What we can learn from past five NHL seasons of coaching changes

With Mike Babcock out and Sheldon Keefe in, Faizal Khamisa joins Hockey Central's Justin Bourne to discuss how the new Head Coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs will impact the team going forward.

The Toronto Maple Leafs fired head coach Mike Babcock on Wednesday, becoming the first team to make a mid-season coaching change in 2019-20.

The situation in Toronto is unique in that there was no great mystery as to who would replace him — general manager Kyle Dubas had his guy in AHL Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe, long considered to be the next head coach of the NHL club.

Whether Keefe can jump into a season already in progress and turn the underachieving club into the contender we all expected it to be is still to be determined. He’ll get his first chance at righting the ship Thursday night against the Arizona Coyotes, and it looks like he’s already juggling his lines in anticipation for his debut.

All signs point to Keefe being put in a position to succeed now in his first NHL head coaching stint: he’s got a star-studded team — many of whom he helped develop with the Marlies — and the trust of his GM, who has now hired him as a head coach on three different occasions and with whom he sees eye-to-eye on how the team should play.

But the move has us thinking: Do mid-season coaching changes generally work?

There are, of course, so many intangibles involved with things like this — it doesn’t always come down to simply winning and losing, and those outside the locker room never really know the true team dynamics that lead to these decisions.

Naturally, we are reminded of the success stories every year around this time — teams like the 2011-12 Los Angeles Kings, the 2008-09 and 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins and last season’s St. Louis Blues, all of whom hoisted the Stanley Cup after making a mid-season coaching change. But those are the exceptions, not the reality.

Out of curiosity, we looked at the past five NHL campaigns — not including the current season — to examine how many mid-season coaching changes were made and to get a sense of whether these shake-ups generally tend to yield positive or negative results.

SEASON-BY-SEASON LOOK

* indicates interim coach at time of hiring

Season: 2014-15

TEAM COACH OUT (Date of firing) RECORD COACH IN RECORD PLAYOFFS?
Senators Paul MacLean (Dec. 8) 11-11-5 Dave Cameron 32-15-8 Lost Round 1
Oilers Dallas Eakins (Dec. 15) 7-19-5 Todd Nelson* 17-22-7 No
Devils Peter DeBoer (Dec. 26) 12-17-7 Adam Oates & Scott Stevens* 20-19-7 No
Maple Leafs Randy Carlyle (Jan. 6) 21-16-3 Peter Horachek* 9-28-5 No

The Devils’ bench got pretty crowded — not only did then-GM Lou Lamoriello make the super-rare decision to name two co-coaches for the rest of the season, the executive himself joined them temporarily to get an up-close look at his team’s performance.

Season: 2015-16

TEAM COACH OUT (Date of firing) RECORD COACH IN RECORD PLAYOFFS?
Blue Jackets Todd Richards (Oct. 21) 0-7-0 John Tortorella 34-33-8 No
Penguins Mike Johnston (Dec. 12) 15-10-3 Mike Sullivan 33-16-5 Won Stanley Cup
Wild Mike Yeo (Feb. 13) 23-22-10 John Torchetti* 15-11-1 Lost Round 1

Tortorella couldn’t get Columbus into the post-season in 2015-16, but he’s coached the club to the playoffs in each of his three full seasons since.

Season: 2016-17

TEAM COACH OUT (Date of firing) RECORD COACH IN RECORD PLAYOFFS?
Panthers Gerard Gallant (Nov. 27) 11-10-1 Tom Rowe, GM* 24-26-10 No
Islanders Jack Capuano (Jan. 17) 17-17-8 Dought Weight* 24-12-4 No
Blues Ken Hitchcock (Feb. 1) 24-21-5 Mike Yeo 22-8-2 Lost in Round 2
Bruins Claude Julien (Feb. 7) 26-23-6 Bruce Cassidy* 18-8-1 Lost in Round 1
Canadiens Michel Therrien (Feb. 14) 31-19-8 Claude Julien 16-7-1 Lost in Round 1

Julien was the longest-tenured coach at the time of his dismissal in Boston, and he was unemployed for all of one week as the Canadiens took swift action to hire him. This was Montreal’s second time hiring Julien as head coach — and Therrien’s second time being replaced by Julien behind the the Canadiens’ bench.

Hitchcock’s dismissal was also pretty surprising at the time, considering he had announced prior to the season that 2016-17 would be his last. The team hired Yeo as an assistant with the intention of being Hitchcock’s replacement following the campaign, but Blues management ultimately decided to go ahead and make the move early.

Season: 2017-18
None!

This was the first season since 1966-67, the last year of the Original Six era, that saw no coaches fired mid-season. Turns out, it was just the calm before the storm…

Season: 2018-19

TEAM COACH OUT (Date of firing) RECORD COACH IN RECORD PLAYOFFS?
Kings John Stevens (Nov. 4) 4-8-1 Willie Desjardins* 27-34-8 No
Blackhawks Joel Quenneville (Nov. 6) 6-6-3 Jeremy Colliton 30-28-9 No
Blues Mike Yeo (Nov. 19) 7-9-3 Craig Berube* 38-19-6 Won Stanley Cup
Oilers Todd McLellan (Nov. 20) 9-10-1 Ken Hitchcock* 26-28-8 No
Flyers Dave Hakstol (Dec. 17) 12-15-4 Scott Gordon* 25-22-4 No
Ducks Randy Carlyle (Feb. 10) 21-26-9 Bob Murray, GM* 14-11-1 No
Senators Guy Boucher (March 1) 22-37-5 Marc Crawford* 7-10-1 No

Of the changes made this season, only Colliton and Berube remain at the helm of their teams.

OVERVIEW:

Total number of mid-season coaching changes: 19

Earliest firing: Oct. 21.
Todd Richards was winless through seven games when the Blue Jackets brought in John Tortorella in 2015.

Latest firing: March 1, 2019.
The Senators were in the midst of their most painful teardown, and Boucher was part of the many casualties. His interim replacement, assistant coach Marc Crawford, wasn’t far behind.

Most common month: November, December, February (tied, with five each).
November tends to be the month when the chips begin to fall, but December and February have seen the same number of coaching changes in the past five seasons. February firing yielded the best results in terms of playoff berths.

TRENDS & TAKEAWAYS

Most teams opt for interims first
Of the 19 mid-season replacements, 13 were brought in on an interim basis – and that includes two general managers (Tom Rowe and Bob Murray) stepping in to take charge and assess the situation up-close. Ken Hitchcock, who came in to help the Oilers in 2018-19, was the only interim not already in the organization.

Three interim coaches turned their opportunities into full-time jobs: Doug Weight, Bruce Cassidy and Craig Berube.

Keep your coaches close and their replacements closer
That’s totally a saying, right? Well, it should be, because 16 mid-season shake-ups saw teams promote a coach from within the organization – either already behind the NHL bench as an assistant or working with the team’s prospects with their AHL affiliate. Four were handed the reins on a full-time basis right away, just like the Maple Leafs have done with Keefe: Dave Cameron, Mike Sullivan, Mike Yeo and Jeremy Colliton.

Winning isn’t always everything
Of the 19 coaches fired mid-season, three had winning records at the time of their dismissal: Randy Carlyle, Mike Johnston and Michel Therrien.

Carlyle was an interesting case as he actually had the Maple Leafs sitting in the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card spot at the time of his firing. Management cited inconsistency and a recent losing streak as reasons for the coaching change, but the move ultimately led to Toronto falling out of contention altogether under Horachek’s short-lived head coaching stint.

A playoff run is the exception, not the norm
Sullivan’s 2015-16 Penguins and Berube’s Blues last year are obviously the ultimate success stories, jump-starting their teams and finishing the season atop the league as Stanley Cup champs in that first season at the helm. For the Penguins, it was their second time winning the Cup after a mid-season change, having done the same in 2009 with Dan Bylsma taking over for Michel Therrien.

That’s the dream.

Just seven teams, including those Penguins and Blues, managed to make the playoffs after making a swap. Obviously, there are so many factors at play here – the Penguins and Blues were star-studded teams that were underperforming at the time of the firings, and it’s tough to compare their results with those of, say, the still-rebuilding Edmonton Oilers of 2015, for example. Most teams in a position to make a coaching change were not in a position to be expected to make a playoff run prior to that season. It’s also unfair to group last season’s Senators in there, considering they were mathematically ruled out of the post-season just a few days after Crawford took Boucher’s place in March.

Change really can be a good thing
Can a mid-season change really jump-start your roster into more wins? Based on the past five years – and the various tangible and intangibles in each – the answer is yes and no. Nine coaches were able to post more wins than losses after taking over the team, meaning the jury’s still out on the strategy.

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