There is no hotter position in the National Hockey League these days than head coach.
Over the past two weeks, two long-serving bench bosses have been fired and another tendered his resignation under ugly circumstances.
Two months into the season, general managers now have — or should have — a firm sense of how good their players are and whether a coaching change could be in order or if they’re better off waiting to see how things shake out in the spring, when the list of coaching candidates only grows.
In our NHL Power Rankings: How Safe Is the Coach? Edition, we look at the performance, contract status and general security of each of the league’s 31 bench-runners.
As usual, the clubs are listed according to their current level of awesomeness, while the write-ups take a quick dive into the circumstances around the head coaches’ job security.
Bruce Cassidy — signed through 2020-21 — is proving to be one of the best coaches in hockey. His bunch hasn’t lost in regulation for 12 straight games and never at home, where he controls the matchups. Isn’t this core supposed to be aging? Aren’t they tired after going to Game 7 in June?
In his second season at the helm, Todd Reirden has the Capitals humming along atop the Metropolitan, enjoying a four-game win streak and points in eight of their past 10. With John Carlson enjoying a Norris-calibre campaign and Alex Ovechkin still doing Alex Ovechkin things, it’s possible Tom Wilson could end up with two more rings than Joe Thornton.
I remember getting a chuckle last spring as Craig Berube was officially announced over the loudspeaker at Scottrade Center during the Stanley Cup Final as the “interim head coach” of the St. Louis Blues. As if swinging the organization from worst to first wasn’t enough to secure his employment and drop the modifier. Berube has since inked a three-year deal and has his Blues — winners of four straight and leading the West by five points — looking like a club capable of a repeat.
Jared Bednar, often referred to as a players’ coach, has put his stamp on this team and smartly integrated the Avalanche’s youth movement into a solid leadership core. No team in the Western Conference has a better goal differential than Colorado’s plus-22. Despite his rocky NHL start, Bednar has developed along with his team, and considering his contract takes him through 2021-22, he should be one of the safest coaches on the circuit.
Has any coach been able to accomplish more with less than Barry Trotz since he moved to Long Island and convinced everyone to pull on the same rope? As long as the Isles hang around the top of the standings, Trotz should be in the Jack Adams conversation again. His juicy $4-million salary runs through 2022-23, assuring the room will be his for a while.
The Flyers paid for him — five years times $5 million, reportedly — but Alain Vigneault is proving his worth swift and early. Philadelphia had the NHL’s best record in November and has won five in a row. Granted, Carter Hart and Brian Elliott have given Philly its most reliable goaltending tandem in years.
That Paul Maurice has managed to keep his injury-riddled, cap-strapped club not only competitive but rank in the top eight defensively despite a ravaged blue line is arguably the most impressive coaching performance of the first two months. (We see you, Connor Hellebuyck.)
8. Dallas Stars
After a 1-7-1 start, Jim Montgomery publicly challenged his superstars and Dallas went 14-1-1, possibly saving the coach’s job. That said, Jim Nill is on his third head coach in Big D. How many general managers get a fourth?
The Ken Holland/Dave Tippett regime has ushered a sense of stability, consistency and commitment in Edmonton that had been sorely lacking. Of the four divisional leaders, we have more questions about the Oilers’ roster than any other. What we don’t question is that Tippett — a relative bargain at $2.75 million for three seasons — is the right man for this group.
10. Arizona Coyotes
Rick Tocchet views the player-coach relationship as a partnership, not a dictatorship, and he’s been able to milk the most out of an offensively anemic group. By coaching the cards he’s been dealt, Tocchet should again garner some Jack Adams buzz. The next challenge will be to start drawing more production out of his pal Phil Kessel. Tocchet is in the final season of his deal and, at $1.5 million, is proving worthy of a raise.
Mike Sullivan, signed through 2023-24, has as much term on his contract as any coach. He has steadily steered the ship through significant injuries to Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alex Galchenyuk, Nick Bjugstad and Justin Schultz — plus an underperforming stint by No. 1 goalie Matt Murray (.897 save percentage). Take a bow, Sully.
Despite his juicy new three-year extension, the NHL’s longest-tenured bench boss will be under intense scrutiny if he can’t make a run with his all-star-laden roster. Before sneering at Jon Cooper’s spot in the standings, however, take note that the Lightning have played as many as five fewer games than some of their divisional rivals and have a plus-10 goal differential. Don’t panic yet.
Has there been a better example of a team improving its play, its identity and its mojo than the Carolina Hurricanes switching from Bill Peters to Rod Brind’Amour?
Gerard Gallant, the Golden Knights’ original coach, has earned the respect of his troops. I believe it would take a drastic stumble (i.e., whiffing on the playoffs entirely) to throw Turk on the hot seat.
15. Florida Panthers
The Florida Panthers paid a ransom for future Hall of Famer Joel Quenneville — five years times $5.25 million — with the expectation that he can wrangle the Cats back to the post-season for the first time in four years. The most expensive active coach isn’t going anywhere soon.
Peter Laviolette is the third-longest-tenured coach in the league. He has another season on his deal after this one. But the pressure has been cranked, and his goaltenders have been just so-so. Laviolette’s boss, David Poile, made a double splash over the summer by trading away P.K. Subban and signing the best centre on the market, Matt Duchene. Aspirations are huge. Success feels mandatory.
Travis Green is signed through 2020-21 but at a comparatively modest $1 million salary. It sure feels like playoffs or bust in Vancouver, where a hot start has cooled to a tenuous grasp of the final wild-card spot.
Sheldon Keefe (three-year deal) and Kyle Dubas are going up or down together. Dubas didn’t interview any other candidates before replacing Mike Babcock mid-season, and so far the player reviews of Keefe have been decidedly rave. That Keefe inherited a club outside the playoff picture buys him free time. But if the Maple Leafs can’t take a significant step in 2020-21, all bets are off.
19. San Jose Sharks
Peter DeBoer shook off the notion that he feared for his employment during a horrid October, and Doug Wilson has a history of patience. The coach is slowly pushing the Sharks — winners of seven of their past 10 — out of their early-season hole, but DeBoer could use a few extra saves.
Claude Julien should not (and likely is not) the one under the microscope here. The man is making lemonade. Marc Bergevin, however, is the longest-tenured GM in the Eastern Conference. His Habs have won two playoff games in the past four years and have missed the dance thrice in that span. Bet on a trade before a coaching change.
21. New York Rangers
The commitment the Rangers gave to the unproven David Quinn — he’s signed through 2022-23 at $2.4 million per season — suggests Jeff Gorton had no delusions of a snap turnaround and is no hurry to steer away from the steady rebuild. By trading one of the more enticing rental candidates, Chris Kreider, Gorton could further supply Quinn with another young prospect.
Sources say Jeremy Colliton was already on the hot seat a few weeks ago. Only L.A. has a worse record in the West than Chicago, and at least the Kings are embracing a rebuild. The Blackhawks are trying to reset on the fly, and with Colliton’s record at 40-40-14, they’re not exactly soaring.
23. Buffalo Sabres
We applaud Jason Botterill’s out-of-the-box decision to pull Ralph Krueger away from a soccer pitch and back into a hockey rink. Krueger — $3.9 million times three years — is focusing on the process and trying to restore positivity and pride in Buffalo, where forward depth and goaltending remain issues. Like Montreal and Florida, we view this as a situation where the coach could have more security than his boss.
24. Calgary Flames
Interim coach Geoff Ward was unexpectedly thrown into the fire, but he’d been quietly building a résumé worthy of a head gig for years. If Ward can rally the Flames to the wild card, why not bring him back for 2020-21?
John Tortorella certainly cannot be faulted for the mass exodus of talent in Columbus, nor the tumble down the standings that has resulted. Yet the veteran motivator is now into his fifth year with the Blue Jackets and can’t be thrilled to see the organization stepping back immediately after its most successful campaign. Does a coaching change solve the Jackets’ need for more talent up front or more saves in the back? Nope. But you have to wonder if frustration is setting in.
26. Anaheim Ducks
Realizing the Ducks have no option but to groom their youth, GM Bob Murray brought Dallas Eakins up from the farm to steer the club through the slog. Anaheim’s quick start is looking more and more like a mirage. The Ducks have dropped seven of their past 10 games and are back to acting like the team in turnover we expected.
27. Minnesota Wild
Polled by our editor in September to list the coach on the hottest seat, I put forth Bruce Boudreau because (a) the Wild aren’t built to win and (b) the affable coach is incredibly on his third GM in Minnesota and who does that? Well, Bill Guerin has taken a patient tack, and he knows he’s not a coach away from the wild card. Boudreau only has seven months left on his deal ($2.65 million salary). The bet is both parties ride it out, part amicably, and Boudreau enters the 2020 free agent market.
28. Ottawa Senators
Signing on for three years of youth development at the pro level, D.J. Smith knew what he was diving into in Ottawa. He has the lottery-bound Senators playing with pride and effort while still on track to land another high pick in the draft. Perfect.
Drew Doughty says Todd McLellan has installed a level of accountability that was missing in a tumultuous 2018-19. Granted five years and a whopping $25 million worth of security, McLellan has leeway to call the shots as he sees fit, knowing there is no easy fix. This is a project.
We’ve seen it before. Interim coach steps in, turns around the players’ fortunes and is no longer referred to as “interim.” But considering Alain Nasreddine and John Hynes were closely aligned — and considering a realistic Ray Shero is diving into sell mode — we’re not convinced this is a season worth salvaging. Shero will have plenty of qualified candidates to select from in the off-season. Nasreddine will need to wow to secure the gig.
Once the season ends, Jeff Blashill’s job could be in jeopardy for three reasons: (a) the Red Wings, albeit partly on purpose, stink; (b) GM Steve Yzerman didn’t hire him; and (c) he only has one more season beyond this one on his deal.
(Coach contract data via the excellent CapFriendly.com)