Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The eight types of midseason turnarounds (and which one your team might pull off)

January 3 was an important date for struggling NHL teams. It represented the one-year anniversary of last season’s St. Louis Blues hitting rock bottom, as they spent that date in 2019 in last place overall before beating the defending Cup champs that night and then slowly but surely turning things around. We know how that story ended. And we’ve been reminded of it ever since, as every bad team rushes to reassure its fans that everything is fine, because if the Blues can turn things around then they can too.

GMs mumbling about “remember the Blues” has become a punchline, but there was at least a little truth to it. They really did prove that a disappointing season can be saved. But as of January 3, the time for playing that card has run out. If your team is still struggling, and the turnaround hasn’t started, you’re already behind the St. Louis schedule.

Fans of those teams will have to turn elsewhere for their optimism now. But that’s OK, because NHL history is full of teams that were struggling at the midway mark and still salvaged the season to varying degrees. In fact, it’s happened often enough that we can divide those comeback stories into some distinct categories. So let’s break down the eight types of midseason turnarounds, and figure out which teams are in the best position to pull it off this year.

The coach firing turnaround

What happens: Maybe the coach isn’t very good at his job. Maybe he is but his team has tuned him out. Or maybe he’s actually doing everything he reasonably could and he’s not the problem at all. Whatever the case, it’s always easier to can the coach than to overhaul the roster, and just about every struggling team will at least think about making a change.

Who can do it: Pretty much anyone, although some teams are obviously better candidates than others. A coach’s contract might come into play. His resume definitely will. And like it or not, his relationship with the media can help or hurt. If he’s been around for a few years without winning much, is on an expiring deal and already has a few knives out for him, then the risk of a change gets higher with every losing streak.

Who can’t: Anyone who’s already fired their coach during the season, unless they’re the 1995-96 Senators. (It didn’t work for them either.)

Historic example: You could point to last year’s Blues here, as well as other Cup winners like the 2011-12 Kings and 2015-16 Penguins. But all three of those coaching changes actually happened in November and December, meaning teams looking to recapture that magic now are already too late. The good news is that they can still look at the 2008-09 Penguins, who sent Michel Therrien packing in mid-February and still had time to get back on track.

Best current candidate: Well, this was going to be Peter Laviolette and the Predators until Monday night. But since David Poile couldn’t wait a couple days to make me look smart, let’s turn our attention elsewhere. Most of the hot seat candidates from earlier in the year seem safer now, including Paul Maurice, Jon Cooper, Bruce Boudreau and John Tortorella. That doesn’t leave many options, although Montreal’s recent slump might put Claude Julien in play.

The big roster shakeup turnaround

What happens: A team struggles, playoff hopes fade, and eventually the GM has seen enough. He pulls the trigger on a major trade or two or maybe more, reshaping the roster and turning the team around.

Who can do it: Any team with a creative GM who isn’t afraid to open himself up to criticism because he knows it’s all part of doing his job.

Who can’t: The other 25 or so NHL teams these days whose GMs would rather make excuses about how trading is too hard.

Historic example: You can probably guess where I’m going with this one. Back in 1991-92, the Maple Leafs were terrible at the midway mark, going 10-25-5 including a recent 12-1 loss. New GM Cliff Fletcher decided to blow the whole thing up, swinging a 10-player deal with the Flames to land Doug Gilmour. The Leafs went a respectable 20-18-2 the rest of the way, then rode that momentum to actual contention for the next few years.

Best current candidate: We couldn’t use the Predators in the last category, so let’s do it here. We’re told David Poile is actively shopping around for a shakeup, and unlike most of his colleagues, he actually has a history of making bold moves when the situation calls for it.

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