When I started doing research for this article, I was under the impression that a coaching change in the NHL had little to nothing to do with a team’s overall performance. I figured coaches were being scapegoated for the millionaire players who weren’t playing up to management and the fans standards.
There has been a record eight mid-season coaching changes in the NHL in 2011-12, so I decided to examine each instance to see what type of turnaround each respective team made after they decided to go a different direction with their coaching staff.
St. Louis Blues Coaching Change
On November 6 the St. Louis Blues started the avalanche of firings when they released Davis Payne only 13 games into the season and replaced him with veteran coach and former Stanley Cup Champion Ken Hitchcock.
Payne’s record was 5-7-1 before getting the axe, whereas after Hitch came into the picture, the Blues are a whopping 37-11-6 and now lead the Western Conference with 91 points. That type of turnaround is going to get Hitch into the discussion for the Jack Adams Trophy (Best Coach).
Carolina Hurricanes Coaching Change
The next coach to go was Paul Maurice of the Carolina Hurricanes. Maurice was given his pink slip on the 28th of November as he boasted an unimpressive 8-13-4 record. Kirk Muller took over the coaching duties and has led Carolina to a modest but improved 17-14-11 record. The team has been more competitive under Muller, playing in closer games even though they’ve come up short and lead the league in overtime and shootout losses.
Washington Capitals Coaching Change
The same day that Maurice was canned, the Washington Capitals unexpectedly fired Bruce Boudreau. It was unexpected because the Caps won their first seven games under Boudreau and were three games above .500 (12-9-3) when he was released.
The Caps were projected to finish atop their division and compete for the Cup, but the spark that was in Washington over the past few seasons seems to have been extinguished. Former Capitals tough guy Dale Hunter took over the team and is also three games above .500 with a 20-17-3 record. This should be seen as a disappointment since the Caps still sit in ninth, two points back of Winnipeg with a game in hand and four points back of division-leading Florida.
Anaheim Ducks Coaching Change
Two days after being fired, Boudreau found himself a new gig in Anaheim after Randy Carlyle was let go by the club following a very disappointing 7-13-4 start. Considering the talent on that roster, it was deemed unacceptable and it was time for a change. Boudreau continued his winning ways and is 22-15-6 as the Ducks new bench boss. It is a vast improvement but probably not enough to get them into the playoffs given such a poor start.
Los Angeles Coaching Change
Then the NHL was quiet on the coach firing front for nearly two whole weeks until the guillotine came down on the head of Terry Murray in Los Angeles. The Kings replaced him with Darryl Sutter who has brought the team back into contention in the West (currently ninth) with a 22-15-6 record compared to Murray’s 12-12-5.
It wasn’t so much that Murray did a bad job, it’s just that L.A. had such a poor offense under him that it was time for him to pack his bags. The Kings are still in second to last in goals for this season, but under Sutter they’re at least filling up the win column on a more regular basis.
Montreal Canadiens Coaching Change
Less than a week after the Los Angeles shakeup, Montreal shocked the NHL by firing Francophone coach Jacques Martin and replacing him with Anglophone coach and non-French speaking Randy Cunneyworth. This is a big deal for the Habs since their organization and press mandates that there be French and English content.
What was more surprising was that Martin was 13-8-7, while under Cunneyworth they are 12-19-3 and currently sit 15th in the East. It doesn’t appear that the coach was the issue in Montreal. It’s probably more likely their inflated veteran contracts tying them down (cough…Scott Gomez).
Columbus Blue Jackets Coaching Change
Just after the New Year, the lowly Columbus Blue Jackets fired coach Scott Arniel replacing with with Todd Richards on an interim basis. Arniel was 11-25-4 before being cut loose by the Jackets, but you have to feel for the guy. The Jackets don’t exactly have a ton of talent outside of Rick Nash.
Newly acquired Jeff Carter appeared to be a bust and is now in Los Angeles. However, Richards has made some improvements going 10-13-3 despite having a big chunk of the roster shipped out of town at the deadline for not much in return, aside from Jack Johnson. It looks like Columbus is in a rebuilding process…again.
Toronto Maple Leafs Coaching Change
And then there was Ron Wilson. Wilson started out great this season and the Leafs looked like they were going to break their playoff-less streak, however, before he was let go in the beginning of March, the Leafs went 1-9-1 and basically fell out of playoff contention altogether.
Wilson’s record wasn’t horrible at 30-27-6, but that free fall in the standings definitely cost him his job. In his last game as coach in the Air Canada Center, the fans chanted “fire Wilson” for almost a whole period. They got their wish, and Wilson was replaced by Carlyle who has gone 1-2-0 since stepping in. The team seems to be playing better under his guidance, but the Leafs are still miles away from where they hoped to be, four years into the Brian Burke regime.
Did The Coaching Changes Work?
Only Montreal did worse under their new coach, excluding Randy Carlyle in Toronto since he only has coached three games. Dale Hunter is about at par with his predecessor in Washington. So out of the eight coaching changes, five worked out for the better, one didn’t, one is a status quo, and another is yet to be determined.
In conclusion, it appears that coaching changes do make a difference. In some cases, they make a significant one like Hitchcock in St. Louis, but sometimes it doesn’t make a lick of difference, for example Randy Cunneyworth in Montreal. But if you look at the combined records before and after the coaching changes, the numbers speak for themselves. Teams are a combined 36 games over .500 after the change, whereas they were 16 games below .500 beforehand.
That is a significant enough swing to validate why so many teams have made coaching changes this season. Are they all deserved? Probably not, but you can’t fire your roster halfway through the year, so I guess you might as well roll the dice with a new coaching staff.