Penguins set a high standard for in-season NHL coaching changes
March 18, 2017 12:15 AM
The Penguins are the only team to win multiple Stanley Cups by changing coaches in the middle of the season, which has only happened six times in NHL history.
By Jason Mackey / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In-season coach firings are as much a part of the NHL as morning skates and inconsistent disciplinary action.
There have been 39 since 2006-07, most among the four major North American pro sports. That’s nine more than the second-place NBA and more than half of the other three leagues combined (74).
Although several Penguins think the five in-season coach swaps that have occurred in 2016-17 may be a reaction to Mike Sullivan replacing Mike Johnston on Dec. 12, 2015, the truth is that it’s bigger than a one-season thing.
“A lot of times it can have a positive effect on a team and give you a fresh start,” Penguins forward Matt Cullen said. “When you’re going through a tough stretch, it wears you down physically and mentally. Everybody’s hurting when you’re struggling as a team.
“I think when you get a fresh start, you’re allowed to take a step back, take a deep breath and start over. A lot of times that can have a real positive effect on a team. You see it around the league.”
PG graphic: Does firing provide a spark? (Click image for larger version)
Four of the five teams that have changed coaches were either in the playoffs (Blues, Bruins and Canadians) or within a point of qualifying (Islanders) entering Friday’s games. Only the Panthers, who as of Friday had lost six of seven and nine of 11 to seriously dent their playoff chances, did not achieve the desired result.
The Bruins have enjoyed the biggest boost, although their sample size is also the second-smallest. Boston had gone 12-4 (entering Friday’s games) since replacing Claude Julien with Bruce Cassidy on Feb. 7.
Cassidy took the Bruins from 26-23-8 before his hiring to a group that’s now 38-27-6 and had a four-point lead over the Maple Leafs for third in the Atlantic Division.
Coincidentally, Julien has led the Canadiens to wins in eight of 12 games to stabilize a team that had endured a 2-6-1 stretch before Michel Therrien’s dismissal Feb. 14.
The Islanders were picking up points at a .500 clip (17-17-8) when general manager Garth Snow replaced Jack Capuano on Jan. 17 with Doug Weight. They’ve gone 16-9-3 (.625) since the move and have become challengers in a tight race for the final wild-card spot.
“I’m sure some teams look at [past firings] and say, ‘Maybe that could happen to us,’ ” Penguins goaltender Matt Murray said. “I just think it’s such a competitive league now. From first to last, there’s not a huge difference in talent or skill. It’s all who comes ready to compete that night. Teams are looking for that edge. Maybe they think a coaching change is the way to do it.”
It certainly has been for the Penguins.
They’re the only team to win multiple Cups by changing coaches in the middle of the season, which has happened six times throughout NHL history: the 2015-16 Penguins, 2011-12 Kings, 2008-09 Penguins, 1999-2000 Devils, 1970-71 Canadiens and 1931-32 Maple Leafs.
When you notice the fact that three of the past eight champions have pulled it off, it’s no wonder these current teams have had itchy trigger fingers.
“Us having success last year and the run we went on … look at basketball [the Cavaliers firing David Blatt and replacing him with Tyronn Lue in January 2016], I think they did the same thing there,” Chris Kunitz said. “They went on to win a championship. Who knows with sports if it’s a trend or sometimes it’s just a change.
“Sometimes coaches are long-tenured. Some organizations are just trying to change the way they play. Maybe they think the game’s turning a different way — not necessarily a spark; they just need a new voice.”
That was likely the case in St. Louis, where Ken Hitchcock had never been known for his warm and fuzzy relationships with players.
Since the Blues fired Hitchcock on Feb. 1 and accelerated the process of Mike Yeo replacing him, St. Louis has gone 13-7-0. A five-game winning streak — broken Wednesday — had Yeo’s group in firm control of the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
“The thing I’ve noticed this year is the teams that have made coaching changes, it appears that a lot of them have worked, maybe more so than in the past,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said.
“Obviously, ours did last year. But there seems to be two or three teams that have had coaching changes where the team has responded very well in the early going.”
Some of the six cases in which a team has fired its coach and went on to win the Stanley Cup deserve special attention.
Sure, Dan Bylsma (18-3-4, 2009) and Darryl Sutter with Los Angeles (25-13-11, 2011-12) enjoyed drastic turnarounds, but Larry Robinson also took over the New Jersey Devils after Lou Lamoriello fired Robbie Ftorek in 2000 despite a 41-20-8-5 record.
The 1970-71 Canadiens provide an interesting case because of goaltender Ken Dryden’s emergence, something Murray’s meteoric rise conjured up memories of, and the 1931-32 Maple Leafs canned poor Art Duncan after just five games (0-3-2).
In terms of midseason turnarounds, learning on the fly and a move made out of desperation, winning the Cup hasn’t happened a ton.
But that hasn’t stopped teams from trying. Perhaps now more than ever.
“This league is so trendy,” Conor Sheary said. “Last year, firing the coach kind of rejuvenated this team. Obviously, we went on that run. I think teams see that. If things get old in the locker room, guys might get bored with it. Sometimes change is good. Maybe teams are going for that approach. It is weird to see so many firings midseason. I think that’s pretty rare. Seems to be a trend this year.”
Jason Mackey: email@example.com and Twitter @JMackeyPG.
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