Thus far into the 2019-20 season, we’ve seen seven teams make coaching changes mid-season. There’s a lot to be said for the reasoning behind these firings, such as conduct unbecoming of their role and their subsequent organizational and league values, or on-ice performance.
For the latter, there’s been some interesting results that have occurred after teams have made coaching changes in the middle of the season. Some have reached the ultimate prize, such as the St Louis Blues last season, and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2015-16 season. Others have not had the same success. In this post, we’ll take a look at teams’ performances after making a coaching change in some key statistical areas.
2019-20 Regular Season
This season has been tumultuous for many coaches around the NHL. We’ve seen Bill Peters and Jim Montgomery removed from their roles after controversial conduct came to light. Peters was fired for inflammatory racial comments towards a player (Akim Aliu) during his time coaching the Rockford Ice Hogs of the AHL about ten years ago.
In a time where the NHL is really focused on ensuring that every person from every demographic, sexual orientation, and race feel included in hockey through the “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign, this conduct was especially unbecoming for the Calgary Flames and Peters.
Jim Montgomery was fired shortly after Peters was let go from his head coaching role in Calgary. Dallas released a vague statement that he had been engaging in conduct unbecoming of the Stars’ organization, and was subsequently let go. Recently, Montgomery announced publicly that he was seeking treatment for alcoholism.
Outside of those conduct-related dismissals, there have been five firings regarding unsatisfactory on-ice performance. We can dig a bit deeper into the performance of the teams and how well the teams performed under their replacement head coaches.
The two biggest turn arounds this season were after the Calgary Flames parted ways with Peters, and when the Toronto Maple Leafs fired Mike Babcock and replaced him with Sheldon Keefe.
The Flames are a lot more successful offensively, and reduced ‘goals against’ as well. Peters’ teams consistently create high quantities of shot attempts, resulting in a considerably higher ‘Corsi For’ %, but the Flames are converting on fewer attempts in relation to their opponents.
The Maple Leafs under Keefe are much improved offensively, going from 3.07 goals per 60 minutes to 4.14. Babcock’s style was very focused on rolling four lines and relying on more grit and defensively minded veterans, rather than their top-end skill in their top six. Babcock came under fire during the Maple Leafs’ first round exit against the Boston Bruins last year for only giving Matthews around 17 minutes in ice time, much too few for a top echelon player in a game seven situation.
The Dallas Stars have also performed well after the firing of Montgomery. They’ve elevated their performance on both sides of the puck, and currently find themselves in third place in the Central Division, and only two points back of the second place Colorado Avalanche.
Overall, there’s been some relative success this season so far for replacement coaches, but there have been some that haven’t seen the same type of success. The San Jose Sharks are one of those teams.
The Sharks record is still under .500, and they’ve only really improved in the goals allowed per 60 minutes statistic. There’s definitely something off with the Sharks this season, after many picked them to at least make the playoffs.
The Devils are also one of those teams that most didn’t expect to do very well, and the quality of the roster is showing after the change made behind the bench.
It’s also much too early to make inferences on the coaching changes made by the Nashville Predators and the Las Vegas Golden Knights, since their changes were made relatively recently. We’ll see how all these teams pan out at the end of the season.
2018-19 Regular Season
The obvious stand-out in the 2018-19 season for replacement coaches was Craig Berube, who took over for Mike Yeo, leading the St Louis Blues to their first Stanley Cup. There were a few other notable firings, and we’ll get into them below:
Overall, as you can tell by the far right column for their overall season result, the Blues were the only team to make a coaching change and qualify for the playoffs, let alone win a Stanley Cup.
There’s not much more to say here other than the fact that the only two replacement or interim coaches retained their positions going into the next season: Jeremy Colliton of the Chicago Blackhawks and Berube. That’ll ultimately tell you about the success (or lack thereof) for the replacement coaches in the 2018-19 season.
2017-18 Regular Season
Interestingly enough, no coaches were fired during the 2017-18 season. This was really interesting, because teams who are looking to jumpstart their team into some modicum of success usually look to fire a coach before they dismantle a roster they’ve built. That being said, no teams took it upon themselves to make a coaching change, but it was interesting enough to call out here.
2016-17 Regular Season
The 2016-17 season saw five coaching changes, and three of them were able to lead their teams to a playoff berth. There were some really notable firings during the 2016-17 regular season, and we’ll take a look at them below:
The most notable firing during the 2016-17 regular season was the Boston Bruins firing Claude Julien. Julien led the Bruins to two Stanley Cup appearances, winning one of those in 2011. Ultimately, after getting out of the gates with a lackluster record of 26-23-6, the Bruins decided to go in a different direction, bringing in former Washington Capitals’ head coach Bruce Cassidy to right their ship. He had pretty decent success, pulling together an 18-8-1 record, which was centered around letting Boston’s skilled players free-wheel a bit more. The result of that was present in their increase in goals for per 60 minutes and got some better results defensively as well.
Julien didn’t stay unemployed for long, ending up at one of his former head coaching stops in Montreal. He took over for Michel Therrien, and lead the Montreal Canadiens to a first round playoff exit after going 16-7-1, after assuming his role behind the Habs’ bench.
Additionally, Mike Yeo took over for coaching legend Ken Hitchcock, getting the Blues into the second round of the playoffs after going 22-8-2 down the stretch. As we saw earlier, Yeo didn’t last long in his head coaching role with the Blues, getting fired during the 2018-19 regular season.
The Florida Panthers also parted ways with Gerard Gallant during the 2016-17 regular season. This was an interesting move because Gallant was pretty well-regarded around the league, and the Panthers ended up firing him while they were playing an away game, leaving Gallant to travel back home on his lonesome. Gallant also didn’t last too long without a head coaching role, where he took over the Las Vegas Golden Knights in their first season, leading them to a Stanley Cup appearance against the Capitals in 2018.
2015-16 Regular Season
The 2015-16 season also saw a replacement head coach lead their new team to Stanley Cup glory. Much to the behest of Capitals’ fans, this coach was Mike Sullivan, who took over the Pittsburgh Penguins and led the team to back-to-back Stanley Cups. Let’s take a look at the rest of the coaching changes and their subsequent results below:
First thing to note here is that Mike Yeo was fired yet again in 2015-16, where he was replaced by John Torchetti. Torchetti’s Wild made it to the playoffs, but were ousted in the first round. Yeo doesn’t seem to last too long in any of his head coaching stops, and is now an assistant coach under Alain Vigneault in Philadelphia.
The Penguins were most definitely the most successful team after a coaching change. They were really underwhelming and struggled under head coach Mike Johnston when Pittsburgh General Manager Jim Rutherford decided to fire Johnston and promote Sullivan from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins to take over the NHL squad.
Also, notable enough to mention, the 2015-16 regular season was when John Tortorella took over in Columbus, leading them to relative success in subsequent years. It didn’t pay off in 2015-16, but it’s hard to make the playoffs after starting the season 0-7-0.
Teams that fire their head coaches during the course of a regular season have seen a success rate of 40% in making the playoffs (four coaches out of fifteen). Interestingly enough, there’s been a success rate of 13.33% for firing a coach and ending up with the Stanley Cup.
If a general manager feels as though the team is better on the ice than is reflected in the standings, the 40% success rate seems like a decent bet to make. Ultimately, making coaching changes puts a lot of scrutiny on the players, as well as the general manager. If teams aren’t successful after a coaching change, then most likely the general manager will either look to make some moves to shake up the roster makeup, or could even end up with the general manager being fired. We’ve seen this happen this season with New Jersey’s Ray Shero being removed from his role as general manager after he had fired John Hynes earlier this season.
By Justin Trudel
In the case of Pittsburgh, Mike Johnston, the coach they hired for the 2014-15 season, was an incompetent coach. With the talent Pittsburgh has, they have no business being just a WC team. As a rule, Pittsburgh coaches seem to do better with that team than they’ve done before or since. Examples: Bylsma, who coached Pens to Cup in 2009, could not do squat with Buffalo. And Sullivan was nothing to write home about with Boston who he had coached years ago before taking over Pens.