'Berube factor' has led to even more turnover among NHL head coaches

January 15, 2020

NEWARK, N.J. — Firing coaches has been the norm in the NHL for decades. It's just gone to another level this season in our instant-gratification society.

Halfway through the season, six coaches have been either fired or forced out, and in all likelihood there will be more disappearing from some struggling teams.

To be clear, four of the firings were related to team performance. Bill Peters either resigned or was fired in Calgary over alleged racist comments. Jim Montgomery was fired in Dallas for unprofessional conduct. He said he is undergoing alcohol rehabilitation.

While underachieving teams, poor records and owner impatience are the leading factors in the changes, other things have influenced the moves that are based on the hope past results elsewhere deliver similar gains.

Start with the Craig Berube factor. He took over as coach of the St. Louis Blues in November 2018 and led them from dead last in the standings in January to their first Stanley Cup title.

Now add in the Vegas Golden Knights: They made the Cup Final in 2018 as an expansion team under Gerald Gallant.

Mike Sullivan led the Pittsburgh Penguins to consecutive Cups after taking over in December 2015. A few years before that, Darryl Sutter took over the Los Angeles Kings in December 2011 and led them to their first Cup that season. There was another parade after the 2013-14 season.

Instant success in all cases.

Hockey owners are far too impatient with their coaches, former NHL executive and current Sportsnet NHL analyst Brian Burke said Tuesday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.

“It is a lot easier to turn around a business in some other area than it is in hockey and pro sports, and the Berube factor does not help," Burke said.

It certainly has put more hockey coaches on notice in a field that already had very little security.

Of the 31 current NHL coaches, only three have been with the same team since the start of the 2015-16 season. Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning has the longest tenure, starting in March 2013. Paul Maurice was hired by the Winnipeg Jets the following January, and Jeff Blashill joined the Detroit Red Wings on June 9, 2015.

They are the longest tenured among current coaches.

Including the six firings this season (Mike Babcock-Toronto, Peters-Calgary, John Hynes-New Jersey, Montgomery-Dallas, Pete DeBoer-San Jose and Peter Laviolette-Nashville) there are 13 coaches in their first season with their team.

Berube, who has been on the job less than 14 months, has the 18th-longest tenure with his team among the current coaches.

Many hockey owners are tired of waiting for success, said Pierre McGuire, the inside-the-glass analyst for NBC Sports’ NHL coverage.

“I think people look at history in the league — and ownerships in particular — and say, ‘What about us?’'' McGuire said. '''You've told us about this five-year plan or four-year plan, and these guys are doing it in one year, and in some instances six months.' That's what leads to itchy trigger fingers.''

Change does bring some positives. Following Tuesday night's games, the Maple Leafs are 16-6-2 under Sheldon Keefe. The Flames are 13-6-1 under Geoff Ward. The Stars are 10-4-1 with Rick Bowness, and the Devils, Sharks and Predators are showing signs of improvement under Alain Nasreddine, Bob Boughner and Hynes, who only needed a month to find a job. Still, only three are currently in playoff spots.

Bowness credits his players, noting the positive results were not instantaneous.

“We had to work our way through a lot of things," he said. “And hopefully they're all behind us."

The reality for owners is the NHL is quickly becoming a 50-50 league. With the addition of Seattle through expansion, half of the league's teams will make the playoffs each season.

While it sounds like a fair number, things have changed since 1987, when Burke took a job with the Vancouver Canucks. There were 21 teams and 16 made the postseason. If a team missed, a tweak here or there and it could get back to the playoffs relatively soon.

“There was no exile,” Burke said. “There was no six, seven, eight years of missing the playoffs. Some teams are missing the playoffs for six, seven or eight years. The industry has never been patient enough with coaches, and it's at an all-time low right now. Casualty rates are at an all-time high, and we're not done yet this year.''

The Blues beat the odds with their coaching change because they had a solid team entering the season under Mike Yeo and underachieved. Berube provided the right voice, players such as Ivan Barbashev and Alexander Steen accepted new roles, defenseman Colton Parayko took his game to another level, and a kid named Jordan Binnington gave St. Louis what it needed most: unbelievable goaltending.

Islanders coach Barry Trotz was the Predators' coach for 15 seasons. He worked the entire time with general manager David Poile, and the two had a plan they followed. They counted on each other and communicated.

“What happens when you’re winning, you’re the smartest guy on the planet," said Trotz, who won a Cup with Washington in 2018. “When you’re losing, you don’t know a thing. You need people when things aren’t going well. In this business, when it’s not going well, you have the fan base on you, you have the media on you. You need someone that trusts what you’re doing and can say, ‘Hey, I believe in you and I don’t see that there’s a change needed.'"

It's exactly what he got from Poile.

Cooper, whose team was bounced from the playoffs in four games after winning the Presidents' Trophy last season, knows the feeling. There were rumors about his job being in jeopardy earlier this season when the Lightning got off to a bad start on the heels of their unexpected playoff exit.

“We know the business we get into in this league,” Cooper said Sunday before the Lightning had their franchise record-tying 10-game winning streak snapped by the Devils. "For me, being in this organization we have one common goal — we're all in it together. A big part of why I have been around is the communication among all of us. I have been very fortunate."'

Trotz said surviving tough times builds better teams.

“The easiest thing is to panic when it’s not going really well," he said. “But we’re in the winning business, and I understand that totally. I understand it more now, 20-something years into it, than I did probably in Year 1 or 2. In the first or second year when you’re starting out, you’re just trying to survive."

Unfortunately, many NHL coaches have not been surviving lately.

“We've had a lot of volatility this year," McGuire said. “There was a lot of volatility last summer. Hopefully it is going to straighten out a little bit here, the next little while."

History says midseason change rarely brings a championship.

Major League Baseball has had two managers take over during the course of a season and led teams to World Series titles. Bob Lemon did it with the New York Yankees in 1978. Jack McKeon matched that in 2003 with the Florida Marlins.

The NBA has seen midseason coaching changes result in three titles. Paul Westhead replaced an injured Jack McKinney (bicycle accident) in 1980 and took the Lakers to a title. Pat Riley replaced Westhead in ‘81-82 and got LA another crown. Tyronn Lue replaced David Blatt in Cleveland in 2015-16 and led the Cavs to the championship.

It's harder in the 16-game NFL season. Since 2000, no interim coach has taken over an NFL team at midseason and led it to the playoffs.