Why have so many NHL coaches gotten fired this season?

ByEmily Kaplan ESPN logo
Thursday, November 22, 2018

The 2018-19 NHL season is only a quarter complete and four coaches have been fired, including two in a 12-hour span this week. Is your head spinning after all this movement? Here's what you need to know about the coaching carousel, including who else is on the hot seat, rising head-coach candidates, intel on the new bench bosses and more.

There were no coaches fired during the 2017-18 season. We're only a fourth of the way into this season and there have been four. What gives?

Don't think for a second that these two facts aren't correlated.

The 2017-18 season presented a perfect storm for stability. The season before there had been five in-season firings, the most since 2011-12, therefore there were fewer teams in the mix. Three of the worst teams in the league last season -- the Buffalo Sabres, Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes -- all had rookie head coaches, so it would have been rash to cut ties without seeing what the new guys could do while fully implementing their systems. (Lo and behold, all three teams have showed improvement, none bigger than the Sabres.)

The Montreal Canadiens paid big bucks for Claude Julien -- with a term that runs through 2020-21 -- so they weren't going to say goodbye so quickly (another team that turned around; as of this writing, the Habs were sixth in the league in points percentage). The Ottawa Senators, another bottom-dweller, were believed to not want to pay two coaches at once, one of the reasons Guy Boucher got a pass. The Chicago Blackhawks took a big step back, but management felt they owed it to three-time Cup winner Joel Quenneville to see the season through, considering he was without his starting goaltender, Corey Crawford, for much of it (and the Marian Hossa loss was significant.)

The Edmonton Oilers regressed quickly, but perhaps management didn't know who would be better than Todd McLellan at the time. After all, the team's AHL affiliate in Bakersfield, California, was just as bad, so there was no obvious in-house choice. The Detroit Red Wings reportedly considered cutting ties with Jeff Blashill but gave him more time as they continued the rebuild.

But last season's rare stability -- it was the first time since expansion from the Original Six that no coaches were dismissed in-season -- forecast trouble ahead. On average, in the previous eight seasons, nearly four coaches were let go during each. We were bound to regress toward the mean.

Oh, and just because coaches weren't fired in-season doesn't mean there wasn't any turnover. After the season, six coaches ended up leaving their current jobs, for reasons varying from contract disputes to straight-up dismissals to "a change in direction" -- and plenty of excuses in between.

How come it's only coaches getting the ax? Shouldn't general managers be accountable, too?

Last season, many folks I talked to predicted that the stability on the coaching front might mean a big turnover among management. Some team's struggles weren't due to coaching but rather roster construction or a lack of development through the system. Then there were four general-manager changes over the summer. Also in September, the Tampa Bay Lightning promoted Julien BriseBois to replace Steve Yzerman, but Yzerman stepped away for personal reasons.

Could or should the number have been higher? Perhaps. But GMs tend to have a lot more job security than coaches do. Consider there are two general managers (Detroit's Ken Holland and Nashville's David Poile) who have been at their post since the 1990s. Doug Wilson has been on the job in San Jose since 2003, Bob Murray in Anaheim since 2008, Stan Bowman in Chicago since 2009.

As for coaches? The longest-tenured coach right now is Tampa Bay's Jon Cooper ... who was hired in 2013. "If you get four, five years with a good team, you feel like you're a fortunate one," Ken Hitchcock told me last year. "The only way it changes is if you give us 100-year deals."

GMs often get more leeway from ownership than coaches do. And a lot of time they can fire a coach to buy more time. It seems notable that this is now the third coach firing Doug Armstrong has made in St. Louis without winning a Stanley Cup. The Chicago and Edmonton firings could also be viewed as a GM stalling before he can make wholesale fixes; the Los Angeles and St. Louis firings occurred because a season with great expectations spiraled too fast and there was still time to remedy it.

So who are the new guys?

Well, they fill familiar tropes. When GMs need to hire a new coach in a pinch, they usually go to one of three places. There's the respected veteran who is "retired" or out of work but still has the itch. If he gets the call, he will arrive ASAP; as in, seriously ASAP. This applies to Hitchcock, who stepped away from the Dallas Stars last season, saying "now is the right time to step away and let the younger generation of coaches take over." He lasted less than seven months in his new consultant role before the Oilers job became open. GM Peter Chiarelli said he only called Stars counterpart Jim Nill on Monday to receive permission to talk to Hitchcock; the 66-year-old was behind Edmonton's bench by Tuesday night.

This also applies to Willie Desjardins, tapped by the Kings to replace John Stevens. The Canucks coach from 2014 to 2017 was out of work last season. "I think I'm really lucky to be here," Desjardins said immediately after his hiring.

Another option is to promote your AHL coach if the minor league team is finding success. That's what Chicago did after its top minor league affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs, reached the AHL Western Conference finals for the first time under Jeremy Colliton.

The third option is promoting one of your NHL assistants with experience. That's what the Blues did with Craig Berube (who has experience in this exact same situation, having replaced a fired Peter Laviolette in Philadelphia in 2013-14). Berube also picked up favor with the organization after leading the AHL Chicago Wolves to a division title in 2016-17.

Will any of them stick around?

The Blues say they have no timeline on hiring a replacement for Mike Yeo, and Armstrong pledged a far-reaching search to find the right guy. If Berube engineers a miraculous turnaround, expect him to get a serious look, but otherwise it looks like the team will seek outside help.

Desjardins is on a one-year deal with L.A. and could stick around depending on results.

It's tough to make a call on Hitchcock; he has a tendency to turn around teams in a hurry, which could play in his favor. However, Chiarelli's job seems in serious peril. A new GM might want to bring in his own coach.

Bet on seeing Colliton for a while, considering his age (he's now the youngest coach in the league, at 33) and the Blackhawks' renewed commitment to stability under Rocky Wirtz. Colliton was a shooting star on the coaching circuit and should get some leeway as management figures out what to do with a roster in transition.

Who is still on the hot seat?

The Red Wings have played terrific recently but looked dreadful to start the season. Depending on which version of the team has more staying power, Blashill's name could resurface as a hot-seat candidate.

The Senators have also been streaky, and Boucher is in the final year of his contract. The team now has a strong in-house candidate if it chooses to switch directions: Ottawa's new AHL coach is Troy Mann, the former Hershey Bears coach who helped develop many players on the Capitals' Stanley Cup-winning roster. Of course, it seems likely Ottawa ownership will let Boucher ride it out until the end of his contract.

There was some speculation Bruce Boudreau might not last long in Minnesota with a new GM, Paul Fenton, likely wanting to make his own hire. But the Wild are off to a great start, and Boudreau is not fazed. As he told the ESPN on Ice podcast this fall: "It's not like I haven't been fired before. Just roll with it. I've just got to do my job, and hopefully I do it well, but listen -- I was in the minors for 33 years, so I'm sort of used to anything now."

Despite having his roster barraged by injuries the past two seasons, Anaheim Ducks coach Randy Carlyle could be on the outs if the team is looking for a change of direction.

Who are next wave of head coaches?

When it comes to hirings, NHL general managers tend not to be terribly creative, but many in the league believe there could be a shift soon.

For example, it was a promising sign that Jim Montgomery (Dallas Stars) and David Quinn (New York Rangers) were hired from college hockey last season; in the first 97 years of the NHL, only two NCAA coaches got their first NHL jobs directly from college.

Meanwhile, Swedish national team coach Rikard Gronborg got some serious looks last summer, including in Dallas, and should resurface as a hot name during the next hiring cycle. Quenneville is the biggest name on the market right now, but reports indicate he might be patient in picking the right spot, even if that means sitting out this season. Don't forget about Alain Vigneault, dismissed by the Rangers last season. Since he's still being paid a hefty salary, he gets the luxury of time.

As for fresher candidates, Pascal Vincent, the AHL coach of the year last season with the Manitoba Moose, could get looks outside the Jets organization. Tim Hunter is coach of the WHL Moose Jaw Warriors, and his success there, plus Hockey Canada ties, makes him an ascending name.