On paying for big name coaches, and questions about return on investment

New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz leaves the ice after Game 6 of the team's NHL hockey second-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins, Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Uniondale, N.Y. The Islanders won 6-2. (Frank Franklin II/AP)

There are a few unequivocal truths about having a successful NHL team, and their acceptance within the game is mostly universal.

You cannot win it all without getting good goaltending, that’s one. It’s also accepted that a coach and his ideas have to mesh well with a roster – both stylistic and personality-wise – to have success. Winning teams are well-coached teams. Knowing these absolute truths, NHL teams are eager to take care of those pesky little issues without delay, and so often they deem it worth a big spend.

The Florida Panthers threw $10 million per season at Sergei Bobrovsky for seven years just to ensure they locked up one of those things. Only, the goaltending they’ve got for their money to date simply has not been worth that much. Bobrovsky was around a .900 save percentage the first couple years of the deal, though was above league average this season. Just because you desperately want a solution to a big problem doesn’t mean throwing big money at it is going to fix it.

Similarly, the Toronto Maple Leafs were looking for a new coach when Mike Babcock was becoming available, and it was widely accepted he was one of the best coaches on the market. They threw some $50 million at him to get his services.

The Leafs had success, but I don’t think they had $50 million-worth given they didn’t get past the first round. It ended capitalized Not Awesome and the team then paid him to not work for them for years.

This is the problem that more than a half-dozen teams in the NHL are facing right now: They know they need a great head coach, and numerous head coaches are available. There are big names and known commodities among them, many of them in fact. But if you spend to get one of those, are you sure it’s making your team that much better, or would you just be throwing money at the idea of solving a problem?

The Philadelphia Flyers will pay $9 million for their head coach spot this season ($5 million to the now-fired Alain Vigneault). While the actual cost doesn’t matter to the team against the salary cap, they’ll be coached by John Tortorella (four years, $4 million) after they finished 15th in the Eastern Conference last season. That’s throwing real money at a problem to fix it.

Are they sure that huge financial commitment is going to be better than some of the other avenues available for a team that needs some rebuilding? Barry Trotz reportedly turned down $7 million from the Flyers, can a team that gets Trotz be sure they’re going to get significantly better results than any of the other coaches available out there? How many millions per year better is he than the best guys waiting in the wings in the AHL or as assistant coaches? (And if it’s one percent better, does anyone care about the cost when you just want the best guy?)

Even with John Tortorella signing with the Flyers and Bruce Cassidy signing with the Vegas Golden Knights, there are still numerous big names floating about:

• Jay Woodcroft

• Mike Babcock

• Barry Trotz

• Joel Quenneville

• Paul Maurice

• Alain Vigneault

• Claude Julien

• Dave Tippett

• Rick Tocchet

• Travis Green

You could go on here, depending who you consider “name” coaches. There’s many available.

The question I’m asking is: How much extra value does an established coach give you over a first time, or younger coach? I say “established” coach, some may say “recycled,” and I think there’s real merit for teams in trying to figure out who’s a legitimately good NHL coach who keeps getting jobs because of that (everyone gets fired), and who keeps getting them simply because they’ve had them before?

In my experience with veteran coaches, the real upside is they generally know how to command a team with confidence. Not in the dictatorial sense, but they have an established idea of what they want to do, and they better stick to it than developing coaches who may still be forming some opinions.

Let some complain about that as rigidity, it’s the clarity that helps players. For guys like Tortorella, players knowing what’s expected of them is most of what you’re paying for. Hustle or don’t play, there’s not much room for debate there. The reason I think a guy like Tortorella gets hired, is a GM probably has doubts about the consistent effort of some of his most important players.

This is purely speculative, but I doubt John Tortorella gets hired if Darryl Sutter doesn’t have great success with the Calgary Flames this season. Many saw what Sutter did – he took a team that many questioned in terms of results vs. roster – and got the most out of everyone. The team had a great regular season and won a playoff round.

Can’t you see Chuck Fletcher seeing his roster, which he may like more than the results reflected, and hoping to get some sort of similar bounceback? Don’t you think he recognizes if that bounceback doesn’t come quick, he’s the next to go? In that case, is that why you spend for Torts?

The contrast here, is a big “name” but unestablished coach in Martin St. Louis, who gets a year less and a million less per season (at three years, $3 million per season) than Tortorella in Montreal. To me that speaks to expectations. The Montreal Canadiens are allowing St. Louis to find his voice as a coach along with his players, to grow and hopefully put them in a position where they have to pay him more after a couple of seasons that reflect growth from his best players and himself.

There’s also young coaches who’ve had success in the league. The Sheldon Keefe-led Leafs have been good for years (still without playoff success, of course), Jay Woodcroft had success with the Oilers in his limited time there, and Jared Bednar, who was a “first time NHL coach” has seen the Avalanche through to the Cup Final in his sixth season with the group.

Hell, Jon Cooper started with the Lightning as a new coach and is now the league’s longest tenured guy. They’ve been OK too, as I recall. Those teams were rewarded for not just hiring the next available “name.”

So this is the debate GMs around the league face this off-season. Do you want to make a splash, and if you do it, how sure are you that you’re getting a “name” who’s going to do more for your team than a new guy? How sure are you that the money you’re throwing at a career coach is being well-spent?

In my experience, there’s a ceiling on the contributions of a coach. I believe they make a huge difference, maybe helping you win five or six extra games as a great coach, and maybe an awful one costs you five or six. That’s a massive swing between a good and bad coach if that guess is remotely accurate, but at the same time, there’s only so much a guy can do with a good or bad roster. Which is why numbers like $7 million in the case of Trotz strike me as pretty wild.

It's true that established coaches are more likely to keep your team from the “bad” coach side of things, and to keep you at least level. But trying to figure out who’s coaching up their teams those extra wins takes careful scrutiny and large samples to figure out, and frankly, I’m not sure NHL teams are always the best at figuring that part out. Sometimes I think because of that the decision to go with a “name” is the safe move, and in hockey, consistently making the safe hires tends to keep you employed in the game, which is the goal for many.

The names are there this off-season, and the up-and-comers are lurking too. The most important off-season decision for these teams is deciding which direction they want to go with their leadership, and how much better they believe the expensive, established coaches can make their groups.

When submitting content, please abide by our  submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.
We use cookies to improve your experience. Learn More or change your cookie preferences. By continuing to use this site, you agree to the use of cookies.