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For NHL Coaches, More Firings to Come

The NHL already has a coaching carousel, with the firing of two coaches in the first 14 games of the season. Will the trend continue? Who’s safe?

You're Fired! by Kristian Bjornard is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

For NHL Coaches, More Firings to Come

Estimated Reading Time: 8 Minutes

Hunting season is open and we’re hunting head coaches! 

Four NHL head coaches were fired in the past couple weeks marking the first firings since the 2016-2017 season.

You read that right: no head coaches were fired during the 2017-2018 season. All thirty-one coaches survived the entire season. Within the first fourteen games we’ve seen two long-standing coaches be thrown off their benches: Joel Quenneville of the Chicago Blackhawks, John Stevens of the LA Kings, as well as Todd McLellan of the Edmonton Oilers and Mike Yeo of the St Louis Blues.

Now, for a number of reasons, none of this was all that surprising. The off season saw a decent amount of coaching turnover, more than making up for the quiet regular season. This included huge drops like Stanley Cup winner Barry Trotz being booted from his championship team and Alain Vigneault losing his seat on the New York Rangers bench after five seasons. Trouble has been brewing in a number of rooms and it seems like this year will see a great deal more turnover than the last.

I wasn’t really surprised by any of these moves and there are a few reasons why.

LA Kings coach John Stevens was fired with his assistant coach Don Nachbaur. This was easy to see coming. The Kings started slow, failing to score enough goals even with their newly acquired starter in Ilya Kovalchuk. Add that to injury of starting star goalie Jonathan Quick and an old — very very very old — roster of players… and you’re just going to lose games. Ultimately, it wasn’t a surprise and there isn’t much to tell about this firing except maybe if he had solved the riddle in the off season, Stevens could have lasted longer.

Willie Desjardins was appointed his successor and has been walking on egg shells ever since. He is existing with a large target on his back. He has to turn around a team that has fallen way beyond the expectations of just a few years ago. And for all intents and purposes, he has been making some moves. Trades and dramatic solutions in goaltending have been his hallmark and there seems to be marginal improvement. 

The Chicago firing has more of a story, more emotions, and more shock, given the posterity of Quenneville.

In my opinion, “Coach Q” should have felt that target on his back. The Blackhawks are a team that is expected to be making serious playoff runs every single year. They are an Original Six team. They have to be producing and contending for cups.

For those are unfamiliar with that term, the “Original Six” refers to the first six teams that formed the NHL.

Those teams are, based purely on tradition, held to a slightly higher standard not just for posterity but also by fan bases that have existed for longer than other teams. Just ask recently fired Vigneault of Original Six team, the NY Rangers. It took just one year not making the playoffs even after four straight seasons in the playoffs under his tenure to get him a boot. Coach Q and the Blackhawks haven’t been past the first round since the Cup they won in 2015. Last year, they didn’t even qualify. He was getting closer to the knife with each passing loss.

Even more so, he had stars that aren’t producing where they were a few years ago. With Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith to name a few, he wasn’t lacking in experience or talent. Even his lower line players have extensive playoff experience or Stanley Cups themselves, like Chris Kunitz and Cam Ward. That’s two Stanley Cup winning goalies. He had the tools to be doing much more damage per game than the Hawks have been showing for some time.

Was it all on Coach Q?

Yes, there are moves that have to made on the playing side. Yes, the goaltending unit is not clicking yet and their defense isn’t helping. Yes, the scoring division has had multiple scoreless games. That’s a team epidemic. I honestly expected to see a general manager fired before Coach Q purely for traditional reasons but it seems the team owners have decided enough his enough. The Blackhawks are cutting the fish at the head. This may mean that this year is already a wash for them. It may mean they rally. Their current losing streak suggests otherwise, at 8 games as I write this. But Coach Q is the start of a major shake up in Chicago. He’ll find a new job soon. If firings continue, some may fire their head honcho just to acquire Q. But time will tell.

Jeremy Colliton took over. He’s only 33 and has never been a head coach before. For differences, Q has been coaching since 1996, has 3 Stanley Cups and 18 playoff runs for those 22 years. It’s big shoes. Colliton has a struggling defense to fix and lack of scoring to change. With the typical confidence of both hockey coaches and youth, he is talking a big game to fill the shoes in the meantime. And that his close friend and superstar Patrick Kane is playing significantly more than he was just days ago.

But most importantly Quenneville has been taking the news in stride:

The timing of the Yeo firing smells of a new head coach shopping trip coming up in St Louis.

Mike Yeo came to St Louis hot off of a decent job with the Minnesota Wild for spot moments in the five seasons. He finished with 73-49-11 record overall with the Blues and none of that is anything to sneeze at. Craig Derube has been named the interim head coach. The change was announced late on Monday night.

Still, they started off 7-9-3. The firing came after a loss to the struggling-to-rebuild Los Angeles Kings, still very much the worse team in the league. Pressure was high to start after a big $7.5 million a season acquisition of center Ryan O’Reilly from Buffalo. He has a big price tag and big expectations to produce after leaving the formerly dismal Sabres. However, without him, the Sabres are thriving and St Louis has faltered from the gate.

I wonder if behind closed doors, St Louis is courting their former head coach, Joel Quenneville. It seems all too convenient to have Coach Q free and available just as St Louis fires a coach in a move that is debatably premature. Coach Q was in St Louis from 1996 to 2004, taking the team on a playoff run every season except the final, where he was fired after 61 games, a dramatically late move. He went on to bring three Stanley Cups to Chicago shortly thereafter. Add this history and the big “interim” in front of Berube’s title: things become suspicious. The whole hockey community, not just me, are watching anxiously to see what happens in the coming weeks to the St Louis bench.

The Edmonton Oilers fired their head coach less than 12 hours after Mike Yeo was fired in St Louis.

The Western conference saw it’s second firing in one day. Todd McLellen was canned with a 9-10-1 record. He was in his fourth year of a five year contract. He came to Edmonton after being fired by the San Jose Sharks, ironically the team the Oilers would face that evening.

McLellan was unable to make the Oilers work this season after a second round playoff run last season. He had Conor McDavid, debatably one of the most enviable players in the league. McDavid is currently third in the league for points despite the hardships of the team overall. With that said, they are sitting 20th in the league right now for goals scored and dangerously behind the curve even with that powerhouse center scoring almost a quarter of their points. For reference, they’ve scored eight less goals than the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have only won 8 games and just went on a massive loss streak. They weren’t doing well.

Riding to the rescue is Ken Hitchcock after yet another false retirement. Hitchcock is 66-years-old and has coached in the NHL for 22 years. He brought Dallas their first and only Stanley Cup in 1999. He had recently returned to Dallas for one season, a victory lap in some regards, and then retired this past April. He has once again came out of retirement and taken charge of the Oilers.

Ultimately, this is just the beginning of a long season where more teams will lose the man at the helm.

If I were placing bets, the Carolina Hurricanes, Las Vegas Golden Knights, and maybe even my own beloved Pittsburgh Penguins would be my best guess for the next purge. But time will tell  what head coaches are bulletproof.

And all that said… Colliton’s Hawks fell to the Kings last week with Desjardins playing a 24-year-old goalie in his first start. That 24-year-old won in a shoot out. Patrick Kane couldn’t get past him.

Sarah Jane, Sarah, or SJ-depending on the source-is a director, educator, theatre artist and now, sports blogger. She lives in Queens with her darling, not-so-sports-fan boyfriend. She played ice hockey growing up for the NJ Quarry Cats and various other teams. Being team captain her last two seasons is the most important achievement of her life to date. She proudly also was about a quarter of the size of her opponents and often led her team in both penalty minutes and enthusiasm. She's a Pittsburgh Penguins and Steelers fan (thanks, Momma!) and a New York Yankees fan (thanks, Poppa?) and was given zero choice on all three of these teams. Other hobbies include reading non-fiction books, cooking, and being spunky. Check in with her for all your greater hockey needs!

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