the Nashville Predators when the NHL pressed pause.
Given the results, it seems more likely Bowness is shuffled back into an assistant position than it is he sticks around as the voice behind the bench beyond this season.
Dean Evason, Minnesota Wild
A 12-game sample is hardly enough to get a firm grasp of a coach’s impacts on a club, but, hey, let’s not let that stop us from trying. What we knew about the Wild at the time of Bruce Boudreau’s stunning sacking is that they had the ability to be a bubble team and were interested in pushing for the post-season. Despite there being every reason for the coach’s firing to derail that, too, Evason has worked some wonders since taking over. Not only did he post an 8-4-0 record in 12 games, but the underlying numbers are positive, as well. The Wild were only one point out of a wild-card spot and five back of the Stars for third place in the Central at the time of the stoppage.
Interesting about Evason is that it feels like it’s only a matter of time before he gets his shot behind an NHL bench. He was a long-tenured assistant with the Washington Capitals before moving to Milwaukee to the run the Admirals’ AHL bench for six seasons, and he had been an assistant in Minnesota for a season-plus at the time of his interim promotion to the top job. Wild GM Bill Guerin is likely to have interest in interviewing a few of the free agent coaches, but Evason has thus far earned the right to get a second or even third look.
Alain Nasreddine, New Jersey Devils
Given the Devils’ woeful record at the time of now-Nashville Predators coach John Hynes’ firing, Nasreddine came aboard with relatively low expectations. That said, based solely on New Jersey’s record since he stepped into the interim role, it’s safe to say he’s exceeded them. The Devils are three games above .500 with a 19-16-8 record since Nasreddine assumed the coaching gig, and New Jersey’s .535 points percentage is 11th in the Eastern Conference and 21st in the league. That’s not enough to make the Devils a post-season contender, but a full season of that would have made New Jersey a fringe contender.
However, there’s some reason for pause here, in large part because Nasreddine’s success has been driven almost solely by goaltending. Under the hood, the Devils have been subpar at 5-on-5, to put it mildly, but New Jersey’s .921 save percentage at five-a-side and .911 mark at all strengths are above average in the time since Nasreddine landed the interim post.
That said, it feels as though with the coaching talent available and the Devils’ lengthy history of struggles – one playoff appearance in eight seasons – New Jersey should be looking for an established bench boss and proven winner who can help this team iron out its many flaws.
Bob Boughner, San Jose Sharks
Last week, speaking with The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz, Boughner said that he plans on being back behind the Sharks bench next season after taking over from now-Vegas Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer earlier this season. At first, Boughner’s comments seemed somewhat premature. After all, not only do the Sharks find themselves at the very bottom of the Western Conference standings, that fall came almost entirely under Boughner. San Jose was one game below .500 when DeBoer was fired and they’re six games below breakeven since Boughner stepped into the job. Further, the Sharks’ .419 points percentage under the interim coach is worse than the .485 points percentage prior to his hiring.
But is it fair to measure Boughner’s performance that way? Consider the Sharks were without Tomas Hertl for the past several weeks prior to the pause, that Erik Karlsson was sidelined in mid-February and out for the remainder of the season with a broken thumb and Logan Couture missed 17 games during Boughner’s tenure with injuries to his ankle and head. It should also be noted that the Sharks’ underlying numbers have been better almost across the board since Boughner moved into the interim role.
This season was close to becoming a wash for the Sharks when he came aboard and it has since become clear they’re destined to finish near the bottom of the heap. But Boughner might be deserving of another chance. With a healthy group in San Jose, the results could be vastly different.
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