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The in-season coach switch is a time-honored tradition in the NHL.
It’s one of the more desperate tools in the toolbox of a general manager, but it can be effective if they find the right replacement. Even during a global pandemic, when it’s harder to make a change like this, two teams have already made the move – and they may not be the last.
The Montreal Canadiens were the first to take the plunge and let go veteran head coach Claude Julien 18 games into this condensed season as the team floundered after a hot start. In came rookie bench boss Dominique Ducharme, who simply moved over from being an assistant coach. Ducharme didn’t immediately stop the bleeding, but the team had points in six of his first seven games behind the bench.
Less than two weeks later the Calgary Flames went in a different direction, firing their first-time head coach, Geoff Ward, who had not yet been in the job for two full seasons, and bringing in a familiar face in veteran coach Darryl Sutter. It’s Sutter’s second stint as the head coach in Calgary, a team he has also served as general manager. This time, though, he comes with two Stanley Cups in his most recent coaching stop with the Los Angeles Kings.
Sutter has been out of hockey since the end of the 2016-17 season, but the 62-year-old Alberta native has been a turnaround artist over much of his career. He wasn’t able to get to the Flames into the playoffs when he was a midseason replacement in 2002-03, but he did take the team to the Stanley Cup Finals the very next season.
Back in 2011-12, when he took over the Kings, he not only turned the team around, he helped the franchise win its first Stanley Cup that very season. They went 25-13-11 after Sutter took over the bench, then went 16-4 in the playoffs.
Both Ducharme and Sutter have different goals and will be asked to do different things in their respective jobs.
Ducharme was billed as the new voice and the individual players already respected. He had come into his role as an NHL assistant with a very good track record of winning and developing talent. He was a decorated coach at the junior level in Canada and helped Canada’s national junior team win the gold medal at the World Junior Championship. A younger coach might fit better with a more youthful team than Julien.
Over in Calgary, however, Sutter is being brought in to make Calgary’s players accountable and perhaps to make them a little uncomfortable. Sutter is definitely not a warm-and-fuzzy kind of coach. While that style can have a shorter shelf life these days, it has proven to be effective in the early goings. It’s probably why Sutter has made his teams better in the two previous times he came in as a mid-season replacement.
If you look around the NHL right now, 14 of the 31 head coaching jobs are currently held by men that were brought in as mid-season replacements, including Ducharme and Sutter. It stands to reason that there could be a few more moves over the course of this season as well. With four teams from each division making the playoffs, if teams feel they can get into one of those spots, they may make the move.
You don’t have to go too far back to find a team that won a title with a mid-season replacement coach. The St. Louis Blues hoisted the Stanley Cup in 2019 after Craig Berube took over with 63 games to go in the season. The Blues had a dramatic turnaround, going from worst in the league to the Cup.
Mike Sullivan took over the Pittsburgh Penguins with 54 games to play in the 2015-16 season and led the club to each of the next two Stanley Cups. There was also Sutter with the Kings in 2012 and before that Dan Bylsma with the Penguins in 2009.
When you see that, it’s not hard to understand why teams make that move. However, of those coaches that won the Cup, only Bylsma had never been a head coach prior to taking over the Penguins bench in 2009. Hockey tends not to stray far from experience.
Those Cup winners are outliers though. There are plenty of teams that change coaches and still sputter. Just last season alone, there were eight in-season firings. One of those teams that made such a move, the Dallas Stars, reached the Stanley Cup Finals where they ultimately lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose coach Jon Cooper was a mid-season replacement seven seasons prior.
Job security as an NHL coach is not very good. In a condensed season like this, the margin for error is so slim. Neither Montreal nor Calgary looks like a legitimate Stanley Cup contender at the moment, but they definitely didn’t before they made moves behind the bench. If nothing else, they have reset expectations, woken up the players and showed fans that they’re trying to do something.
So, will any other coaches get served their walking papers? Here’s a short list of a few NHL coaches currently on the hot seat.
Ralph Krueger, Buffalo Sabres – It’s a tough job, but the Sabres have only seemed to get worse this season despite adding high-priced Taylor Hall, prized rookie Dylan Cozens and veteran Eric Staal to their group. Krueger seems to be next in a long line of coaches that have not managed to maximize their roster. With star player Jack Eichel out for some time with an upper-body injury, Krueger’s ability to stick only becomes more precarious.
Dallas Eakins, Anaheim Ducks – The Ducks are rebuilding and Eakins has a lot of respect in the industry as a coach that can develop young talent. Anaheim has a lot of high-profile youngsters that are getting opportunities, but the team is also falling further behind its West Division foes. No one expected the Ducks to make the postseason this year, but they’ve had some rough losses where they’ve blown leads and lost focus. That shouldn’t always be on the coach, but it would be fair for management to expect year-to-year improvement.
Travis Green, Vancouver Canucks – It’s the trend in Canada. The Canucks should have adjusted expectations for this year and it sounds like they perhaps did a bit, but they probably didn’t anticipate a points percentage below .500 this far into the season. I don’t think the issues that ail the Canucks are Travis Green’s fault. He’s got a flawed roster that has a lot of money committed to depth players with some important organizational contracts needing to get done prior to next season. The good news for Green is goalie Thatcher Demko has played really well of late and a good goaltender can be a coach’s best friend in trying times like these. However, if there’s another dip and the pressure gets put on GM Jim Benning, he may have to make that decision.
One thing that may cool all the firing talks is that the pandemic does make it tougher for teams to add new coaches from outside of their organization. Sutter had to get into the NHL’s testing protocol before he could join the Flames for practice or be on the bench. It would be more pronounced if a team had to fly in a candidate from outside of the country.
The challenges exist, but if there’s one thing we know about NHL general managers, when they feel it’s time to make a change, they don’t wait.
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