“Coach Killers” in the NHL?


(Photo: NHL.Com)

editorialThere is no denying that the two biggest player figures in the NHL right now are Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.  They have actually probably been the main two faces of the league for a decade now.

Both players have achieved a ton of success in hockey.  They both have laundry lists of individual achievements and franchise achievements.  Crosby and Ovechkin are two of the NHL’s greatest players, and they will both be in the Hockey Hall of Fame one day.

Amazingly, Crosby and Ovechkin have actually had careers that have been similar in some ways.

With the Penguins firing Mike Johnston, Ovechkin and Crosby have had the same number of different head coaches in their respective tenures (5).

List of Alex Ovechkin’s different head coaches in Washington:

-Glen Hanlon
-Bruce Boudreau
-Dale Hunter
-Adam Oates
-Barry Trotz

List of Sidney Crosby’s different head coaches in Pittsburgh:

-Ed Olczyk
-Michel Therrien
-Dan Bylsma
-Mike Johnston
-Mike Sullivan

How could two of the greatest players in the game right now and two future Hockey Hall of Famers go through so many coaches?  Why do two of the greatest players to ever play get the label of “coach killer” attached to them by some?

The term “coach killer” has been spun out by many media outlets before.  It is a term that may or may not tell the whole story when it is labeled next to a player’s name.

I really do not like the term “coach killer” because the fans and media do not know what happens when the locker rooms are closed.  I would also like to think that most players around the NHL actually try and play hard for whoever their respective bench boss is.  The average fan or media member is unaware of all the circumstances that happen behind a club’s closed doors.

In the most recent case involving the Penguins and Mike Johnston, his stint as the Penguins bench boss was very brief.  Sidney Crosby is having a down year by the Penguins standards and by his own personal standards.

There are many ways the public can speculate on what happened between coach and xx player(s).  The case of Mike Johnston is very similar to the case of Adam Oates while he was in Washington.

In some instances, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby underperformed and could have been better under their respective former bench bosses.  But both players do have a commonality for their underperformances.

In 2013-14 under Adam Oates, Ovechkin had 51 goals.  He also had a -35 +/- rating.  In 28 games under Mike Johnston in 2015-16, Sidney Crosby has only 6 goals and a -6 rating.

Generally, I do not believe that +/- can tell the whole story with certain players.  But with Crosby and Ovechkin, the commonality in their underperforming years has been a reflection of how weak their respective teams are in certain areas.

Sometimes players and coaches are dealt the hand they are given in the NHL.  In the case of the 2013-14 Capitals and the 2015-16 Penguins, the commonality between the two clubs is weak defensive cores.

In the 2013-14 season, the Capitals used 14 different NHL defensemen throughout the season.  In the 2015-16 season, the Penguins have used 8 different NHL defensemen.  That number might climb a little bit for the Penguins if Kris Letang misses any significant time with injury.  Certainly the Penguins have been a little banged up on the blueline, and their defensive depth has been tested the past couple of years.  It would not surprise me if the Penguins got over the 10+ mark for number of different defensemen used this season.

When any NHL club uses a high number of defensemen through their season, they begin digging into the minors for as many call-ups as possible.  When a club calls a player up, this player may not be ready for the prime time stage at the NHL level yet.  Even at the NHL level, a club may have depth guys who cannot log but only so many minutes per game.  When a key defenseman like Kris Letang goes down with injury, everyone else needs to absorb his large chunk of minutes.

Having enough defensive depth at the NHL level is so important for any club.  Before players get labeled “coach killers,” the fans and the media need to understand the circumstances that can get coaches fired.  In the case of the Penguins now, and the Capitals of a couple of years ago, both clubs struggled defensively.  Unfortunately for the respective coaches who were let go, they were dealt those bad hands they were given.  But this is a commonality that should not be overlooked.  So before anyone labels someone a coach killer, think about all of the circumstances that surround NHL clubs on a daily basis.

By George Foussekis

About Jon Sorensen

Jon has been a Caps fan since day one, attending his first game at the Capital Centre in 1974. His interest in the Caps has grown over the decades and included time as a season ticket holder. He has been a journalist covering the team for 10+ years, primarily focusing on analysis, analytics and prospect development.
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1 Response to “Coach Killers” in the NHL?

  1. GoCaps666 says:

    I don’t really think it’s fair to count Hunter. He came here out of loyalty to his old organization to get us through the remainder of the season as a favor. He told us when he agreed to take the position it was temporary and that he would be returning to London when the season was over, no matter what our offer was. He had NO interest in being an NHL coach, and still doesn’t (which was proven again when he turned down the LV offer this year). At the end of the season he kept his word and resigned, he wasn’t fired. In fact, we waited on lining up a replacement because his tenure exceeded all expectations and we thought we could talk him into it after he got used to the new routine.

    The point of this article is no less valid, just throwing it out there for accuracy’s sake.

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