Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Every midseason coaching change of the cap era, ranked

The NHL had its first coaching change of the season last week, and it was big news for a couple of reasons. Most importantly, it was Montreal, and anything that happens in that market will reverberate around the league. But it also broke the seal on a year that had many of us wondering if there would be any midseason changes at all. With a pandemic still raging and a condensed schedule leaving little room to adjust, would teams be tempted to ride out the year and make their coaching decisions in the offseason?

Apparently not. Instead, we got what we almost always get – at least one team deciding that it had to make a change during the season, with more potentially on the way. Since the expansion era began in 1967, the 2017-18 season remains the only one which hasn’t had at least one midseason coaching change. Sometimes, the change works out brilliantly. Other times, a struggling team keeps spinning their wheels. Occasionally, a poorly thought-out switch makes a bad situation even worse.

So today, let’s look back at every midseason coaching change of the cap era. That’s a total of 67, by my count, not including brief interim stints or temporary absences. We can divide them into some familiar categories. And of course, we’ll rank them from the worst midseason change of the era to the very best, with the benefit of hindsight.

We’ll start at the bottom and work our way up. Anyone know the number for a cab?

The worst of the worst

I’m guessing there’s no big surprise with this pick…

#67. Nov. 27, 2016: Panthers replace Gerard Gallant with Tom Rowe

You at least can sort of see what the Panthers were going for. They’d recently transitioned the front office job from Dale Tallon to Rowe, and new GMs often want to bring in their own guy. Rowe was embracing a more analytics-based mindset – this was what would become derisively known in Florida as the era of the Computer Boys – and Gallant didn’t seem to be fully on board. So despite coming off a 103-point season in which Gallant was Jack Adams runner-up and a disappointing-but-not-awful 11-10-1 record through 22 games, Rowe pulled the trigger and named himself interim coach for the rest of the year.

Oh, and then they didn’t call Gallant a cab, which turned into a league-wide punch line and infuriated the old guard.

Presumably, the idea was for Rowe to make it through the season, see what his roster looked like up close, and then hire his own guy in the spring. Instead, the team missed the playoffs, Rowe lost a front office power struggle, and Tallon was put back in charge. Meanwhile, Gallant took the expansion Golden Knights job and won the Jack Adams in his first season in Vegas. Just a complete mess all around.

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Monday, March 1, 2021

Weekend rankings: Can the Canadiens season be saved?

How’s that for a dramatic headline? Look, it’s the Habs and they’re losing. Nobody’s going to do subtlety and nuance.

But I’ll blow the suspense by revealing the answer in the second paragraph. Can this season be saved? Yes, of course. They’re still holding down a playoff spot, we’ve already seen this lineup rack up wins early on, and they’re still one of the better possession teams at 5-on-5, which we’re told is a good predictor of future success. Nothing’s hopeless here.

Will it be saved? That gets dicier, because man, things are not good right now.

Let’s reset on a nightmare February. On Groundhog Day, the Habs beat the Canucks, ending a two-week stretch that saw them face Vancouver five times and take nine of 10 points, all while scoring at will. That ran their overall record to 7-1-2, and they were all but anointed the division’s best team. Marc Bergevin’s moves had all worked perfectly, and the relatively small number of skeptics had been proven wrong. (I was one of those offseason skeptics, but I bailed on it quickly, because even when I’m right I find a way to be wrong.) With four good lines and a smart system and nobody playing poorly, the team was so good it was getting boring.

Two nights after that win over the hapless Canucks, the Habs lost to the Senators. No big deal, it was a trap game against a bad team and they got their revenge in a rematch. But then came a loss to the Maple Leafs, and then another to the Oilers, and soon they’d lost seven of eight, including five straight. Last week, they fired coach Claude Julien, a move that would have seemed unthinkable just two weeks ago.

So now what?

New head coach Dominique Ducharme has already made some tweaks, but a pair of losses to the Jets means there won’t be an instant turnaround. Ducharme was Julien’s assistant, so he should be able to maintain that successful 5-on-5 system while concentrating on upgrading the lackluster special teams. But 5-on-5 possession only gets you so far if you can’t finish, and that’s where Bergevin’s decision to abandon his years-long pursuit of top-line talent in favor of a more balanced approach may not be the success it seemed like. The Canadiens can roll out three or four lines that can score, but who’s the go-to guy when you absolutely need a big goal? OK, Tyler Toffoli if it’s against the Canucks, but what about the rest of the time? Right now, the team’s leading scorer is 33-year-old defenseman Jeff Petry, which probably isn’t how Bergevin drew it up.

But maybe that doesn’t matter, because we haven’t mentioned the elephant in the room. Like so many other slumping teams, all the analysis in the world can just be boiled down to one short sentence: The goaltending is bad. That’s it. Bad goaltending sinks good teams, and that’s what Montreal’s been getting on too many nights.

In a weird way, that might be good news for Ducharme, because he has two established goaltenders and only one has been struggling. Jake Allen has played well, including in a Saturday loss in which Montreal was clearly the better team. Go with the hot hand for a little bit, and get the season back under control. Simple enough. But of course it isn’t, because the other goalie is Carey Price, a 33-year-old carrying the league’s highest cap hit for five more years after this one. The plan was that Allen wouldn’t just upgrade the backup slot, but that he’d give Price enough nights off that the starter would get back to the elite level of play that the league still insists he’s capable of, even if the last few years of numbers disagree. It hasn’t worked. Price is muddling through yet another shaky season.

Does Ducharme sit his star and go with the guy who’s playing better? That sounds like the obvious answer, and maybe it is, but where does that leave you next year and beyond? And does that even matter, when you’ve got one year to work with in a very winnable Canadian division before you presumably go back to sharing the Atlantic with the Bruins and Lightning? If this keeps going off the rails and the Habs miss the playoffs, it’s possible that neither Ducharme nor Bergevin are around to worry about the fallout. (And yes, the rest of us have our popcorn ready in case Patrick Roy’s music hits.)

Or maybe Price heats up, the special teams get a few bounces, the team plays like it did on Saturday but without the other team’s goalie stealing it, Montreal makes the playoffs and beats the Maple Leafs and everyone is happy. The turnaround would need to start soon, but they’ve got a winnable slate of games coming up, with the Senators tomorrow, two more against the Jets and then, like a shimmering oasis on the horizon, two more against the Washington Generals Canucks.

Can the season be saved? Yes, of course it can. Will it? We’ll find out, and maybe soon. And it’s Montreal, so whether you want to or not, you’ll hear all about it.

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Saturday, February 27, 2021

NHL era-adjusted mock draft: Why Theo Fleury, Ron Hextall, Alex Mogilny and more would thrive today

The game has changed.

Hockey fans of a certain vintage will often find themselves looking back over fondly remembered highlights and controversial incidents of the past and thinking, boy, if that happened now that guy would’ve been suspended for life.

For younger hockey fans, meanwhile, it’s common to wonder how a Connor McDavid or an Auston Mathews would’ve fared in the 1980s — and to insist that in a world where goalies were 5-foot-9 and smoked half a pack between periods, that they might’ve re-written the NHL record book.

While hockey is a traditionalists game, the evolution of the sport at the NHL level over the last decade and a half has been swift and it has been remarkable.

The goaltenders have gotten larger, adding post-integration techniques that have made “soft” goals even rarer. The salary cap system has caused youth to be served earlier as the years go by, creating an arms race for team speed and relegating the classic, plodding “stay-at-home” defenseman player type all but extinct. Analytics have revolutionized player evaluation, both by the public and by teams themselves. And the way the game is called and legislated by on-ice officials and the Department of Player Safety (an Orwellian moniker if ever there was one) has caused “enforcers” to disappear along with, thankfully, the “keep your head up” type hits that used to punctuate the NHL game.

With a stick tap to our colleagues over on the NBA side of our shop, a crew of The Athletic’s hockey writers (Thomas Drance, Sean Gentille and Sean McIndoe) decided to formalize the “what if?” game with a mock draft that seeks to identify the players from yesteryear who would perform best if they were dropped on the ice, in their prime, in today’s game.

The ground rules:

•Six-round snake draft.

•Every team must feature a complete starting lineup of three forwards (regardless of position), two defenders and a goaltender.

•Eligibility: The player cannot be in the Hockey Hall of Fame and must have played at least 50 percent of their career NHL games after the 1980-81 season and prior to the advent of the Behind the Net era (which we’ve placed in 2008).

The point of the exercise is to identify players who were good in their own time, but who would be absolutely sensational today. If we’re being honest, it’s also about having some fun remembering some guys.

Round 1, pick 1. Team McIndoe selects: RW Alexander Mogilny

Drance: Consensus top pick, but also kind of a squirrel pick. Mogilny would be dominant in any area.

Gentille: Dude was made for 2021, down to the fact that he wore a vanity number. There is no other 89.

McIndoe: This Darren Turcotte erasure will not stand…

Once I lucked into the first overall pick, there wasn’t much debate over who I was going to take. It remains an embarrassment that Mogilny isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but since he somehow isn’t, he’s almost too perfect for this sort of exercise. He was a smart and monstrously skilled presence who could play at both ends and who posted one of the greatest goal-scoring seasons ever, banking a ridiculous 76 in the 1992-93 season. His peak didn’t last long, as injuries and the clutch-and-grab era robbed us of Mogilny’s best. In today’s more wide-open game, and without the pressure of being the first Soviet star to defect, his prime might look like a combination of Datsyuk-ian wizardry mixed with Ovechkin-like finishing.

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Friday, February 26, 2021

Mailbag: Is David Pastrnak now the NHL’s most marketable player?

We’re almost done with February, the first full month of this very weird season, and as the old saying goes, we’re living in interesting times. We learned that sunshine is our enemy, had a player clear waivers after getting kicked off his team for fighting his own goalie, crowned the Montreal Canadiens as inevitable Stanley Cup champions, found out that the Coyotes are a train wreck, laughed at the Leafs blowing a 5-1 lead, crowned the Montreal Canadiens as the worst team ever, and welcomed Brian Burke back to hockey operations. Other than that, pretty dull. Let’s see what was on your minds as we open up the monthly mailbag.

Note: Submitted questions have been edited for clarity and style.

Combining his willingness to participate in advertising campaigns, his off-ice personality, and his on-ice performance, is David Pastrnak the most entertaining player in the NHL? The most marketable? – David R.

He has to be close, right? The whole Lake Tahoe thing was just so great, especially his postgame interview. He’s all sorts of fun to watch, and he even gets a nice boost from the contrast of having linemates like Patrice Bergeron (cool but boring) and Brad Marchand (interesting but chaotic-evil). David Pastrnak as the new face of the league? I could be talked into this.

On the other hand, his commercial work has been, um, uneven. Let’s have him take some acting workshops to improve on that. Preferably instead of participating in any potential Leafs/Bruins series.

You get to change the shape of the puck to create more chaos on the ice and confusion for goalies. How do you go about this and picking the shape? Change shapes between periods? – Sean

This is the first time in my adult life that I wish I’d paid attention in physics class.

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Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Athletic Hockey Show: The season's first pink slip

On this week's episode of The Athletic Hockey Show:
- The Habs fire Claude Julien
- Were Ian and I wrong about Marc Bergevin?
- Our bets on which coach might be next
- Which team's success is the biggest surprise, Chicago or L.A.?
- Jesse Granger on this year's fantasy league-winners
- Neutral site games, the other Gretzky trade and more...

The Athletic Hockey Show runs most days of the week during the season, with Ian and I hosting every Thursday. There are two versions of each episode available:
- An ad-free version for subscribers that you can find here
- An ad-supported version you can get for free wherever you normally find your podcasts (like Apple or Spotify)