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There is Nothing to Lose but to Keep on Losing

January 22, 2019, 8:59 AM ET [3 Comments]
Jay Greenberg
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When the 2008-09 Penguins were 27-25-5, Ray Shero wasn’t going to change Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang. Instead the GM fired Coach Michel Therrien, promoted AHL coach Dan Bylsma, and the Penguins won it all.

Whether or not Jim Rutherford was inspired by recent team history in replacing Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan after the Penguins started 15-10-3 in 2015-16, the GM shook it up all the way to another championship.

Kings CEO Tim Leiweke felt badly enough about firing Terry Murray after 29 games (13-12-4) in 2011-12 to eventually reward him with a ring for his sizable development role in the Cup won that very season by replacement Darryl Sutter. But regrets? Are you crazy?

Certainly Lou Lamoriello, who changed coaches 19 times in the 27 years he ran the Devils, had no compunctions, nor obviously any remorse, about firing Robbie Ftorek and promoting Larry Robinson with eight games to go in the 1999-2000 season. New Jersey took the title.

Four of the 67 mid-season coaching changes we counted since 2000–minus the five so far in the 2018-19–helped produce a Cup that same season. And, of course, that ultimate success is not the only measure of these shakeups. Forty-five of the 67 incoming coaches did well enough to be retained for the following year.

So never mind the cold, impatient, illogical, panicky, scapegoating and just plain mean elements of suddenly yanking the livelihoods of professionals who may have been smarter and harder working than the bosses who removed them. Change can be good thing

Unfair? Grow up. This is the life these coaches have chosen. Chances are if they keep their mouths shut, go back to work on somebody’s staff, and bide their time, they will get another shot before being dumped again. Chicago’s Jeremy Colliton being the exception, four of the five coaches who have taken over since October 4 are getting a second chance, while Edmonton’s Ken Hitchcock is receiving his sixth and deserving it too, based on his track record.

Only two coaches in history have won more games than Hitch, who should be coaching somebody until he is falling asleep behind the bench and can’t tell Connor McDavid from Ty Rattie. But there is a glut of bright, industrious, experienced or up-and-coming coaches anxious to continue in the world’s worst profession, which is why, in most cases, good men are so easily replaced.

It’s hard to remember too many cases where a team actually did appreciably worse under the new guy after a change. Only in rare instances does a discarded coach’s body of work later in his career indicate firing him was a terrible mistake. .

Now, do the cases of 45 detainees out of 67 interims–although all coaches ultimately are interims–indicate that the owner or GM had his finger correctly on the pulse? Or, only, that after some player changes too, did the new guy become the right guy? Hard to quantify, but we suspect it is more the latter.

The reasons for making a mid-season change from one proven coach to another proven coach–other than not having a better player shake-up option, we mean–are:

1) Replace a tough and abusive guy wearing everybody out with a kinder, gentler, more supportive coach.

2) Switch out a supportive, kindly, coach with the requisite, no-nonsense-by-reputation meanie who declares the country club closed. Most teams alternate these first two approaches.

3) Simplify things for frazzled players–often the same message but delivered in a less-tiresome or gentler manner.

4) Take some pressure off players waiting for the shoe to drop, better it having dropped on my coach’s head than on my own. Feel bad for him, sure, we cost him his job. But what does this now do for my minutes per game?

5) Appease the underperforming star, generally because he wants to be turned loose to do whatever the hell he wants. This is a drill to be run only once per GM. Thereafter, suspicions will grow that the star is the actual problem.

6) Last, but certainly not least, appease the fans, just tired of looking at the same impassive face behind the bench and desperate to blame it all on one aspect of a team’s play, generally special teams. Always, the customers are on the prowl for a scapegoat.

In Philadelphia, the internet buzzed with generic complaints of young players not getting better in the fourth year of Dave Hakstol’s watch, never mind they weren’t the same young players as when he took over, or that a number of the kids had improved plenty a year ago while the Flyers had the fifth best record in the league from Dec. 4 on.

Their regression this year was in most cases, inherent from the mass hysteria that set in on veterans and kids alike for want of a save from the six goalies the team has had to use. But the underlying issue with Hakstol, or any coach in the City of Brotherly love, is that if he doesn’t go nutty on the bench once in a while, he’s not a Philly kind of guy.

For a while the St. Louis goaltending, too, didn’t get any better under Craig Berube than it did for Mike Yeo. Now it is and the Blues are back in contention, having gone 14-13-2 under Berube as opposed to 7-9-3 under his predecessor. This isn’t Berube’s first rodeo as an interim. He fully earned an extension the last time by getting a thoroughly mediocre Flyer team to the playoffs in 2012-13 after Peter Laviolette was let go, then hardly deserved to be fired by Ron Hextall a year later.

Unlike in San Jose, where he got to two conference finals, Todd McLellan had about eight NHL players at his perusal in Edmonton, same as Hitchcock still has, so let’s see what Hitch’s obsessions can do to prod AHLers into a level of competence. So far his 14-13-2 is only a slight uptick than McLellan’s 9-10-1 but, whatever happens, someday McDavid will be thankful for the time he had with Hitch.

Any Q and A about the decline of the Blackhawks begins with the presumptive loss of Coach Q’s ability to lead men. Seems that soon after his third Cup, he forget everything he knew or Stan Bowman was delivering the old message about how after a while players need a new message. Maybe things have to get worse before they get better, which they assuredly have not to this point. Quenneville’s 6-6-3 team is playing at an 11-18-6 pace under Colliton. Memo to young coaches waiting for their first chance: You don’t want to be the guy who follows the guy, more the guy who follows the guy who followed the guy.

As for LA, 4-8-1 under Stevens has become 16-18-3 under Willi Desjardins, who worked no miracles himself twiddling for three years with subpar Vancouver rosters.

With goaltending solidified under kid goalie Carter Hart, and some confidence gradually returning to some traumatized key guys, the Flyers have won four of their last five under Scott Gordon. But he is going to need a big, big finish to make him palatable to fans in love with the idea of Quenneville, provided the Flyers possibilities intrigue Joel, which their young talent should. But Edmonton and St. Louis are the only teams of the five within range of a playoff spot, the sure ticket for an interim coach to an extension.

At the time of the beheadings, the cumulative winning percentage of the five teams was .387. Since the changes, the teams have won .421. So while change is inevitable in this game, it can be superfluous.


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