This feature is part of our bi-weekly look at the NHL, which appears every other Sunday on Page 2 of the print edition.
While the flurry of news came as a surprise to many, it shouldn’t have. NHL general managers fire coaches as fast as the Washington Redskins change quarterbacks.
Consider these statistics from the Elias Sports Bureau:
*In February 2004, Joel Quenneville was fired in St. Louis, Bobby Francis was canned in Phoenix and Glen Sather relinquished his coaching duties in New York. That happened in the span of two days.
*When Boudreau makes his debut behind the Ducks’ bench, he’ll be the first to coach two teams in the same season since 2006-07, when Ken Hitchcock started the season in Philadelphia and finished in Columbus. But he’ll be the seventh to do double duty in league history.
*The six days between his final game behind the Capitals’ bench and his first behind Anaheim’s will be the shortest any coach has been unemployed. The previous record was held by Hall of Famer Roger Nielson, who was between jobs for 15 days after he was fired in Vancouver and hired in Los Angeles during the 1983-84 season.
Answering why a coach gets fired is much more difficult than figuring out when it’s time, it seems.
Ask most players and general managers why the lifespan for a coach is so short and you’ll likely get a shrug, followed by, “That’s a very good question.”
It tends to happen when some, or all, of a team’s players lose faith in their coach’s methods. The losses begin to pile up. Some defeats are unsightly and lopsided. In the meeting room, the coach starts to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher.
“It doesn’t look good on us players,” said Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby.
St. Louis General Manager Doug Armstrong added: “It does seem to me as a manager that there’s a lot of coaches [being fired]. Before they even get settled in, they’re gone. I’m not sure it’s healthy, and I’m not sure it’s something that as management we’re proud of. But it’s a cycle we’re going through in the game of hockey right now.”
On Nov. 6, Armstrong fired Davis Payne and replaced him with veteran bench boss Hitchcock. The Blues opened the season 6-7-0 and had sunk to 14th in the Western Conference when Armstrong made his move.
“You try and project the future,” Armstrong said, “and whether it’s going to change. If you believe that there’s not going to be a change, you have to make hard decisions.”
Ideally, Armstrong said, teams would stand by their man, pointing to Buffalo and Nashville as examples of that commitment that’s needed.
Sabres Coach Lindy Ruff is the league’s longest-tenured coach; he’s been in Buffalo since 1997. A month after Ruff was hired, Barry Trotz was introduced in Nashville. He’s been there ever since.
“There’s a lot to be said about continuity,” Armstrong added. “The players now understand that they have to take responsibility for their play. It’s not going to be someone else who is going to pay the piper for inadequacies in the group. That longevity is something we all strive for.”
But in the high-stakes world of professional sports, Armstrong said, patience is easy to preach and hard to put into practice.
“Making a change for change’s sake, I don’t buy,” continued Armstrong, who previously served as general manager in Dallas from 2002-2007. “In Dallas, I hired Dave Tippet and we were together until I got let go. I always believed Dave was the best coach for the job so we never made a change. Ultimately, [ownership] decided to change the manager because he wouldn’t change the coach.”
Since hiring Hitchcock, the Blues have pulled it together and gone 8-1-2, catapulting themselves into fifth place in the west.
But change is coming more slowly in Washington. The Capitals fell in their first two games under new coach Dale Hunter, getting out-shot by a combined 65-36 in losses to the Blues and Penguins, who made one of the most famous mid-season switches in league history.
Bylsma said he sees similarities between the situation he inherited and Hunter’s.
“It’s a very good team with good players and they’re not where they want to be and so they made a change,” he said. “So there are some parallels there. They have a significant amount of time in a hockey season left, whereas when I came in there were 25 games and we were looking at the end of the season already.”
No one can forecast whether Hunter will be as successful, but Bylsma is sure of one thing: Regardless of their win-loss record or the trophies in their case, most coaches are essentially hired to be fired.
“Bruce Boudreau, within the last two weeks was fastest to 200 wins in the National Hockey League,” he said. “And before he gets to his 202nd win, he gets let go. It gives you pause for the longevity of coaching in this league.”