The NHL off-season isn’t only a time for players to heal up and improve themselves. It’s a chance for coaches to reflect on what transpired, digest all the roster moves their general manager made and prepare for training camp.
For a handful of bench bosses, though, it could also be a time to fret over job security. With that in mind, here are five coaches on the hot seat heading into the 2015-16 campaign.
Lindy Ruff, Dallas Stars
The Stars averaged a whopping 3.13 goals per game – the Tampa Bay Lightning led the NHL and only scored one more goal than the Stars – yet they missed the playoffs and that doesn’t reflect well on the coach.
With GM Jim Nill making several significant moves like trading for Patrick Sharp, fortifying the goaltending by adding Antti Niemi and replacing Trevor Daley with veteran Johnny Oduya – not to mention the team will have a healthy Valeri Nichushkin – the pressure is on Ruff and his players to get off to a hot start.
“I honestly can’t stop thinking about it this summer,” Stars captain Jamie Benn recently told Mike Heika of The Dallas Morning News. “We need to get off on the right foot, we need to be prepared, and we need to build on the things we did at the end of last season. We learned a lot, so we need to remember those lessons.”
If the Stars start slowly, a coaching change could be an option to shake things up because the on-ice talent is there.
Ken Hitchcock, St. Louis Blues
The Blues have been one of the best regular season teams for the past four years yet they’ve had virtually no playoff success. As they found out last year, having the best record in the Western Conference means nothing if you get bounced in the first round. Hitchcock has great regular season numbers – a 708-429-88-97 record is nothing to dismiss – but he hasn’t been able to get his teams over the hump in the post-season since the 2004-05 lockout.
One challenge for Hitchcock will be to figure out how to use captain David Backes. Hitchcock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last month he’s thinking of moving Backes to the wing. He had previously centred a line with Alexander Steen and T.J. Oshie, but with the latter recently traded to the Washington Capitals things have changed.
“I think where we play David now depends on [Dmitrij] Jaskin, [Ty] Rattie and [Robby] Fabbri. How they do in camp and what level of play we think they can arrive at will determine how much we play David on the right wing," Hitchcock explained. "I can tell you right now, he is going to play more right wing than he’s played since I got here. Whether he’s a full-time player there or not, we don’t know yet. That depends on those three young kids.”
The Blues should once again be a contending team in the West, but if the wins don’t come in the playoffs, Hitchcock’s time in St. Louis might have run its course.
Claude Julien, Boston Bruins
It’s hard to criticize a coach that, since joining the team in 2007, has racked up a 351-192-79 record, won 57 playoff games, led his team to a Stanley Cup championship in 2011 and got them back to the final in 2013. Still, Julien’s time in Boston could be winding down if he can’t get the Bruins back to the playoffs.
Julien knows there’s extra pressure that comes with being in a market like Boston and realizes he’s under the microscope.
“You don’t take this job and go in there and think everything’s okay,” Julien told reporters in January after his team’s CEO Charlie Jacobs ripped into the club. “My job is always under evaluation. I evaluate myself. I evaluate my coaches, I evaluate my players.”
The fact he was rewarded with a multi-year contract extension in November might not matter either. In Toronto, Randy Carlyle was given an extension in May and eight months later he was out of a job. It is believed that Julien has been on the hot seat in previous seasons, but his Bruins did enough to salvage his job. With all the changes new GM Don Sweeney has made this off-season, Julien will have his hands full.
Mike Johnston, Pittsburgh Penguins
As odd as it is writing the sentence, “Mike Johnston’s job is on the line,” that’s the case in Pittsburgh. In his first year with the Penguins, Johnston’s squad limped into the playoffs and only lasted five games against the Rangers. With defencemen Kris Letang, Ollie Maatta and Christian Ehrhoff, plus forward Pascal Dupuis missing huge chunks of the season, Johnston never really had a fully healthy team to work with. However, with an elite scorer like Phil Kessel joining Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the talented crop of forwards the Penguins boast, expectations for the 2015-16 campaign have been raised significantly.
Dave Tippett, Arizona Coyotes
Tippett has always been regarded as a quality coach since breaking into the league with the Stars in 2002. He has been the Coyotes bench boss since 2009 and is the winningest coach in franchise history, but he's coming off his first sub-.500 season. Sure, he didn’t have much to work with last season, but a 24-50-8 record isn’t something that falls solely on the players. Even though expectations for Tippett's group should be low – rest assured they want projected top pick and Arizona native Auston Matthews more than any other team in the NHL – if the desert dogs miss the post-season for a fourth straight season under Tippett it won’t look good.