Welcome to my Annual Coaching Watch, where I put odds on who will be the first coach in the NHL to be fired in any given season. This will mark the first year I place it here on my blog and not over at www.offthepost.org (though it’ll be there too, you should sign up, we talk hockey a lot). Call me sadistic if you will, but I always enjoy analyzing the insanely fickle nature by which professional sports franchises operate, where no one, not even the most legendary and successful of names, are ever completely safe from the chopping block. And let’s be clear–these are the bench bosses I think have the most chance to be fired, I don’t have any real desire to see any of these guys lose their jobs.
Last year, I boldly predicted Alain Vigneault would be the first NHL coach fired in the 2017-18 season. In a sense I was right, but only because the most shocking thing possible happened–NO coach lost his job during the regular season, the first time that’s happened since 1967, the last year there were only six teams in the NHL. No teams really made any panic moves to try and save the season, which was surprisingly…sensible. Hell, the New York Rangers even wrote a letter to fans telling them they were shutting it down, and shut it down they did.
So with a new year coming up, I wanted to take a look and see who might be the first man to go. I certainly don’t expect another regular season to go by without there being at least one head rolling before Game No. 82 is played, so then here’s a ranking of the five guys I think are most likely to be gone before season’s end.
First though, we should mention those we believe to be safe. The best way I’ve noticed, to avoid being fired in the NHL, is to be brand new to the job. Guys like David Quinn, Jim Montgomery, Todd Reirden, and Rod Brind’Amour, are making their respective NHL head coaching debuts. Bill Peters left Carolina in favor of his hometown Calgary Flames. And one guy is doubly insulated in a very, very unique way. Barry Trotz is not only a brand new coach, but he is also a reigning Cup champ, having won it with the Washington Capitals, resigning, and getting hired by the New York Islanders shortly afterward. It would take some extraordinary circumstances, or a really impatient GM, for any of these guys to get the axe.
So, without further ado, the men who are the least-insulated:
5. Todd McLellan – Edmonton Oilers
McLellan is in a uniquely frustrating situation–he currently has the best player in the NHL on his roster, yet works for a GM who has nearly squandered every bit of talent that surrounded him. This time around, the Oilers and GM Peter Chiarelli opted to stay quiet in the offseason, trying and failing to move Milan Lucic and his utter disaster of a contract. It’s possible the Oilers will have a resurgence and have a season more in line with their 2016-17 run than last year’s debacle, but if not, McLellan most assuredly is in trouble.
4. John Tortorella – Columbus Blue Jackets
The theme of frustrating situations continue, except neither Torts nor his boss Jarmo Kekalainen are to blame. The Blue Jackets have, arguably, never been better than they are currently comprised. But they stand to lose the most dynamic offensive player in the franchise’s short history, as winger Artemi Panarin has reportedly refused to sign a contract extension and could walk in July 2019 if the team doesn’t deal him first. It doesn’t help that perennial Vezina contender Sergei Bobrovsky could also leave in 2019 if a deal isn’t reached. Whatever window the Jackets have is now, and while the team is playoff-worthy, they don’t appear to have what it takes to bust through a very tough Eastern Conference and win it all. It appears the Jackets will enter the season with both players in tow and see how things work out. If they start out poorly, Columbus may opt to trade both players, and I can’t imagine Torts in charge next season should they hit the reset button.
3. Joel Quenneville – Chicago Blackhawks
Quenneville is currently the longest-tenured coach in the NHL (and I always put that guy on this list by default), having taken the job in October of 2008. He’s also the most successful NHL coach currently employed, having won the Stanley Cup three times during that time. But the aging Hawks finally ran aground last season, missing the playoffs for the first time during under his watch. It seems absurd that someone with a track record like Coach Q would be in so much trouble after a near-decade of success, but pro sports is probably the most fickle business there is, so if the Hawks miss the postseason again, odds are Q will be looking for employment elsewhere in 2019.
2. Bruce Boudreau – Minnesota Wild
I almost ranked this guy first. I’ll first admit that, as an Avalanche fan, I’ve no love for the Minnesota Wild, but I’ll also admit that Bruce is one of my favorite coaches. As I wrote earlier, I don’t want to see any of these guys lose his job, but I certainly don’t want to see Boudreau lose his. This is his third NHL gig, and it might be his last. But the only thing that’ll save him is a stellar run through the regular season and deep into the playoffs. Well I definitely don’t want to see THAT, either.
You see my dilemma?
In any event, this one seems almost preordained. The Wild are built around an aging and increasingly brittle core, and while there’s talent there, it doesn’t look like this team is built to go all the way. There’s also a new General Manager in charge, and Paul Fenton is hamstrung by a near-impossible cap situation. It’s very likely he chooses to make a major change in one of the only areas he can–behind the bench.
1. Guy Boucher – Ottawa Senators
Points-wise, there was one team worse (the Buffalo Sabres, who at least got a 1st-overall pick for their trouble). But few teams have ever had a more disastrous season both on and off the ice than the Ottawa Senators, and even fewer have faced a more dire situation going into the next one. How many factors led to Ottawa’s complete collapse last season? There was that contentious locker room dispute still currently being investigated by the police, a situation that forced the team to trade away a top winger for a paltry return. Then the very real possibility where the team will have to trade away their best-ever player or lose him for nothing in July 2019. And last but not least, an early-season trade that may end up costing the Senators a lottery pick, all for a player who may also leave at season’s end. Boudreau’s departure may seem preordained, but this one is all but assured. The only reason I have Boucher ranked first is simply because he works for the worst owner and the worst GM in the NHL, and I could see them doing everything possible to save the season (after all, there’s no top pick to tank for), including firing the coach.
Dave Hakstol – Philadelphia Flyers
Hakstol’s hire seemed like a very unconventional one at the time, a guy with no NHL coaching experience making the leap from the college ranks to the pros. But now with guys like Montgomery and Quinn also in the league, Philly may have been ahead of the curve. I’m still not sure what the expectation is in the City of Brotherly Love. They appear to still be in a rebuild, but they also made one of the offseason’s biggest free agent signings in James van Riemsdyk. There was a point when it seemed like a foregone conclusion last season that Hakstol was gone as the Flyers were mired deep in a losing streak, and fans were openly chanting for his departure. But then they went on an incredible win streak in February and made the postseason. It’s a possibility that Hakstol doesn’t find a way to avoid the pink slip this time around, but it feels like it would take a pretty monumental collapse (and no subsequent win streak to follow) for Ron Hextall to finally make that move.
Mike Yeo – St. Louis Blues
The Blues have expectations as high as their payroll, and underwent a surprisingly massive retool after missing the playoffs by just a point last season. But even after all the new addition, St. Louis’s biggest weakness remained, and that was in goal. I’ve found that public perception of good coaching directly correlates with good goaltending, and if that’s the case, Yeo has to be just a tad concerned about his future beyond this upcoming season.
BONUS SECTION – The 2018-2019 GM Watch
It obviously doesn’t happen with the same regularity as coach firings, but General Managers see their time with teams come to an end as well. Last season we saw two such men–Chuck Fletcher in Minnesota and Garth Snow in Long Island–dismissed from the front office. This time, there are a number of GMs in hot water, like Jarmo Kekalainen (for reasons listed above) and Stan Bowman, but I think there’s one man who will need a big run from his team to save his job.
Brad Treliving – Calgary Flames
Treliving and the Flames had to watch as the New York Islanders chose defenseman Noah Dobson in the first round, a pick that was theirs as the result of the Travis Hamonic trade, a deal that was a complete bust for the first year.The Flames missed the postseason by a fair margin despite a bloated payroll and big expectations.
Treliving has more or less played whatever cards he has left. He made a big coaching change in the offseason and hired the most sought-after bench boss in the league at the time. He also made a blockbuster deal that will add more depth, but not necessarily more star power. If Calgary flames out this time around, ownership will likely not give him the same inexplicable lengths of rope the GMs in Edmonton, Montreal, and Vancouver have gotten.