NHL coaches do not enjoy great job security. If a team is underperforming, the easiest and quickest move is to fire the coach. The simple fact is that in the salary cap era, players are far more difficult to move. The sheer amount of no movement clauses appearing on player contracts further exacerbates the issue. How can a coach exercise power over his team when most of the players make far more and have zero fear of being fired? Mike Babcock has long been a proponent of increased earnings for NHL coaches and I’d have to agree with him. He feels that for too long they have lagged far behind their peers in other professional sports and after this season we could very well see a bidding war for his services. When you see depth defencemen cashing in on July 1st for quadruple the amount the average coach receives, you start to understand what he means. And if you’re a deep-pocketed team like Toronto, why not bid high on a potential difference making coach? It’s a possible competitive advantage that isn’t limited by the cap!
If Babcock gets his way and he is able to drive coach salaries up, the high turnover rate will start benefitting his coaching brethren heavily. Since their contracts are guaranteed, they’re getting paid whether their services are retained or not. Just like free agency for the players, if more teams attempt to outbid for the best coaches, their salaries should begin to climb as fast as the players. Of course, this is all hypothetical and we’ll most likely have to wait until after this season for Babcock to make his move.
Until then, it’s still a precarious occupation. Coaches can be still be held largely responsible for the performance of their team. Injuries, inconsistencies, and unmotivated players can drastically impact where the team ends up in the standings. If expectations aren’t met, changes might be around the corner. This is largely why the modern day NHL game is considered over coached. The gluttonous amount of video footage available for every player on every play is being used to its fullest. The end to end mistake filled games of the 70’s and 80’s are long gone. Today’s game is all about systems, playing it safe, and trying not to lose (the game or your job).
The players on our list are the ones coaches fear the most. These players and their inconsistencies can wreak havoc on a coach’s plan and a team’s expectations for the year. Some of the players on this list have been involved in public feuds with their coaches. The information age has aired dirty laundry like never before. So strap in, and enjoy the bumpy ride all coaches live through as we examine the top 10 NHL coach killers!
15. Glen Sather
While he has now built himself a solid contender, Glen Sather got far more free passes than any GM should be warranted. Sather has been the Rangers’ GM for 15 years now and it took him a good decade to finally figure things out. His first hiring was Ron Low who was fired after two seasons. His next hire was former Islander great Bryan Trottier, whom he fired after 54 games. From there, Tom Renney and John Tortorella brought the team some success, but couldn’t quite get them to the top. His hiring of Alain Vigneault is going smoothly, but will he get trigger happy if the Rangers struggle next season?
14. Toronto fans/media
Sure, all markets may be guilty of wanting the team’s coach fired at a certain point, but since Toronto is the biggest hockey market, they’ll have to occupy the spot. Whether it’s through the media or the fan base, the coach always seems to be the first one blamed, when the problem is the organizational structure. As seen this season, all the coaching change has helped in Toronto is their chances at Connor McDavid. Remember, this team was still in playoff contention at the time of Randy Carlyle’s dismissal. Paul Maurice, Ron Wilson, Randy Carlyle, and soon Peter Horachek, will all be coaches Toronto will have ‘leafed’ through. Sorry, we couldn’t help it.
13. Dale Tallon
Yes, Dale Tallon was given a tough task when he took over as Florida Panthers GM back in 2010, but facts are facts. Tallon is now employing his fourth coach in a span of five years. He sacked Peter DeBoer after one season, who went on to coach the Devils to a Stanley Cup final. After a slew of free agent signings Kevin Dineen took over as coach. Dineen coached two seasons, leading the Panthers to a playoff berth one year, then fired when they finished last in a shortened season and started slow in 2013-14. Peter Horachek was not retained as head coach. Gerard Gallant has done a good job so far, tightening up things defensively, getting good goaltending from Roberto Luongo and getting Calder Trophy caliber play from Aaron Ekblad. Don’t get too comfortable Gerry.
12. Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers sure like to pass blame along to their coaches, rather than the organization’s eternal failure to find (and keep) a franchise goaltender and terrible signing after bad contract. The Flyers fired Peter Laviolette last season, who has gone on to lead a turnaround season in Nashville, while the Flyers find themselves out of the playoffs again. Maybe it’s not the coaching in Philly that’s been the problem. Management would certainly have you think so.
11. Vincent Lecavalier
Now in fairness, perhaps it’s the fault of general managers, but Vinny Lecavalier’s lack of production in recent seasons, combined with his injury struggles, or age, Lecavalier is a shell of what he was. He was surpassed by young emerging stars in Tampa, which made it easy for the Lightning to cut bait, and now, his lack of production may end up costing Craig Berube his job by the end of the season.
10. Any new General Manager
When a new GM is hired, a clever practice is to retain the previous GM’s head coach. This gives them a get out of jail free card if the team struggles. If they immediately hire a coach out of the gate, they assume responsibility if the team falters. If they keep the old guy, they can fire him as a scapegoat, looking like the hero cleaning up the former GM’s mess.
Generally speaking, when new management comes into town, the current coach will probably be looking for a new job.
9. Erik Karlsson
Nothing hurts a coach’s head more than a pinch gone wrong. The coaching philosophy of today’s NHL is to play it safe and avoid mistakes. Conversely, Erik Karlsson’s job as an offensive defenceman is to judge when to take risks. As the most talented, highest paid, and current captain, his performance is deeply tied to the fate of the Senators.
Karlsson definitely keeps the fans happy with highlight reel rushes, but I’m sure most coaches would gladly trade exciting individual efforts for boringly effective systems play. In 2012, Karlsson amazingly won the Norris Trophy as best defenceman despite not being used on the penalty kill or in the toughest defensive situations. While he has steadily improved his defensive zone coverage and reduced his pinches, the nature of his skillset promises the odd heart attack for his coach.
8. Kari Lehtonen
Arguably no other position directly affects a team’s success like goaltending. And arguably no other position takes longer to develop or deals with more inconsistency. Vezina winners can quickly end up out of the league and AHL journeyman can just as soon become NHL saviors.
Kari Lehtonen has been the main man in Dallas’s net for years now, but his track record has yet to completely silence the critics. Stars GM Jim Nil responded by saying “We have an elite goalie in Kari Lehtonen,” (and he was dead serious when he said it). Lehtonen isn’t awful but the only thing elite about him so far has been his near $6 million annual salary, not much lower than Carey Price’s pay. In his defense, he plays behind a mediocre defensive group, but for goaltenders to be considered elite, they must be able to elevate their team and steal a few games. Perhaps the real coach killer here is Nil. His unwavering faith in a back end that has yet to prove it can compete must be giving current coach Lindy Ruff fits. Though Ruff is no stranger to overachieving with lackluster squads, something he made a career out of in Buffalo.
Dallas fell a long way down from the huge expectations coming into this season. While their defense could use a drastic overhaul, the quickest fix would be for Lehtonen to reach the ‘elite’ level of play Nil has promised.
7. The Ottawa Senators
The blame starts at the top with owner Eugene Melnyk. His unwillingness to spend much more than the salary cap floor makes life very difficult for GM Bryan Murray. Furthermore, you have to believe Melnyk had a hand in promoting Dave Cameron, who used to coach the Mississauga St. Michael’s Majors, Melnyk’s former Junior team. Cameron has earned positive reviews in his short time with the team, but a meddling NHL owner is almost always bad for business.
Brian Murray’s tenure as GM has seen six coaching changes (two involving himself behind the bench). You can complain that Murray is not giving the coaches enough time to succeed, or even blame him for hiring the wrong guys in the first place. But as a Senators fan, you can also be grateful your GM is not afraid to make the changes and won’t settle for mediocrity.
Until Melnyk gives the Sens enough financial freedom to compete with the big boys, Ottawa could very well continue with its coaches carousel.
6. Marian Gaborik
The super skilled Marian Gaborik is a total crap-shoot each year. He has an insane ability to score goals, as well as a frustrating history of injuries and inconsistent play. A healthy and productive Gaborik can be a huge difference maker and a fantastic weapon in a coach’s arsenal (see, last year’s playoffs), while one of his down years can seriously neuter an attack (see his days as a Blue Jacket).
His current deal is a very sweet cap hit of just $4.875 million, but the Kings had to make it up to him in term, signing him through 2021. A deal of this magnitude with Gaborik’s history could potentially spell trouble for a lesser coach/team combination, but L.A. seems well equipped to handle it. Coach Darryl Sutter (like Gaborik’s first coach Jacques Lemaire) is too well respected and stubborn to let a star player’s issues affect him. GM Dean Lombardi also proved that a player not performing up to expectations (Mike Richards) will (eventually) be dealt with, and the team will move forward.
While Gaborik’s contract and inconsistencies could kill a weaker coach, he’s obviously in a fantastic situation. A true testament to the dynasty-like domination of the Los Angeles Kings.
5. Marc-Andre Fleury
If there’s one thing that can bring about a coaching change, it’s playoff disappointment. If a GM feels his team under-performs in the quest for the Cup, the coach is the easiest change to make.
After winning Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2009 with such a talented and young core, it looked like Pittsburgh had a potential dynasty on their hands. However, year after year of playoff failure eventually cost Dan Blysma his job. While not entirely his fault, Fleury didn’t help matters with his inconsistent and sometimes downright awful goaltending when it mattered most.
After an improved postseason in 2014, management surprised many when they rewarded Fleury with another four years at $5.75 million a season. If Fleury and his team can bring another Cup to Pittsburgh, current coach Mike Johnston will look like a genius. If Fleury bombs again, there could be another offseason of change coming to steel town.
4. Edmonton Oilers Management
The Edmonton Oilers are the current poster-boys for how not to rebuild a franchise. Flushed with several high draft picks, they forgot to build a competent team around them, allowing the kids to rule the roost before they were ready. The learning curve from junior to the pros is steep and without veteran leadership bad habits and a losing culture can easily be formed. To put the rookie cherry on top, first-year NHL coach Dallas Eakins was the latest sacrificial lamb led to slaughter.
Current coach Todd Nelson put it best when he exclaimed, “It’s amazing. Every time we put up four goals, we give up more. We have to protect the house.” Unfortunately for Nelson, until Edmonton’s management upgrades the AHL-level defence and goaltending, consider the house ‘unprotected’.
3. Lou Lamoriello
Lou is famous for firing coaches on a whim. In what seemed like a risky move at the time, he fired Robbie Ftorek at the end of the 1999-00 regular season, even though the Devils had a winning record going into the playoffs! Lou felt it wasn’t right, and promoted assistant coach Larry Robinson to interim head coach. The Devils went on to win the Stanley Cup that year, vindicating Lou’s itchy firing finger.
Lamoriello repeated that habit towards the end of the 2006-07 season when he fired Claude Julien with three games left, even though the Devils were second in the East and sporting a 47-24-8 record.
After two decades of success, and nearly 20 different coaching changes, Lou has finally hit the wall with this team, and the future is looking grim. They’re well out of playoff contention, have few prospects on the way and are currently the oldest team in the league. The next few years could be a minefield for any future coaches.
2. Alexander Ovechkin
Bruce Boudreau won the Jack Adams his first year with Washington, went on to post an impressive regular season record during his four years but lacked postseason success. In his final season he began holding Ovechkin and the other stars accountable, even benching no.8. Soon after, he was fired, with then-GM George McPhee saying “This was simply a case of the players were no longer responding to Bruce.” (nice grammar George).
The next two coaches, Dale Hunter and Adam Oates lasted only 190 games combined. Hunter brought in a hard working mentality, emphasizing sacrifice and grit before he quit after just five months. The players already known for their grit like Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer raved about Hunter. Laich went as far as to ask “if there’s anything I can do to convince him to stay.” On the flip-side, Ovechkin struggled with the defensive system, seeing his minutes cut again. He admitted “For me, personally, it was pretty hard.” He assessed his season with Dale Hunter as a “hard year, mentally.”
Under Adam Oates, Ovechkin returned to goal scoring form with 51, but also posted a hideous minus-35 rating, the worst in the league. Oates had no problem criticizing his superstar’s defensive play, after a particularly bad goal he commented “Ovi quit on the play, coming back. It just goes to show you gotta hustle the whole time. The whole, entire time.”
Could current coach Barry Trotz be a white knight? The former Nashville mainstay has assumed control in Washington and appears to be a great fit. Ovechkin has earned accolades around the league for his outstanding play and willingness to buy into Trotz’s system. If Trotz and Ovie can continue to be effective in the playoffs, it will do wonders for both of their reputations. Looking at the amount of exposure the Trotz/Ovechkin relationship has received speaks volumes to the effect the Gr8 one has had on previous coaches.
There’s no doubt that Ovechkin is passionate about the game.When the postseason starts he’ll have a chance to show the world that he cares as much about playing his coach’s system as he does scoring goals.
1. Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel’s first (of three) Leafs coaches Ron Wilson made headlines in January of this year when he publicly criticized Kessel’s relationship with coaches. “You can’t rely on Phil…Phil’s problem, and I think it’s pretty much how Phil’s been his whole career, is that he is two weeks on and two weeks off.” Wilson then blasted Toronto’s core saying they’ve “failed under two or three coaches…You’d have to surmise that some of them might be uncoachable.”
Phil’s current assistant coach Steve Spott also had plenty to say on the topic while speaking at a coaching clinic. Spott mentioned the difficulties he experienced when charged with instructing Kessel on the new breakout strategy. A former pro in attendance stated, “Spott said that when he went to Phil, Phil said, I’m not doing it.” Welcome to the NHL, Steve.
Recently fired head coach Randy Carlyle even predicted his own fate when he told Spott “we’re fired before (Kessel).” Kessel’s long-term expensive contract and ability to consistently score goals has apparently given him strong leverage in Toronto.
With the Leafs finally appearing to embrace a rebuild and the previously ‘immovable’ David Clarkson traded, perhaps we’ll see Kessel in a new city before he claims another Toronto coach.
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