Thursday, October 22, 2015

Coaches on the hot seat

It took less than three weeks for the NHL season to claim its first coaching casualty. Yesterday, the Blue Jackets announced they’d fired Todd Richards after a disastrous 0-7-0 start, one that threatens to all but eliminate Columbus from the playoff race before the calendar has even flipped to November.

Richards will be replaced by John Tortorella, which is … interesting. Tortorella has a Cup ring, although you have to go back to the pre-cap era to find it, and he had some success with the Rangers. But he wore out his welcome in New York, and his one-year stint with the Canucks was a disaster. At the very least, his temperamental style could be a tough fit for a dressing room that was already miserable.

So now that the Richards watch is over, who’s next? The reality of life as an NHL coach is that you always seem to be just one bad slump away from hearing whispers about a pink slip with your name on it. It’s not a fun part of the business, but it’s part of the job that these guys sign up for. Here are a half-dozen other coaches whose seats are getting warm.

Claude Julien, Boston Bruins

Why he’s in trouble: The Bruins went into the year as a tough team to figure out. They’re still icing essentially the same core that went to a Cup final just three years ago, so the talent is there for at least a playoff run, if not more. But after a disappointing playoff miss in 2014-15 was followed by a confusing offseason under new GM Don Sweeney, this felt like a team headed in the wrong direction.

So far, the results have been mixed. An 0-3-0 start had the makings of a disaster, but they’ve clawed back to 2-3-1. That’s at least respectable, if not playoff-worthy.

But Julien has bigger problems than the Bruins’ record. He was very nearly fired in the offseason, as the team fired Peter Chiarelli and left the coach’s fate up to the new GM amid rumors that Bruins president Cam Neely wanted him gone. And while Sweeney ultimately spared Julien, it was a decidedly lukewarm vote of confidence, and Julien is still the dreaded “holdover that the new GM didn’t hire.” It may be only a matter of time before Sweeney decides to bring in his own guy, and a skeptic might even suggest that the rookie GM is only keeping Julien around to give himself an extra card to play if the season goes bad.

What could save him: The obvious answer is winning, and that will be the case for every coach on this list. But while Julien will continue to buy time if he keeps the Bruins in the playoff race, it’s possible that even that won’t be enough. If he’s going to be the long-term answer in Boston, Julien will need to make sure he’s on the same page as Neely and Sweeney as far as their vision for the team’s future. Failing that, he’d better take the Bruins on a deep playoff run — and he probably hasn’t been given a good enough roster to make that happen.

How hot is it? 9/10. Sweeney and Neely have said all the right things, but it’s not hard to read between the lines.

Who could replace him: The usual suspects will be mentioned, but here’s a long shot to consider: former Devils coach Adam Oates. He’s a former Bruin and ex-teammate of both Sweeney and Neely (the latter scored 50 goals playing on a line with him). He even thanked both guys in his Hall of Fame speech. Being old pals with someone doesn’t necessarily make you the best candidate for the job, but it’s funny how often it works out that way in the hockey world.

Prediction: Julien hangs on longer than expected, but he gets the pink slip late in the year as the Bruins fall out of the race. Sweeney names an interim coach to close out the season, then chases a big name in the spring.

Bruce Boudreau, Anaheim Ducks

Why he’s in trouble: The Ducks are firmly in win-now mode, and they came into the season looking like they’d do just that, with many of the so-called experts (including me) picking them as Western Conference champs.

But while there was plenty of optimism around the Ducks, it always came with a “but” attached — as in, “but wait until we see what they do in the playoffs.” The Ducks have won three straight division titles, but they have seen each of those years end in a disappointing Game 7 loss. That includes last year’s conference final loss to the Hawks, one in which they blew a 3-2 series lead with a pair of bad losses.

Fair or not, a lot of that disappointment has come to rest at the feet of Boudreau, who had some similarly dominant regular-season teams in Washington that never got over the hump in the playoffs. He’s now firmly saddled with the reputation of a guy who can’t win the big one. Those raps are almost always arbitrary and unfair, and it only takes one successful run to erase them forever. But Boudreau hasn’t had that run yet, and with so many chips already in the middle of the table, the Ducks could be running out of patience.

To make matters worse, the Ducks stumbled out of the gate with an 0-3-1 record, managing just a single goal in the process. That switched the narrative from “Boudreau needs to win in the playoffs” to “Boudreau might not even make it that far.” An impressive win over the Wild on Sunday relieved some pressure, but now the Ducks have a brutal five-game road trip against Central heavyweights.

What could save him: In the short term, a few wins would do the trick. Long-term, Boudreau may need at least a trip to the final to keep his job.

How hot is it? 6/10. Let’s all take a breath. Boudreau has the best regular-season points percentage of any coach with at least 500 games — better than Bowman, Arbour, Quenneville, anyone. Firing him because he’s had some bad luck in Game 7s would be questionable; doing it after a few tough games in October would be madness.

Who could replace him: Speaking of madness, the rumor mill churned out a fun name this week: Randy Carlyle. That would be the same Carlyle the Ducks fired in 2011 to bring in Boudreau. He was last seen presiding over several disastrous Maple Leafs seasons, so he’d seem to be an odd choice for a second stint in Anaheim. And if you’re an analytics fan, replacing Boudreau with Carlyle would seem like utter insanity. But Carlyle is apparently still very well respected around the league, and it’s worth remembering that former Leafs GM Dave Nonis is now a consultant in Anaheim. Could it happen? It would be mind-boggling.

Prediction: If the Ducks fire Boudreau and bring in Carlyle, it ends in disaster. But I think Bob Murray is too smart for that, and that Boudreau gets at least one more playoff run behind the Anaheim bench.

>> Read the full post on Grantland




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