Hearing about the hot seat is a fact of life for NHL coaches. From pretty much the moment you’re hired, somebody somewhere is already trying to figure out how close you are to getting fired. We already got a head start on this season’s hot-seat watch over the weekend, based on what the oddsmakers were forecasting.
It always feels a little bit awkward to dig into those kinds of discussions. Sure, hiring and firing is a part of the game, but you’re still dealing with people’s livelihoods. Speculating over who might be next to lose their job isn’t anyone’s idea of a good time.
So today, let’s stay positive by coming at the question from the other side: Who are the five NHL coaches who come into the season with the coldest seat? In other words, who are the five guys who are the least likely to get fired this year?
It’s a tougher task than you might think, especially since we’re going to tack on one important caveat that none of the people who are already complaining in the comment section will bother to read: Anyone who was hired in the 2017 off-season doesn’t count. After all, that would be too easy. Aside from the occasional Barry Melrose or John Maclean situation, virtually nobody gets fired during their very first season with a team. So the seven guys who were hired over the summer are off the board.
That still leaves 24 coaches with at least a little bit of tenure. Surely we can find five of them that are stone-cold locks to keep their jobs until next season, right? I think we can. And if not, at least it should be fun for all of you to send me the link to this post in a few months when one of these guys gets a pink slip. Either way, here we go.
Mike Babcock, Maple Leafs
Why he’s completely safe: Babcock is one of the most respected coaches in the league, and he worked a near-miracle by taking the Maple Leafs from a dead-last laughingstock into a playoff team in one season. This year, he’s got the team playing well enough to look like an early contender for the Atlantic Division title.
But as impressive as all that may be, it’s not why Babcock is one of the easiest cold-seat picks. That has more to do with his contract, which makes him the highest-paid coach in hockey and runs until just after the Sun explodes. Granted, the Maple Leafs have all the money, and Babcock wouldn’t be the first Leafs coach to walk the plank with time left on his deal. But Brendan Shanahan didn’t sign Babcock to this sort of deal because he was thinking of firing him three years in. Even if the Leafs wobble off the playoff path, Babcock’s not going anywhere, at least not any time soon.
Well, unless…: I mean, this is a Lou Lamoriello team, so we can’t completely rule out a day when Babcock shows up at practice with sideburns and gets fired just on principle. But other than that, or some sort of major off-ice scandal, Babcock is as safe as they come, even in a market where weird stuff seems to happen to coaches.
Mike Sullivan, Penguins
Why he’s completely safe: Sullivan is the other no-brainer here. He hasn’t even been in Pittsburgh for two full seasons, and he’s already got two Cup rings. Winning one Cup pretty much makes you a lock to stick around for another year, unless you’re Mike Keenan. Winning them back-to-back makes you untouchable.
Well, unless…: The Penguins have won two Cups in the last decade in years in which they switched coaches midway through the season, so if they get halfway through this year and feel like they need a boost… well, they’re still not firing Sullivan. He could probably tear off his suit, revealing a Capitals jersey underneath, and hit Sidney Crosby over the back with a folding chair during a timeout and still walk away with a stern warning.
Guy Boucher, Senators
Why he’s completely safe: This is where things start to get a little bit trickier. In theory, Boucher should be about as safe as they come. He’s in just his second year behind the Ottawa bench, and so far he’s been an unqualified success. Last year he guided a Senators team that didn’t look especially great on paper to a playoff spot, then very nearly took them all the way to the final. So far this year, his team hasn’t had a regulation loss despite missing Erik Karlsson for all five games.
What more do you want? Boucher is almost completely safe.
Well, unless…: That “almost” comes in because this is still Ottawa, a team that has a history of souring on coaches very quickly. Boucher is the 10th man to hold the job (not counting Roger Neilson’s ceremonial two games in 2002), and just by making it through his first full season he’d already outlasted three other Senator coaches. There’s always a sense of urgency about making the playoffs for the cash-strapped Senators, and it doesn’t take much of a slump for the team to start mulling a change behind the bench.
Should Boucher worry? Not really, which is why he still makes our cold-seat final five with room to spare. But he falls just short of the completely untouchable tier that Babcock and Sullivan occupy right now.
Peter Laviolette, Predators
Why he’s completely safe: He just took the team to the Cup final, a run that also had the entire city falling head-over-heels with its hockey team. They’re expected to be good again this year, and even though they’re off to a slow start they should be right in the mix in the Central all year long. Good team, good coach, nothing to see here, move along.
Well, unless…: There’s a small but convincing chorus of pundits who’ve argued that the Predators may not be as good as we all think. It’s worth remembering that this team had only 94 points last year, so there’s not a ton of room for error here. With all the momentum that last year’s run generated, could they really afford to be patient if things started to slip off the rails?
Another factor worth watching: Laviolette has coached four teams and taken three of them to the final, including a Cup win with the Hurricanes. But he seems to be one of those guys who comes with an expiration date. He’s never made it through five full seasons at any one of his stops. And this is already year four in Nashville.
Still, that all feels like we’re working pretty hard to find something to worry about. He’ll be fine. Hey, what kind of team would fire its coach one year after a Cup final loss? That would never work.
Bruce Boudreau, Wild
Why he’s completely safe: After winning a division title in each of his first seven full seasons behind an NHL bench, he stumbled in last year’s debut with the Wild, plunging all the way down to… second place. Yeah, this guy’s a good coach. He guided the Wild to 106 points, the ninth time he’s had a team play at that pace. And for once, he didn’t even lose a Game 7!
Well, unless…: He didn’t lose a Game 7 because he didn’t get close to one, with the Wild dropping their first-round matchup with the Blues in five. There’s pressure to win right now in Minnesota, and deservedly so, so Boudreau’s reputation for coming up short in the playoffs could become a factor. That wouldn’t necessarily be fair, but Boudreau probably didn’t deserve to be fired in Washington or Anaheim either. In this league, fair doesn’t have much to do with it.
So let’s say Boudreau guides the Wild to another strong season and follows it with another early exit in the playoffs. Is there any chance that GM Chuck Fletcher makes a quick change, especially if he felt like he had to do it to save his own skin? Man, I’m kind of talking myself out of this pick. If Boudreau’s a top-five cold-seat coach, that tells you all you need to know about job security in the profession.
While we’re at it, let’s cover a handful of names that could make a strong case for inclusion in our top five, and why they didn’t quite make the cut.
Joel Quenneville, Blackhawks
He trails only the uncatchable Scott Bowman in career wins, and has earned three Cup rings in less than a decade since arriving in Chicago. Even if the Hawks weren’t out to a great start this year, you’d think Quenneville would be safe on reputation alone.
But every now and then, you get this uneasy vibe out of Chicago that he and Stan Bowman may not be on the same page, with the GM reportedly firing assistant Mike Kitchen without input from Quenneville. Remember, we said a cold-seat coach had to be a lock to make it to next season. If the Blackhawks made a third-straight early exit this year, is it really that hard to imagine Quenneville being on the way out, by choice or otherwise?
Jon Cooper, Lightning
The second-longest-serving coach with one team (trailing only Quenneville), Cooper has the Lightning looking like Cup contenders again after last year’s surprising playoff miss. But even though he’s guided the team to a Cup final and an Eastern Conference final in his four full seasons, he always seems to show up on hot-seat lists. If the Lightning somehow missed the playoffs again this year, there’s at least a decent chance he’d pay the price.
John Tortorella, Blue Jackets
Yes, he’s the reigning Jack Adams winner, and he’s coming off a 108-point season with a team we all dismissed as also-rans. He’s also John Tortorella. It would take something very weird for his job to be in any sort of danger. But weird things have been known to happen when Tortorella’s involved.
Mike Yeo, Blues
He’s in his first full season, has the Blues playing well, and overachieved after taking over last year. The only reason he doesn’t make the top five is that the Blues have been kind of strange about their coaches recently, so nothing seems completely off the table.
Randy Carlyle, Ducks
He did great in his first season behind the Ducks’ bench, and in theory he should be safe. But GM Bob Murray seems to be running out of patience for playoff disappointment, so there’s at least a little pressure here. And as Maple Leaf fans remember, Carlyle has seen things go south quickly before. Could it happen again? It would be mind-boggling, but maybe not completely impossible – remember, he only earned a one-year extension after last season.
Todd McLellan, Oilers
He was a Jack Adams finalist a year ago and got the Oilers back to the playoffs. If we did this list on opening night, he’s almost certainly in the top five. But the Oilers are off to a tough start, and McLellan is already cracking the whip and getting disappointing results. Still, as long as Connor McDavid is on his side, he’ll be fine.
Bruce Cassidy, Bruins
He hasn’t been on the job long, and got his team to the post-season last year. But if the Bruins miss the playoffs, that could lead to a front-office shakeup that swept out Don Sweeney and Cam Neely. And once a new GM shows up on the scene, all bets are off.
Claude Julien, Canadiens
Based on our off-season cutoff, Julien is the most recent hire eligible to make our list. And maybe he should be on it. But this is Montreal, and strange things happen with coaches, especially when the team is struggling. At some point, Marc Bergevin (or whoever else is GM) is going to have to complete the circle and give us the “Patrick Roy coaches the Habs” moment we all know is coming. That day is almost certainly several years away, but you’ll forgive us for being a little nervous about calling that a sure thing.