With most NHL teams finishing their off-season roster work by now, attention turns to the beginning of the 2021-22 regular season.
And, for some organizations, the competitive heat already is cranked up to a peak. If there’s any sort of slow start – or, hockey gods forbid, a complete skid-out – to begin the year, there will be repercussions that reverberate beyond a team’s game-to-game lineup.
As usual, that means the league’s head coaching fraternity will find some of its members on the hot seat, a losing streak or two away from losing their jobs as their employers search for solutions to put them on the right track.
This coming season is no different: before a single game is played, there are coaches who understand full well the stakes of their job could not be higher, and they could find themselves on the unemployment line before so much as a quarter of the regular season is completed.
Which bench bosses are feeling the heat? And which currently unemployed head coaches are keeping their eyes peeled, just waiting for the opportunity to jump back in hockey’s top league? Here are five hockey men from each group:
On the Hot Seat (and in no particular order):
Darryl Sutter, Calgary Flames
It’s tough to imagine Sutter already is under a microscope in Calgary, given Flames GM Brad Treliving hired him to replace Geoff Ward back in March of this year. But the reality is, the Flames are at a crossroads of sorts, having missed the playoffs last year and being in real danger of suffering the same fate in 2021-22. Sutter doesn’t coach because he has to – he coaches because it’s in his blood, and his hands likely would have to be pried off the Flames’ steering wheel. But should Calgary stumble out of the gate and dig itself a major hole in the standings, a desperate Treliving may choose to move on from Sutter and make a hail-Mary, last-chance coaching change to save his job as GM. Fair? Maybe. But that’s life in the win-or-do-something-else NHL.
Travis Green, Vancouver Canucks
Green is similar to Sutter in that he’s coming off a letdown of a season that saw the Canucks regress their way out of the playoff picture. Green is well-respected around the league and just signed a two-year contract extension that covers the 2021-22 and 2022-23 campaigns, but you have to understand, in today’s NHL, two years is but a blip on the financial radar of most teams. Some GMs will have no problem axing a coach and paying him a year or two to not coach, given the alternative is a rudderless group who won’t or can’t perform, even under a well-liked coach. And with Vancouver adding veteran roster pieces (Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Conor Garland, Jaroslav Halak) to their lineup, the Canucks need to show progress and show it quickly. A justifiably restless Vancouver fan base may like Green’s work up until now, but if things fall apart early on, that fan base likely won’t think twice about demanding Green’s head on a stake.
Jeremy Colliton, Chicago Blackhawks
The Hawks are still suffering under the weight of sexual abuse allegations in the organization’s recent past, but when it comes to their on-ice expectations, the bar has been raised by GM Stan Bowman this summer: the additions of star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, stud blueliner Seth Jones, and the return to action of captain Jonathan Toews have given Chicago fans hope that a playoff spot is a real possibility. Should they move in the opposite trajectory, or stall, Colliton’s job could be in jeopardy. Colliton recently signed a two-year contract extension – like many others on this list – and that’s basically standard operating procedure for any team; in signing a coach for two years, you tell your players that coach will not be working under a lame-duck, final year of his contract. Yet you also don’t make a massive, four-or-five-year commitment to the coach, knowing full well he may not be the right fit for the team three or four seasons from now. That’s the case here with Colliton, who cannot allow the Hawks to languish at or near the bottom of the standings for very long before Bowman pulls the trigger on the coaching-eject button and seeks solutions elsewhere.
Jeff Blashill, Detroit Red Wings.
Detroit GM Steve Yzerman has earned his stripes as one of the NHL’s most savvy team architects, and guess how many years he just signed Blashill to on a contract extension? That’s right – two years, just like Colliton and Green. Blashill has been the Wings’ head coach for more than six years, and that’s a near-eternity in NHL coaching circles. Many believe Detroit will not be notably better in 2021-22 and likely miss the playoffs again – and if there’s a hockey man out there Yzerman feels will be a better fit for this rebuilding team, everyone should expect he hands Blashill his walking papers and moves on without him.
Bob Boughner, San Jose Sharks
Again, you’re probably not going to believe this, but Boughner’s current contract with the Sharks runs for – you guessed it – two years. And San Jose is not expected to be a juggernaut in the Pacific Division, so GM Doug Wilson may choose a different voice to try and shake up his mediocre roster. Boughner can only do so much with the pieces he’s given – and that includes problematic winger Evander Kane, who may never play a single game with San Jose (or any other NHL team) if allegations of his gambling on NHL games are proven to be true – so you feel for Boughner. But this is a business of winning, and the Sharks simply don’t look like they’ll compile enough wins to keep Boughner around in the long term.
Ready to Step In (and again, in no particular order):
The former Ducks/Red Wings/Maple Leafs coach had his tenure in Toronto crash and burn when he was fired in November of 2019, but he had a long-term contract to cushion the blow. Currently serving part-time as a TV commentator and full-time as head coach of the University of Saskatchewan’s men’s team (and – surprise! – he’s there on a two-year contract), Babcock has a lengthy list of successes, including a Stanley Cup win with the Wings, and he’ll likely be on the short list of any team looking for structure and a new direction. Babcock has shown he can implement a competitive structure, but he also has a long list of detractors among players who once played for him. It will have to be a perfect fit – could he return to Detroit, and work with Yzerman once again? – but it’s likely Babcock gets back in the NHL mix sooner than later.
Although he was fired by the Minnesota Wild in February of 2020, Boudreau still has a reputation as a player’s coach who can loosen up a too-tightly-wound group of NHLers, and for that reason, he’ll be a candidate for any team seeking to give its dressing room some space to breathe and relax. He currently has the second-highest winning percentage of any NHL coach who has at least 900 games under his belt, and that will resonate for at least one GM seeking change. He may not take the reins of a team until midway through the year, but don’t count on Boudreau being out of the NHL for long. He still has the hunger to win, and he’s shown he can do that.
A victim of the Rangers’ massive off-season housecleaning – which included the dismissal of former team president John Davidson and GM Jeff Gorton – Quinn probably deserved a better fate than he got when he was fired in May of this year. Quinn had a flawed dressing room – thanks for nothing, Tony DeAngelo – and yet finished the year just five wins out of a playoff position. Given a better team to work with, Quinn is likely to show new Blueshirts GM Chris Drury moved too quickly when he fired him. And that’s not a negative comment on new Rangers coach Gerard Gallant, who now has a better, edgier roster to work with; it simply means Quinn could’ve adapted to Drury’s plan and saved a coaching change for when it was truly necessary.
One of the league’s most beloved figures, Tocchet was hamstrung from the start of his tenure as Arizona’s bench boss in July of 2017. He led the Coyotes to their only playoff appearance in the past nine years back in 2019-20, but constant roster turnover and ownership/management drama surrounding the franchise basically tied one of Tocchet’s arms behind his back, and at the end of the 2021 season, he and the team mutually agreed to part ways. His reputation as a player’s coach remains intact, and if there’s a group that needs more patting on the back than kicking in the rear end, they’ll do well to turn to Tocchet for a new direction.
Give Tortorella credit – over the years, he’s realized his tough-guy routine did not sit well with the modern-day NHLer, and he’s changed his approach to be more sensitive to his players. However, in his most recent stop in Columbus, he didn’t have the right mix of youngsters and leaders, and he couldn’t prevent the Blue Jackets from finishing dead-last in the Central Division last year. For now, he’ll be working as a media member – a job that was an outright disaster for him the last time he served as a network analyst – but there remains a fire in him that only can be addressed by taking on another head coaching gig as soon as a solid fit comes up. Tortorella is a coaching lifer, and the only question now is which NHL GM will see him as a solution to his franchise’s faulty performance.