It’s coach firing season in the NHL. Well, actually, that’s every season.
Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins became the fourth coach fired this season on Tuesday and the second in the past week after the St. Louis Blues canned fellow veteran Ken Hitchcock. The New York Islanders fired Jack Capuano last month and the Florida Panthers cut ties in November with Gerard Gallant, who was left outside a visiting arena waiting for a cab.
No one should be surprised anymore when an NHL teams gets rid of the coach while games are still on the schedule: Over the past 10 seasons, NHL teams have fired 38 coaches during the season, more than the NBA (30), NFL (19) or MLB (25) in that same time frame, according to Associated Press research. In fact, three of the past eight Stanley Cup champions have replaced their coach during the season.
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Outrage over Hitchcock taking the fall for bad goaltending or Julien getting blamed for some bad luck and deteriorating defense showed that each individual firing might be surprising based on timing, circumstances or track record, but the trend is clear: Management doesn’t necessarily consider coaches the final ingredient for reaching the postseason or winning a championship.
”We know what we signed up for, and those are the things that sometimes happen in our game,” Julien said last week when asked about Hitchcock.
No coaches are hired to be fired quite like in hockey, where making the playoffs is no guarantee of job security. Gallant was the Jack Adams Award runner-up after taking the Panthers to the playoffs last season, and Capuano guided the Islanders to three postseason appearances in four years, including their first trip to the second round since 1992-93.
Hitchcock got the Blues to Game 7 of the Western Conference final last year. Julien ran out of time when the prospect of three consecutive years out of the playoffs dulled the memory of him raising the Stanley Cup in 2011.
”It’s crazy,” Carolina Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said. ”You know it’s part of the business, obviously, when you get involved in hockey and you get involved in pro sport to begin with. But I’ll tell you what, he’s a good man, he’s a good coach and he accomplished a lot in Boston, no different than when you look at the track record of Ken Hitchcock, what he was able to accomplish in St. Louis. Two good men, two real good coaches.”
Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz texted Julien: ”You’re going to be out of a job for about five minutes.” Bruce Boudreau was out of a job for a whole two days in 2011 when the Capitals fired him and the Anaheim Ducks flew him out, hired him and sent 2007 Cup-winning coach Randy Carlyle packing.
Trotz said Julien probably already has offers, which isn’t far-fetched for the previously longest-tenured coach in the league who has a Cup ring and one of the strongest resumes around. The expansion Vegas Golden Knights could have interest in Julien, Gallant, Hitchcock and Capuano since general manager George McPhee is believed to want experience behind the bench.
The domino effect could be felt far and wide, especially if Boston interim coach Bruce Cassidy doesn’t stick and if Florida wants to put Tom Rowe back upstairs as GM and make another hire. St. Louis has committed to Mike Yeo moving forward, and Doug Weight will be a candidate to stay on with the Islanders.
But the coaching carousel could spin out of control in April. Among those whose job status might depend on making the playoffs (or not): Vancouver’s Willie Desjardins, Dallas coach Lindy Ruff, Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper and Winnipeg’s Paul Maurice.
”It’s a thankless job,” Trotz said. ”Sometimes as coaches we get too much credit and we get way too much blame. It goes both ways.”
Maurice quipped that a firing like Julien’s should raise coaching salaries because the next job will pay him more than the $3 million he will make not to work for Boston next season. Mike Babcock, who did his part to raise the bar with his $50 million, eight-year deal to be Toronto Maple Leafs coach after a successful run in Detroit, said some team is going to be happy to get Julien.
But Babcock gets it.
”When you make these decisions, you’d better have a guy in line that’s better than that guy. Not many,” Babcock said. ”But enjoy some time with your bride and your kids, get freshened up, call the U-Haul business, get ‘er ready to go. Sometimes, to be honest with you, it’s time to move on.”
Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau returned to the Panthers’ lineup last week and could provide the spark to return to the playoffs. Barkov missed 15 games with a back injury and Huberdeau the first 51 of the season with a torn left Achilles tendon.
Flyers rookie Travis Konecny will miss the next 4-6 weeks with a lower-body injury. Konecny was injured Monday against St. Louis, and the absence of Philadelphia’s fifth-leading scorer will hurt.
LEADERS (through Monday)
Points: Connor McDavid (Edmonton), 60; Goals: Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh), 30; Power-play goals: Brayden Schenn (Philadelphia), 12; Defenseman points: Brent Burns (San Jose), 55; Goals-against average: Jimmy Howard (Detroit), 1.96; Save percentage: Devan Dubnyk (Minnesota), .932.
GAME OF THE WEEK
The perennial powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks visit Connor McDavid and the ahead-of-schedule Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night.
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed.
Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SWhyno .