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The NHL Coaching Carousel is in Full Swing

The Edmonton Oilers’ dismissal Thursday of head coach Dave Tippett was the seventh coaching change of this NHL season and second in two days. And as Adam Proteau mentions, don't be surprised if more big names move on before the year ends.
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The Edmonton Oilers’ dismissal Thursday of head coach Dave Tippett was the seventh coaching change of this NHL season, and his replacement, former Oilers American League affiliate Jay Woodcroft, is the league’s ninth new head coach since the 2020-21 season ended. 

That’s nearly a full third of the league that has experienced coaching turnover in less than a full season. The position has grown more and more transitory over the years, and this is why a contract like the eight-year, $50-million contract Mike Babcock signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2015 is the exception and not the rule.

Indeed, most NHL coaches these days are lucky if they get a three-year contract, like the one the St. Louis Blues just gave to Craig Berube. But that’s after the Blues won a Stanley Cup under Berube’s guidance. If he hadn’t won it all, Berube would likely be looking for work right now. And hell, look at now-former Montreal Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme: he steered the Habs to a Cup Final appearance last spring, and even the three-year contract he signed at the start of last season wasn’t a guarantee he’d remain Montreal’s bench boss, even though much of the Canadiens’ woes this year have been injury-related.

At the moment, the back-to-back Cup champs in Tampa Bay have the longest-tenured head coach in the NHL in Jon Cooper, who was hired for the role in March of 2013. Spending nine years in the same role is about as impressive as winning a Cup. The next-most-tenured coach after Cooper is Detroit’s Jeff Blashill, hired by the Red Wings in June of 2015. 

And after that, Pittsburgh’s Mike Sullivan has lasted as Pens bench boss since December of 2015. In two of the aforementioned cases, winning Cups has given coaches leverage, but in the case of Blashill, his GM (Steve Yzerman) is bullet-proof, and Yzerman clearly believes in Blashill, so he’s one of the very few fortunate hockey minds to survive despite missing the playoffs in all but one of his six seasons as Wings coach.

Current New York Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant is another example of the fickle nature of the coaching position. Gallant famously led the first-year Vegas Golden Knights to within three wins of a championship in 2018. One-and-a-half years later, Vegas fired him. And in this instance, both sides have moved on to bigger, better things, and Gallant has coached the Blueshirts to a sterling 30-13-4 record and second spot in the Metropolitan Division this year.

But like all coaches, Gallant is probably a bad month or two away from having his job questioned. Pressures are different in different NHL markets, but the one constant is you can fire a coach without gambling on an asset you might trade away, or on a salary cap experiment on the free agent front. Coaches have become one of the first options to change an organization, and don’t think NHL players don’t know that to be true. One of the reasons players (especially young players) wind up tuning out coaches is because teams have invested millions of dollars in their on-ice talent, and that makes coaches far more expendable.

Tippett may not be the last head coach to get the axe this year. Dallas Stars coach Rick Bowness and New Jersey Devils counterpart Lindy Ruff both have been coaching underwhelming teams this season, and neither San Jose Sharks coach Bob Boughner and Ottawa Senators coach D.J. Smith have delivered above-average results. It's not easy for any of those four teams to add a player or two this off-season and expect drastically-improved performances from the team as a whole. It's much easier to look to the shiny, new aura of a different dressing room voice, and sell fans and media on the premise it will all be different than it was under the old coach.

In some cases, that can turn out to be true. In most, though, a coaching change is not going to be enough to transform a disappointing squad into a Cup contender. The Vancouver Canucks soared in the early days of Bruce Boudreau’s reign as coach, but they’re currently in the process of regressing to the man.

If Tippett had better goaltending, he might still be Oilers coach today. But he’s the latest coach to be sacrificed in the what-have-you-done-for-us-lately business of hockey, and the only assurance is the guarantee other dismal teams will fire their coach before they undergo any major roster renovations.

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