NHL Coaching: A Whirlwind Year Of Change.


“Ain’t nothin’ ketchup can’t fix.”

There’s been an abundance of ketchup (for the teams playing “catch-up”) in this season’s NHL – And it’s come in the “what have you done for me lately” form of the coaching-change.

Job security among NHL coaches has never been as tenuous as it’s become over the past year.

In fact, since Zdeno Chara hoisted the Stanley Cup (on June 15, 2011) the league has undergone 17 coaching changes – 18, if one takes into consideration Florida’s preemptory announcement at the end of May (midway through the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs.)

Some of the initial turnover was precipitated as a result of coaches having been terminated for varying reasons (as well as New Jersey Devil’s coach Jacques Lemaire’s retirement) predictably by teams having missed the post-season, last year.

The timeline for such ousters runs as follows:

  • May 31, 2011Kevin Dineen replaces Peter DeBoer as the Panthers’ bench boss.
  • June 16, 2011 – The Dallas Stars announce Glen Gulutzan as the replacement for recently fired (April 12) head coach Marc Crawford.
  • June 24, 2011 – The newly relocated Winnipeg Jets name Claude Noel as replacement to (former Atlanta Thrashers’ coach) Craig Ramsay.
  • July 14, 2011 –Ottawa’s Bryan Murray welcomes Paul MacLean as new head coach; replacing Cory Clouston.
  • July 19, 2011 – Lou Lamoriello announces the hiring of the recently fired Peter DeBoer as a replacement for the outgoing Jacques Lemaire.

Thus, the 2011-2012 NHL season began with five new coaches behind the respective benches of the Florida Panthers, the Dallas Stars, the Winnipeg Jets, the Ottawa Senators and the New Jersey Devils.

The tally, of three head coaches “pink-slipped” for perceptions of underachievement, one coach replaced by virtue of a franchise move (and its’ new culture having been installed) and a coaching-hire to replace an outgoing Hall-of-Famer, seems quite unremarkable and comparable to the turnover occurring in a typical off-season, in any given year in the NHL.

Musical Coaches.

It falls to the in-season gyrations and stumblings, then, to provide the twists and unusual turns of this dramatic, year-long coaching-go-round. And it unfolds thus:

  • November 6, 2011 – Thirteen games into the new season, the St Louis Blues’ GM Doug Armstrong replaces Davis Payne (6-7-0) with (former Dallas Stars ’99 Stanley Cup-winner) Ken Hitchcock.
  • November 28, 2011 – Carolina Hurricanes’ Paul Maurice (an unimpressive 8-13-4 start) is fired; the ‘Canes going with (former Habs’ assistant) Kirk Muller as their new coach.
  • And on the very same day, the Washington Capitals fire Bruce Boudreau (12-9-1) presenting OHL London Knights’ owner/coach (and former Caps’ and Nordiques’ favorite) Dale Hunter as “Gabby’s” replacement.
  • November 30, 2011 – The Anaheim Ducks fire 2007 Stanley Cup-winner Randy Carlyle (7-13-4) installing the recently-available Boudreau in his stead.
  • December 12, 2011 – In the wake of Dean Lombardi’s acquisitions of top-flight free-agents, and in light of Los Angeles’ continued inability to win close games, coach Terry Murray is fired, and ex-Flyers’ coach (and current Kings’ assistant) John Stevens is named as interim replacement.
  • December 17, 2011 – With Les Canadiens languishing near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, GM Pierre Gauthier fires long-time cohort Jacques Martin, replacing him with non-Francophone assistant Randy Cunneyworth. La Belle Province plunges into turmoil.
  • December 22, 2011 – Former Calgary GM Darryl Sutter is brought on to guide the Kings, with Stevens returning to his role as assistant coach (having gone 2-2-0 in the interim.)
  • January 9, 2012 – The Blue Jackets’ continued record as the worst team in the entire NHL seemingly inspires GM Scott Howson to fire Scott Arniel; naming assistant Todd Richards as the new Columbus bench-boss.
  • March 2, 2012 – Ten weeks after having signed him to a contract extension, and with the Leafs in freefall, Toronto’s Brian Burke fires Ron Wilson, replacing him with former associate (from Anaheim) Randy Carlyle.
  • April 12, 2012 – Having missed the playoffs for the entire three years of his tenure, Brent Sutter and the Calgary Flames decide to part ways, with a replacement yet to be found.
  • May 2, 2012 – New Montreal GM Marc Bergevin announces Cunneyworth’s relegation to assistant duties, as the Habs mount a search for a (presumably Francophone) head coach.
  • May 14, 2012 – Having been eliminated in the Conference Semi-Finals (by the New York Rangers) Washington Capitals’ Dale Hunter announces he will not return as head coach (citing personal reasons) and GM George McPhee’s search for his replacement begins.
  • May 17, 2012 – Edmonton GM Steve Tambellini announces head coach Tom Renney’s contract will not be renewed, and the Oilers’ search for a new head coach is underway.

In all, 15 teams (half the league) churned through 18 moves, in a little over one year: Anaheim, Calgary, Carolina, Columbus, Dallas, Edmonton, Florida, Los Angeles (2,) Montreal (2,) New Jersey, Ottawa, St Louis, Toronto, Washington (2) and Winnipeg – With some vacancies still awaiting resolution, of course.

And with continued rumblings and some discord in cities such as San Jose and Vancouver, we may yet bear witness to the final dominoes’ fall.

It has been, in no uncertain terms: ”The Year of the Coaching Change”.

The Bottom Line.

Though some may choose to question the effectiveness of such a tactic, an early indicator of its’ success may be seen in the six teams (better than one-third of the playoff qualifiers) with new coaches, that earned a berth to the post-season: The Panthers (Dineen), Kings (D.Sutter), Devils (DeBoer), Senators (MacLean), Blues (Hitchcock) and Capitals (Hunter) – Of  note, only two (the Kings and the Capitals) had seen action in the prior post-season (in 2011.)

Furthermore, four of these clubs (50% of the second-round qualifiers) competed in the Conference Semi-Finals – With New Jersey and Los Angeles surviving to play in the ECF’s and WCF’s, respectively.

Lastly, one need only look at the Kings’ as-yet unstoppable run, under Darryl Sutter – Which has seen them become the first to qualify as Stanley Cup Finalists, after having entered the playoffs as 8th seed in the west – As some measure of vindication for Lombardi’s admittedly risky (or perhaps desperate) coaching hire.

Though the Eastern Finalist is (currently) yet to be determined, Hockey fans will be sure to witness the 2012 Stanley Cup being contended for by at least one team that embraced the stratagem of a coaching-change – And what might have been laughably long odds for Angelinos, last December, will play out in the coming fortnight; the dream of the Kings’ winning their first Stanley Cup in their 44-season history.

There (also) remains the possibility that DeBoer steers his New Jersey Devils’ squad past John Tortorella’s Rangers – Anticipating a Final in which both coaches are in their first year with their (respective) teams.

In either case, the relative post-season success (on a percentage-basis) of these many new coaches outstrips that of the encumbants they have competed against (to date.) And that may add further fuel to any discussion as to the perceived merits and demerits of such a managerial-philosophy, and the synthesis and “cross-pollination” (and ultimate success) it may engender.

Though it can be said that such a pruning and “turning of the ground” reinvigorates the hopes of any struggling team’s fanbase, it can as well be argued that it provides renewed opportunity for former coaches, and those “up-and-comers” seeking a foot in the door, at Hockey’s top level – Making for a positive dynamic; one that promises an infusion of new ideas and methodologies, league-wide.

In general, this sort of change drives a competitive market, and (employing a familiar adage to describe the process) enforces the notion that “a new broom sweeps cleaner” ( as it were.)

Barring an immediate success (as seen within the Kings’ organization) one may be tempted to dismiss such upheaval as disruptive and novelty-driven – Something that might even engage the greater risk of masking deeper-seated issues, at higher management-levels: The vanquished coach serving as a scapegoat for his GM’s missteps, or a greater organizational malaise.

It should be understandable that the broader results of other like-minded personnel decisions will have to address that criticism, over a greater period of time – It’s simply going to take a while to see which coaching changes contributed to a growing culture of success on their particular teams, and which were truly (shuffling the deck-chairs) futile.

Meanwhile, whether this anomalous season is just that (an anomaly) or an indicator of a trend that’s gaining traction in a sport whose teams are forever seeking leverage – Any form of advantage (no matter how short-term) – One may be sure that some teams’ disappointed fans are enviously taking note.

…And perhaps clamoring loudly for their own brand of “ketchup”.