The NHL season is lurching out of its starting gate, and it’s amazing what a few games can do to shift perceptions on coaches in peril.
Welcome to the first NHL Coaches Hot Seat Index for 2018-19, as we examine which bench bosses are on solid footing and which ones are hearing cracks in the ice under their loafers.
Todd McLellan, Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid has a point on every regulation goal the Oilers have in their four games, of which they’ve won two and lost two. Whether he can drag Edmonton to the postseason might be dwarfed by a greater challenge, which is whether he can keep Todd McLellan in a job.
He’s in the fourth year of a five-year deal that pays him $3 million annually. The Oilers took a massive step back last season, so much so that McLellan and the coaching staff didn’t get a public vote of confidence from CEO Bob Nicholson in his postseason press conference.
There were rumors owner Daryl Katz wanted a coaching change last season, and he and Wayne Gretzky were in the house for the Oilers’ game at the Rangers because Katz had “business interests” in New York. Still, his presence was notable this early in a critical season.
Vegas odds are heavy that he’ll be the first coach fired this season, and with good reason: GM Peter Chiarelli is basically managing for his job, and pulling the cord on McLellan in the desperate hope that it’ll energize the team is one of his last cards to play.
Keep scoring, Connor.
A collection of coaches feeling the heat for various reasons.
Blashill is coaching a Red Wings team that’s clearly in a rebuild, but rebuilds don’t have to be soul-crushing embarrassments, such as their 0-4-2 start with the minus-16 goal differential would portend. He’s in the last year of his deal, and the Detroit media was already asking “will Jeff Blashill return?” questions at the end of last season. That’s never good.
Boudreau has coached his teams to a 100-point pace in every full season he’s been behind the bench … save for the year he was fired by the Capitals and hired by the Ducks. He has another year on his contract after this one, earning around $3 million annually. His regular-season success is as palpable as his postseason frustrations. He now he has a general manager in Paul Fenton that didn’t hire him.
Yeo is in the third year of a four-year deal that started with him as an associate coach under Ken Hitchcock. To say the bar’s been raised for the Blues this season would be underselling it, after being one of the most active teams in the summer. They missed the playoffs last season and are stumbling early in a very tough division. It’s said a coach is only as good as his goalie, and Jake Allen as a .878 save percentage. Eek.
Housley and Tocchet were both hired in 2017, so it’s hard to imagine an in-season canning for either of them, unless the floor drops out for the Sabres or Coyotes respectively. In Housley’s case, this season will go a long way towards answering the question about whether a well-regarded assistant coach can be an exemplary head coach.
For Tocchet, there’s a bit more concern: Could another terrible start for the Coyotes end his tenure with two years left on his deal? It’s not like a 1.7 shooting percentage through five games is his fault, necessarily. But … woof.
The Blackhawks’ stunning start (thanks, Jonathan Toews) has quieted the chatter about Quenneville and the team parting ways; it was lunacy to begin with, but hey someone has to take the fall for the diminishing returns of GM Stan Bowman’s moves. But he’s only signed through 2020, and Chicago’s still a deeply flawed team. This feels like an offseason move, however.
Boughner is in his second year with the Panthers, having guided them to 94 points last season. They’re struggling off the start (0-2-2) and missing Roberto Luongo. The Panthers have $78.1 million committed against the cap and are expected to be a playoff team by many (raises hand). Failure to make the leap could lead to the inevitable “we need a coach with playoff experience to get us to the next level!” thing. Or, maybe, the Blackhawks let Q go and he becomes the latest ex-Blackhawk to seek refuge with Dale Tallon.
Carlyle still seems like the best candidate for a hot seat, despite a terrific start in the standings. He has one year left on his contract, with a team option for another, and Dallas Eakins lurking in the AHL. The Ducks are the worst possession team in the NHL (39.49 in Corsi for percentage). There’s one person that can keep Carlyle in this job, and it’s isn’t GM Bob Murray: It’s goaltender John Gibson. And as long as Anaheim’s getting Vezina Trophy-caliber goaltending and staying in the playoff mix, the old fella is probably in a job this season.
These coaches were mentioned frequently in “first guy fired’ prognostications during the preseason: Boucher because the Senators looked especially terrible and Hakstol because Flyers fans have a default setting to revolt against any coach that doesn’t look like he can win a barroom brawl (see also Stevens, John).
Yet they’re both off to decent starts.
Boucher probably wasn’t going to be fired anyway, because why would Eugene Melnyk pay someone not to work in a lost season? Hakstol is coaching through two injuries to his top six (Nolan Patrick, James van Riemsdyk) and his most competent goalie (Michal Neuvirth). Plus, making the playoffs last season buys him time.
Cool to the touch
Stevens was hired in 2017, and his mere presence of being “not Darryl Sutter” appeared to reverse the Kings’ course and get them back to the playoffs. (A career year from Anze Kopitar and a healthy Jonathan Quick no doubt helped.) The Kings’ struggles are an issue of construction and not coaching, so Stevens is safe.
Contract negotiations being what they are, Tortorella might outlast both his star forward and his star goaltender in Columbus. He’s signed through 2021 after inking an extension in September. They love him, even if postseason success has eluded him in Columbus.
Julien would seem like a “lukewarm” seat guy, but the Canadiens are playing above expectations off the start (without Shea Weber, no less) and it’s hard to imagine GM Marc Bergevin turfing a coach that’s making $5 million annually through 2022 in just the second year of this contract. Unless, of course, he’s not the GM making that decision at some point.
DeBoer would seem like the best candidate here for an increase in seat temperature, as one does not trade for Erik Karlsson and settle for a second-round playoff exit. But as Todd McLellan would tell him, things only get toasty in San Jose when a coach misses the playoffs, and it would be a shock if San Jose did that.
Literally just sat down
There were no in-season coaching changes during the 2017-18 campaign, but for the second straight offseason there were six of them. This class of first-year coaches is a mix of long-term investments (Trotz, Quinn), an apprentice becoming the master (Reirden), a respected coach looking to finally turn that respect into palpable NHL success (Peters) and a respected former player whose kooky owner hired him to turn around a moribund franchise — and by golly, he looks like a genius a few weeks into the season (Brind’Amour).
Then there’s Montgomery, who like Quinn made the leap from the NCAA to the NHL to take over Dallas. If there’s one coach here that might warrant a little more attention, it’s him. The Stars are 3-3-0 out of the gate, which isn’t bad. The results are just middling right now — 18 goals for, 18 against, a Corsi around 50 percent — for a team with expectations that are higher than middling.
This isn’t to say he’s in trouble or anything like that. This isn’t going to be John MacLean getting turfed 33 games into the Devils’ season back in 2010. But again, expectations in Dallas are high, especially internally with $78 million committed against the cap. He should be fine. Heck, it only took him a game to realize you don’t break up one of the best lines in hockey. That’s progress.
Basically seated on an ice block
Mike Babcock, Toronto Maple Leafs
Jared Bednar, Colorado Avalanche
Bruce Cassidy, Boston Bruins
Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning
Gerard Gallant, Florida Panthers
Travis Green, Vancouver Canucks
John Hynes, New Jersey Devils
Peter Laviolette, Nashville Predators
Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets
Mike Sullivan, Pittsburgh Penguins
These coaches fall into a few categories. You have your bench bosses of thriving, successful Stanley Cup contenders: Babcock, Cassidy, Cooper, Laviolette, Maurice and Sullivan are all mingling in that party tent. Then you have coaches whose success last season buys them the benefit of the doubt this season, no matter what occurs: Bednar (a Jack Adams finalist), Gallant (as Jack Adams winner) and Hynes fit here. Then there’s Travis Green, who is the greatest asset the Canucks have not named Brock Boeser, Bo Horvat or Elias Pettersson. He’s a keeper, that one.