NEW YORK, N.Y. – The St. Louis Blues pulled the trigger first, firing coach Davis Payne just 13 games into a season they felt the sudden urge to save.
Panic? Perhaps. Surprising? Not nearly as much as outsiders might believe.
If any other evidence was needed, it came quickly as the Washington Capitals, Carolina Hurricanes, and Anaheim Ducks followed suit—all sending their coaches packing before December. The calendar changed, but that didn’t provide protection as the Los Angeles Kings dismissed Terry Murray this week.
That left five coaches kicked to the curb within the first third of a long season. Poor starts signal itchy general managers that if a move isn’t made early, it might soon be too late.
The Blues were 6-7 when Payne was fired on Nov. 6, but turned it around right away under Ken Hitchcock, who was 11-2-3 with St. Louis entering Thursday’s game against the New York Rangers.
“There is such an onus to win hockey games now, and those certain markets that made those changes there are expectations to make the playoffs or do better than that,” Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero said. “One of the things you find out, and we have all seen, that waiting too long can cost you.”
Shero faced that prospect in 2009 when he let Michel Therrien go and hired Dan Bylsma, a former NHL forward making his mark in the American Hockey League. Therrien’s job status was speculated long before he was let go on Feb. 15, and Shero’s decision to make a move was right on time.
Bylsma led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup title that season after Therrien fell two wins short a year earlier. Call it shrewd or lucky, but the change worked. That, in itself, could be a key thing that emboldens general managers to pull the plug on coaches earlier and earlier as they dream of striking the right chord.
“You send a message that you are in control of the situation, ‘Here is what I see and here is what I’m going to do,'” Shero said. “Sometimes you wait too long and it goes in the other direction, and you can’t save it. We know with the quality of the league now, basically after Thanksgiving, if you’re out you might be out.
“There is not much difference between the 10th-place team and the first-place team. It’s really tight, but that’s the manager’s job, and it’s not an easy one.”
That is why Washington said goodbye to Bruce Boudreau, who just two seasons ago led the Capitals to their only Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s best regular-season team. Regular season is the key, because Boudreau’s inability to get Alex Ovechkin and Co. beyond the second round of the playoffs was a major reason why he was gone early in his fifth season—despite a 7-0 start.
A 3-7-1 slide in Boudreau’s final 11 games was the ultimate tipping point when he was dismissed on Nov. 28, the same day Paul Maurice was let go by Carolina.
Boudreau was an early-season hire himself when he replaced Glen Hanlon in November 2007. He was the NHL coach of the year in 2008 and was the fastest to reach 200 NHL coaching victories.
None of that mattered at the end.
“GMs are in a bind, too,” said Edmonton Oilers coach Tom Renney, twice fired as an NHL coach. “They don’t often want to admit a mistake in drafting, signing, acquiring the underachieving or misfit player, as it is clearly a reflection on them, as it is in hiring the coach who may not be able to get the wins.
“Players are acquired, coaches are hired and GM inspired by what they truly believe is the right person and having a loyalty to the philosophical line of their head coach by securing him to a strong term with compensation to match. Over time, unless the team replaces three players per year—a random number—the change will most often come from behind the bench.”
Renney suggests a coaching union could help the profession, along with what he calls a “lame-duck clause” in contracts, regardless if the coach is hired by another team following his dismissal. The clause would act as a severance agreement in which the coach gets another year at his base pay.
“Help the poor man out for all he has to endure, in attempting to do a good job,” Renney said. “The firings this year, right or wrong, happened to good men.
“Coaches should be encouraged with their attempt to form a union. Teams and the NHL should embrace and support the idea and contribute in all ways necessary so as to show the respect that the fraternity deserves. Do all of these things, and I think most of us can live with the volatility that is coaching in the NHL.”
There was barely enough time to feel sorry forBoudreau. Just two days after being let go by the Caps, he landed behind the Anaheim Ducks bench as the replacement for Randy Carlyle, who only four years earlier guided that club to its first Stanley Cup title.
Sprinkled in the middle was Maurice, fired as coach of the Hurricanes for a second time after his club stumbled to an 8-13-4 start.
“I don’t know if surprise is the right emotion,” Bylsma said of the recent coaching carnage. “All the coaches in question are very good coaches and have done good things. To see them be dismissed does give you pause. It’s an uneasy day for every coach when you see that happen.”
Who would know better than Bylsma, who landed in the right situation and made the most of it. Time and success are fleeting. Today’s champion could be the next future television analyst who is waiting for someone else to get canned so they can get back in the game.
Bylsma’s success was nearly matched two seasons ago. Peter Laviolette, the coach who led the Hurricanes to the Cup title in 2006 and was then fired in December 2008, took over the Philadelphia Flyers in December 2009 and led them to the Cup finals that season.
“Sometimes it’s just kind of a wake-up call,” Flyers forward Danny Briere said. “I know it’s cliche, but it’s a lot easier to change a coach than 25 guys, sadly. Sometimes it’s just a click, a switch that goes on for the rest of the players that the next time around it’s not going to be the coach that’s going to be the scapegoat.”
If it can work in Pennsylvania, then why not in St. Louis, Washington, Carolina, Anaheim or Los Angeles, too?
“It seems unfortunately fairly common in the NHL as opposed to the other three major sports,” Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said. “The amazing thing would be to look at how many times has the change actually worked. That’s debatable. There becomes a pressure for other people to do it because someone else is doing it.
“I don’t even know what goes into the thought process there.”
Since the 2009-10 season, there have been 20 NHL coaching changes, which falls behind 21 in the NBA and 31 in major league baseball.
At the rate this season is going, that gap could be closed further by the time Valentine’s Day comes along.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s uncommon for the months of November and December,” Laviolette said. “You go into a season, there is an expectation, and if teams don’t do it then there is usually coaches that fall by the wayside.
“I am sure there is a hope that things will go in a different direction. Typically you don’t change things when you like the direction that your team is running, you make that change when you don’t like the way your team is going. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a reflection on the coach.”
The gold standard in hockey coaching has been set by the Buffalo Sabres’ Lindy Ruff, currently the second-longest tenured coach in the four major sports leagues—behind only Gregg Popovich, the San Antonio Spurs coach since 1996. Ruff took over the Sabres on July 21, 1997, and since then there have been nearly 170 changes in the NHL.
“Lindy has been around for so long, and there is a reason that some coaches last a long time and some coaches don’t last very long,” said Briere, formerly of the Sabres. “One of Lindy’s strengths is his communication with his players, and second of all how he adapts to his team.
“That is not an easy thing to do because most coaches have a plan in mind—this is how we’re going to play, and if you’re not happy, then too bad. You follow my gameplan. What I found with Lindy is that he would adapt his system to the type of teams that he had while I was there. When teams make the changes in November or early December to me it says, ‘Look, we should be better than this. We’re not happy. We are pressing the panic button, but now it’s up to you guys to respond.'”