It’s fair to say this has been a strange and turbulent season for coaches in the NHL.
Seven have lost their jobs already — just four shy of the season-long record of 11 — though not all of those dismissals have been performance-related. The Bill Peters situation opened up all kinds of questions about hockey culture and the player-coach relationship, while Jim Montgomery’s ousting in Dallas was equal parts mysterious and shocking.
Only three of the seven teams have hired a full-time replacement, while the other four are running with interim bosses. But all of these teams hoped and expected that their coaching changes would lead to better days under the new guy — or that at least their seasons wouldn’t be derailed further.
But how have these coaching changes worked out so far? Here’s a look at how the seven teams have fared since making a move behind the bench.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
Under Mike Babcock: 9-10-4
Under Sheldon Keefe: 16-7-3
Though Toronto’s front office would have preferred the team work through its issues and let Babcock guide the Maple Leafs through another playoff run before deciding his future, a six-game losing streak in mid-November proved too much to endure. At the time of the decision, Toronto was fifth in the Atlantic and sitting outside of the playoff picture.
Since then, however, it’s mostly been a success under new head coach Sheldon Keefe. Although, another recent run of mediocrity to head into the bye week and all-star weekend is raising eyebrows.
Toronto won four of its first five games under Keefe and, in a 10-game stretch through December and into early January, the team didn’t lose once in regulation. In fact, from the day Keefe was hired through Jan. 5, Toronto’s 15-4-1 record was second-best in the league behind only Tampa Bay. Their offence had opened right up, averaging a league-high 4.10 goals per game, while their 2.70 goals-against per game was the fifth-lowest mark. Everything, it seemed, was coming up
It’s the past two weeks that are causing worry again, as Toronto allowed 28 goals in just six games. Frederik Andersen has struggled, and enters the all-star break with the lowest save percentage of his career, but it wouldn’t be fair to say the Leafs showed up for all these games. A lackadaisical first period against Chicago on Saturday, the team’s last before the break, clearly highlighted that.
So there’s two ways to look at this. One is that Toronto is playing to the strengths of the roster now and the clicking offence has made it seem like the team has turned a corner. The other is that, especially over the past two weeks, Toronto’s roster showed the kind of “immaturity” that worries fans about how real their Stanley Cup chances are. This is why GM Kyle Dubas needs to find some veteran help, ASAP.
Under Bill Peters: 11-12-4
Under Geoff Ward: 15-7-1
The Flames were treading water at the end of Peters’s tenure, as he had won just one of his last eight games with the team. Some of their metrics were fine — the Flames were in the middle of the pack in Corsi for percentage — but they were being outclassed in scoring chances created at 5-on-5. Stars Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan weren’t bringing the same level we’d become accustomed to and that the Flames need. The best story of the early going was probably how David Rittich was quickly becoming acclimatized as a heavy-usage NHL starter.
And then one tweet from Akim Aliu set into motion a string of events that altered the course of not only the Flames, but the entire hockey world, as we were left facing tough questions about the game. Before November was out, Peters and the Flames parted ways and assistant Geoff Ward took over the head job on an interim basis.
Though his first game behind the bench doesn’t officially count on his head-coaching record since Peters was still employed, we’ll give Ward credit for winning his first seven games. The practices got looser, as music over the loudspeakers became the norm. This was a juncture in Calgary’s season where all the distractions could have taken the team way off course, but Ward deserves major credit for stabilizing everything.
Under Ward, the Flames are second in high-danger goals for percentage at 5-on-5, and 13th in expected goals for percentage. It hasn’t all gone smoothly, but it’s worth noting that any time the Flames have hit a bump under Ward it hasn’t spiralled out of control. Their longest losing streak since the switch is just three games.
If there is a worry, it’s how the offence is showing a propensity to dry up for prolonged periods. While the Flames won four of their last six games before the break, they only managed 11 goals over that stretch. This puts more pressure on the goalies and defence, and has us wondering if GM Brad Treliving — no stranger to a big trade — looks to upgrade his forwards.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Under John Hynes: 9-14-4
Under Alain Nasreddine: 8-11-3
Less than two years after leading the Devils to a surprising playoff berth, Hynes was out the door following a surprisingly slow start. GM Ray Shero (now former) did a lot to try and accelerate this thing — trade for P.K. Subban, draft Jack Hughes, trade for Taylor Hall a year earlier, sign Wayne Simmonds off the UFA market, trade for the upside of Nikita Gusev, etc. But rather than take a step up, New Jersey was still languishing near the bottom when Hynes was dismissed Dec. 3.
He was a highly touted coach, though, and it barely took him a month to find another head-coaching job in the league, so what gives? Rather than this being the fault of coaching, it may be just that the Devils failed to find chemistry and that ultimately unravelled all hope.
Under Nasreddine the Devils have been mildly better, which may be more due to having a little more luck fall their way than anything else. It is worth noting, though, that since the Devils traded Hall on Dec. 16 they have one more point than the Arizona Coyotes, the team they moved Hall to.
Nasreddine had the Devils playing .500 before a tough road trip prior to their bye made for a record that looks worse. There are still major problems on the blue line and in goal (until MacKenzie Blackwood settles in), but by bringing the Devils even close to .500, Nasreddine is making a case to stick around beyond the season and get promoted from interim to head coach.
Under Jim Montgomery: 18-11-3
Under Rick Bowness: 9-6-1
The Stars can be a tough team to figure out. They run hot and cold and can be streaky, though overall the swings haven’t been as wild as last season. But they’re still there. After Dallas won a single game in its first nine of the season, some were wondering if Montgomery would be on the hot seat. Then they won 14 of their next 16 and all looked right again.
But on Dec. 10, completely out of the blue two days after beating the Islanders, Montgomery was fired not for on-ice performance, but for “unprofessional conduct.” Almost a month later, Montgomery admitted himself into an inpatient residential program for alcohol abuse.
The Stars are a well-put-together team, though, and after promoting assistant Rick Bowness with an interim-head-coach tag they just kept chugging along. Dallas has played nine road games under Bowness, winning six of them, and has been nearly as good at home. Their longest losing skid has been just two games.
However, they have allowed more goals than they’ve scored under Bowness, and that’s not the only potentially troubling stat to keep an eye on. Where Dallas generated the most high-danger chances at 5-on-5 under Montgomery, it ranks 20th under Bowness. No matter all the big names you see in the lineup, make no mistake that offence is not this team’s primary strength.
They have a formidable team defence, which is the core of their success dating back to last season, as well as a couple of quality netminders. As long as that base stays in place, the Stars will remain a Cup contender. The offence, with all its weapons, should come.
SAN JOSE SHARKS
Under Peter DeBoer: 15-16-2
Under Bob Boughner: 6-9-2
Does anyone really believe coaching is the core reason (or, heck, even a peripheral reason) why the Sharks are falling from their pedestal this season? Remember, this is a team that lost Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi, Gustav Nyquist from its forward unit, did nothing to upgrade its depth issues on the blue line, and returned with the same two goalies that led the team to a league-worst save percentage last season.
It’s not that we don’t believe GM Doug Wilson can’t turn them around in a year or two. After all, Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl seem to be following nicely and naturally behind Logan Couture as younger difference-makers up front. But there is work to do.
Boughner was bumped up and given the interim tag after DeBoer was let go and an Aaron Dell hot streak, during which he’s taken over the No. 1 job in January, has saved San Jose’s goalie numbers from looking as bad. We believe this is only a limited-time offer. The Sharks lost their last three games before the bye, two of which Dell started, and allowed 14 goals-against. This is who San Jose is right now and there’s not a coaching change to be made that’ll fix it.
Under Peter Laviolette: 19-15-7
Under John Hynes: 3-3-0
Very small sample size and too early to determine if Hynes is getting this team back on track, but the writing was on the wall for Laviolette with this year’s slow start following a first-round playoff exit in 2019. The team’s power play remained near the bottom of the league after finishing dead last in 2018-19, while the penalty kill took a significant step back into the bottom-third.
Nashville generates the third-most average shots per game in the league but, despite seemingly having enough offensive firepower among the forwards, the team generated the ninth-fewest high-danger opportunities under Laviolette this season. They just heavily rely on their blueliners to generate offence, which isn’t ideal in today’s NHL.
The third line, led by Nick Bonino, is having a great year, but the drivers (Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, Matt Duchene) haven’t been able to put up high totals. Defenceman Roman Josi leads the team in points by 16.
Under Hynes this measure hasn’t changed yet.
It should be noted that Pekka Rinne has also regressed hard at age 37 and has posted just an .899 save percentage, despite Nashville’s defence remaining one of the tougher outfits in the league to get high-quality chances against. Had Rinne been able to continue his resurgence from the past couple of years, perhaps the team would have overcome some of the offensive issues and Laviolette would still be in charge.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Under Gerard Gallant: 24-19-6
Under Peter DeBoer: 1-0-1
When we looked at some potential next stops for Gallant after Vegas dismissed him last week, we highlighted that it’s mostly been bad luck that has held Vegas back this season. With a little better shooting and save percentages, given the team’s strong underlying numbers, they may be running away with the Pacific Division right now.
In just two games under former rival coach DeBoer, we can’t determine what’s changed or where this thing is going. A win in Ottawa and a shootout loss in Montreal are all we’ve seen, but everything is still in place for a team two years removed from a Stanley Cup Final appearance, and one year removed from an incomprehensible collapse that in any other universe would have been a Round 1 win.
This is a well-put-together team that wouldn’t surprise anyone with a stronger stretch run than we’ve seen so far.