Monday, November 25, 2019

Weekend rankings: Who’ll be the next coach to be fired?

We had our first coaching change on the 2019-20 season last week. You may have missed it since it came in Toronto and that team tends to fly under the radar. But with Mike Babcock handed his walking papers and Sheldon Keefe installed behind the Leafs’ bench, we can now settle those “first coach fired” bets from October.

Great. So who’s going to be second?

It’s kind of a macabre question – we’re talking about people losing their jobs, after all – but it’s unavoidable in a league where midseason changes are taking on increased importance. This time last year, we’d already had four, including one by the eventual Cup winners. The Babcock firing came one year and one day after the Blues replaced Mike Yeo with Craig Berube, en route to becoming the fourth team in a decade to fire their coach and win a Cup in the same year.

The Leafs hope they can pull off the same sort of turnaround. But history tells us that they won’t be the only candidate. We’ll probably see another coach sent packing before long. But who is the most likely candidate?

It’s a tricky question, and perceptions can shift quickly. Go back even a few weeks, and the odds-on favorite was clear: Dallas coach Jim Montgomery, whose Cup-worthy roster was spinning its wheels. But the Stars have been on fire lately, so Montgomery suddenly seems as safe as can be. At least until the next losing streak.

A few of his Central division colleagues may not be so lucky. Bruce Boudreau’s Wild continue to flounder, and with an expiring coaching contract and a new GM in place who didn’t hire him, there’s little reason to think he’ll be Bill Guerin’s long-term answer. It feels like more of a when-not-if situation in Minnesota, so the question might be whether somebody else beats them to the punch.

Another Central candidate: the Predators, whose recent losing streak dropped them all the way out of a playoff spot. Adam Vingan explored the question of Peter Laviolette’s job security last week, and the coach doesn’t seem overly worried. But as the league’s third longest-serving coach, and with a veteran roster that’s built to win it all right now, he probably should be.

The only other two coaches with longer tenures may have worries of their own, although Paul Maurice has his Jets hanging around the wildcard race. Jon Cooper and the Lightning have been underwhelming, but he feels like a guy who’d be in danger after another first-round exit, not during the season. Then again, we all said that about Babcock too.

The Pacific offers up a few candidates, with Peter DeBoer’s Sharks and Bill Peters’ Flames both underachieving. San Jose is at least trending in the right direction, and you’d think Peters would get the benefit of the doubt after last year’s turnaround. But six straight losses were starting to feel like a crisis, so somebody getting fired in Calgary no longer feels impossible. The question might be who.

Shifting to the East, the bottom of the standings reveals a few candidates. Jeff Blashill’s been showing up on hot seat lists for a few years now, and while we thought he’d received a vote of confidence last year in the form of an extension, that was under a different GM. Furthermore, the extension reportedly includes a club option, so he isn’t as secure as it looked. The question in Detroit might be whether Steve Yzerman would bother with a midseason change, rather than waiting out a rebuilding year, banking some high lottery odds and then making a change in the offseason.

David Quinn’s Rangers are underachieving in what was supposed to be a transition year back to contention, although he’s only in Year 2. John Tortorella’s Blue Jackets are outside of the playoff picture, although most of us expected that after their offseason exodus. And then there’s John Hynes, who is somehow the fifth longest-serving coach in the league now. His Devils continue to be inconsistent at best, and while he can’t strap on the pads and play goal, you get the sense that patience is running out in New Jersey.

Did we miss anyone? I’m not counting any first-year coaches, on the assumption that nobody’s going to get Sparky Allison’ed. We’ll assume that anyone whose team is overachieving or securely in a playoff spot is safe for now, although two bad weeks can change that. And while his team is playing below expectations, I can’t imagine Gerard Gallant being in any danger, so we won’t call a cab for him anytime soon.

Who’s the favorite? Of all the candidates, Hynes stands out – he’s been around forever, his team looks awful and there’s pressure to win right now thanks to the looming Taylor Hall decision. But Babcock’s availability could shift some equations; we’ve seen teams make surprise moves to grab recently fired coaches before, and Babcock speculation is already popping up around some of the teams on our list. A veteran, win-now team like the Sharks or Predators could make sense if he wanted to jump right back into the mix. And if he doesn’t, a Maple Leafs turnaround after making a switch will just ramp up the pressure on anyone else who seems to be on the fence.

We’re at that time of year. It’s officially no longer early. And as the Blues showed us last year, a big move at the right time can save a season. One team’s already taken the plunge; let’s see who’s next.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they’re headed towards a summer of keg stands and fountain pool parties.

Under Babcock, the Leafs had won just two games over teams currently holding a playoff spot, and neither of those had come in regulation. Under Keefe so far, the Leafs are 2-0-0, with impressive road wins over the Coyotes and Avalanche. Thursday’s win over the Coyotes was a strong 60-minute performance, while Saturday’s victory against the Avs was more of an up-and-down affair. Still, the two wins snap a six-game losing streak, and combined with Keefe’s strategic shifts, they offer some hope that the season can be salvaged, or maybe more than that.

Is that enough for a top-five spot? Well …

5. Toronto Maple Leafs (11-10-4, -3 true goals differential*) – I’m kidding, I’m kidding. Calm down everyone. The Leafs aren’t in the top five based on two games. I’m not that much of a homer, come on.

(But check back next week.)

5. Tampa Bay Lightning (11-7-2, +8 true goals differential*) – They’ve won two straight and five of seven, and looked at least a little like their old selves while rolling over the Ducks on Saturday. They’ve played the fewest games in the entire league, with just 20 on the books, so the point total isn’t impressive. But in terms of points percentage, they’ve already climbed back into an Eastern playoff spot. In fact, they’ve passed by the wildcards and are sitting in third in the Atlantic.

4. St. Louis Blues (14-5-5, +8) – How did you celebrate Mike Yeo Anniversary week? The Blues recognized the occasion with home wins against last year’s top two regular-season teams, as they beat the Lightning and Flames. Then they lost to the Predators on Saturday; they’ll get a rematch tonight.

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