In light of the recent success of the Pittsburgh Penguins, you will undoubtedly hear about how Mike Sullivan came in at mid-season and turned around a club that had under-performed under the guidance of Mike Johnston. Now, it doesn't take a miracle worker to find success when you can slot Sidney Crosby into your lineup, but there is something to be said for some teams simply needing a change in culture or a new voice in the room.
Coaching changes are nearly always a desperate response to inadequate performance. That doesn't mean that the incumbent coach has necessarily done a poor job, per se, but it does mean that the status quo is no longer sufficient. If a team has completely bottomed out, then they have nothing to lose, making at least marginal improvement by the next guy in charge a practical certainty. Where mid-season coaching changes can get risky, however, is when something remains on the line. It takes a gutsy General Manager to pull the trigger on a coaching move when that team remains in the playoff hunt, a risk that has been known to both pay off and turn disastrous.
The NHL seems to be a particular haven for these kind of coaching moves. As a league that thrives on parity and sees its fair share of streaky, momentum-shifting play, it has witnessed more mid-season changes made behind the bench among its 30 teams than any other among the North American 'Big Four' (NBA, MLB and NFL). When things go well and a coaching change brings about a desperately needed breath of fresh air, a middling club spinning its wheels can suddenly become an elite, contending force. But when the wrong guy winds up being put in charge, a less than ideal situation suddenly turns into an absolute trainwreck. Sure enough, the NHL has seen plenty of examples of both scenarios.
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16 Worked: 1993-94 Washington Capitals
A popular coach amongst his players, Terry Murray took the blame for a rocky start to the team's 1993-94 season, getting fired after compiling a 20-23-4 record through 47 games. In came the more abrasive Jim Schoenfeld, who was best known for a shouting match with referee Don Koharski in which he called Koharski a "fat pig" and invited him to "have another doughnut." Behind the bench for the Capitals, however, Schoenfeld brought a necessary change in locker room culture, lifting Washington from the Eastern Conference basement and even to an upset victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in that year's playoffs.
15 Didn't Work: 1973-74 California Golden Seals
In their nine-year existence, the California Golden Seals compiled as many winning seasons as they did playoff victories: zero. Sure enough, the 1973-74 season was no exception for the lowly Seals. The club was mired in a stretch of what would be six straight seasons out of the playoffs when they axed coach Fred Young 61 games into the '73-74 campaign. Enter Marshall Johnston, who began his coaching tenure by leading his team to a stunning 4-3 road win over the Montreal Canadiens. It didn't last, as Johnston won just once more over the season's final 16 games.
14 Worked: 1978-79 Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets have never experienced much NHL success, but they were a powerhouse as part of the World Hockey Association, reaching the finals in five of the league's seven seasons. The last WHA season saw the Jets stumble out to a 28-27 record under Larry Hillman before Tom McVie stepped in. McVie sparked a modest 11-8 improvement the rest of the way, but then things really turned around come playoff time. After sweeping the Quebec Nordiques in the semifinals, McVie and the Jets toppled the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers in six games in the Avco Cup Final.
13 Didn't Work: 1970-71 Montreal Canadiens
Has any coach in NHL history been as under-appreciated as poor Al MacNeil? All MacNeil did was take the reins from Claude Ruel, who had resigned on account of his club failing to play up to standard, and lead the Montreal Canadiens to the Stanley Cup after opting to put unproven rookie Ken Dryden in net. So why was this a coaching change that didn't work? The Habs players despised MacNeil, publicly deriding him after he benched star Henri Richard. As a thank you for the Cup victory, MacNeil was demoted to the team's AHL affiliate after the season, opening the door for Scotty Bowman to step in.
12 Worked: 2002-03 Colorado Avalanche
For a first-time NHL head coaching stint, Bob Hartley's tenure with the Colorado Avalanche went remarkably well. In four full seasons, he produced four straight Northwest Division Titles, three Conference Final appearances and a Stanley Cup. Still, the club was quick to make a change when they won just 10 of their first 31 games during the 2002-03 season. In came former player Tony Granato, who immediately led the Avs to wins in five of their next seven games. en route to a 32-11-4-4 mark the rest of the way and another Division Title.
11 Didn't Work: 2011-12 Montreal Canadiens
GM Pierre Gauthier witnessed his Montreal Canadiens struggling out to a mediocre 13-12-7 record through 32 games to begin the 2011-12 season and wanted to make a move before it was too late. He decided to axe then-head coach Jacques Martin and bring in Randy Cunneyworth, the first non-French speaking coach in the history of the club, with the Habs still just two points out of a playoff spot in the East. Under Cunneyworth, the team immediately dropped six of their first seven games and spiralled out to an 18-23-9 record on his watch. They would finish the season last in the Conference, 14 points out of the playoff picture.
10 Worked: 1999-2000 New Jersey Devils
Long-time New Jersey Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has long been known for doing things his way, regardless of optics. When he fired coach Robbie Ftorek with just eight games remaining in the 1999-2000 season and the Devils poised to earn home ice advantage in the playoffs, it inspired plenty of confusion and second-guessing. It also turned out to be just the move the team needed. Under Larry Robinson, the team loosened up, putting a late season swoon behind them and knocking off the Florida Panthers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Philadelphia Flyers and defending champion Dallas Stars for their second of three Cups.
9 Didn't Work: 2001-02 New Jersey Devils
It wasn't long before Lamoriello tried his coaching trick again. This time, it was Robinson who found himself on the mid-season chopping block despite having led New Jersey to the Cup Finals in each of his two seasons at the helm. He was fired with a middling 21-20-7-3 record through 51 games, clearing the way for Kevin Constantine to step in. Constantine succeeded in jump-starting another playoff run, helping the team salvage their season and earn a six-seed by going 20-8-2-1 the rest of the way. However, for a perennial Cup contender, it had to sting losing in the first round to the Carolina Hurricanes. While Robinson would return for a second go-around with the club, Constantine never coached at the NHL level again.
8 Worked: 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins currently find themselves on the cusp of Stanley Cup glory after taking a 3-1 lead in their Final showdown with the San Jose Sharks. Given the talent-heavy Pens' roster that features Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, it's easy to forget that this level of success seemed almost unthinkable a few months ago. On December 11th, Mike Johnston was fired with the Pens sitting at 15-10-3 and outside the playoff picture, despite landing Kessel in a big off-season splash. Not only did Mike Sullivan lead them to a 33-16-5 mark the rest of the way, but helped them fully realize their potential once the postseason rolled around.
7 Didn't Work: 1937-38 Montreal Maroons
Few men loomed larger in the early days of the NHL than Tommy Gorman, one of the league's founding fathers and a future Hockey Hall of Fame inductee. But even Gorman was unable to rescue the Montreal Maroons from their inevitable fate, despite his best efforts. Gorman was the team GM in 1937-38 after serving as coach for their Stanley Cup Championship three years prior. However, after coach King Clancy oversaw an underwhelming 6-11-1 start to the Maroons' season, Gorman fared no better upon instilling himself as coach, going 6-19-5 the rest of the way. Not only would Montreal miss the playoffs, but the club would actually fold after the season.
6 Worked: 1931-32 Toronto Maple Leafs
The Toronto Maple Leafs were eager to make a splash for the 1931-32 season, their first in their new Maple Leaf Gardens home. Under coach Art Duncan, though, they remained winless through the first five games, including a home-opening loss to the Chicago Blackhawks. Dick Irvin was brought in to replace him, immediately spurring a 9-3-2 run and sparking a potent offense that featured three of the NHL's top four leading scorers. That success would carry over into the postseason, where they outscored opponents 15-7 while remaining undefeated at home en route to sweeping the New York Rangers to win the Stanley Cup.
5 Didn't Work: 2014-15 Toronto Maple Leafs
If only one of the more contemporary editions of the Maple Leafs were so lucky. The Leafs' front office, headed by new president Brendan Shanahan and GM Dave Nonis, felt that the club needed a jolt as they clung to a playoff spot in early January, so they opted to fire Randy Carlyle with the team sitting at 21-16-3 and bring in Peter Horachek. Unfortunately, Horachek would soon make that mark look positively superb by leading Toronto to just one win over their next 13 games. Overall, the Leafs bottomed out to a 9-28-5 record from the time Horachek took over.
4 Worked: 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings
You would have been hard-pressed to find a single person in the Los Angeles Kings' organization with a bad thing to say about likable veteran coach Terry Murray. But sports are a results-driven industry, so even Murray's popularity in the dressing room wasn't enough to save him from a 13-12-6 start on a team with the potential to do much more. That potential wasn't realized until the decidedly more hard-nosed Darryl Sutter was brought in a few games later. By placing an emphasis on toughness, defense and physical play, he engineered a change in culture that resulted in a 46-28-8 mark the rest of the way and the franchise's first ever Stanley Cup victory.
3 Didn't Work: 1997-98 New York Rangers
The roster of the 1997-98 New York Rangers boasts a near-historic level of talent. It featured three Hall of Fame inductees in Wayne Gretzky, Pat Lafontaine and Brian Leetch, along with star-laden talent in the form of Alexei Kovalev, Adam Graves and Mike Richter. So when coach Colin Campbell began the season by leading his charges to a 17-24-16 record, it was seen as a failure worthy of termination. In came John Muckler, who didn't make much of a difference. The team won just eight times in his 25 games behind the bench, missing the playoffs for the first time since winning the Cup in 1994.
2 Worked: 2008-09 Pittsburgh Penguins
This year's Pittsburgh Penguins were simply following in the footsteps of their forebearers from seven years earlier. With expectations high following a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals one year prior, Michel Therrien led the 2008-09 Pens out to a disappointing 27-25-5 start, thereby prompting a coaching change. Therrien's dismissal opened the door for AHL coach Dan Bylsma, whose impact was immediate. Despite earning a shootout loss in his NHL coaching debut, he would win 18 of 25 games and lead Pittsburgh through a playoff romp, even gaining revenge on the defending champion Detroit Red Wings from a Finals defeat one year prior to win the Cup.
1 Didn't Work: 1976-77 Detroit Red Wings
Speaking of those same Red Wings, it's hard to think back to a time where the franchise, the owners of 25 straight playoff appearances and counting, wasn't successful. But the Original Six club has certainly had its share of low points, not the least of which came in the tumultuous 1976-77 season, one that saw not only a mid-season coaching change but even a General Manager change. Detroit legend Alex Delvecchio played both roles at the start of 76-77 before resigning amidst an unimpressive 13-26-5 season. Sadly, his coaching replacement, Larry Wilson, wound up being historically bad, winning just three times in 36 games of what, unsurprisingly, was his only NHL head coaching stint.
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