Ask NHL coaches and they’d surely love to go back to the halcyon days of the 2017-18 season. Oh, what a campaign that was. Through all the ups and downs, all the ebbs and flows, it took until the very final days of the season for even a single bench boss to get fired. Job security, at least in the post-lockout era, was at an all-time high. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about this season.
When the Vegas Golden Knights made the surprising decision to can coach Gerard Gallant earlier this week, it marked the seventh time this season an NHL bench boss has been shown the door. He followed a run of fired coaches that has included Mike Babcock, Bill Peters, John Hynes (since hired by the Nashville Predators), Jim Montgomery, Peter DeBoer (Gallant’s replacement in Vegas) and Peter Laviolette. The seven firings already matches the seven in-season changes that were made last season, and given the coaching talent available, it’s seems plausible that we haven’t the last coaching change of the season.
But if there is another firing, who is it that gets the axe? There are some candidates, several of which you’ll find below. What we should note, however, is that there are also a few coaches you may be expecting to see that won’t be found here, including Minnesota Wild bench boss Bruce Boudreau.
Even though there’s reason to believe this is Boudreau’s last season in Minnesota, that has less to do with Boudreau’s performance than it does his contract status. It’s no secret that he’s in the final year of his deal with the Wild, and though he’s been able to keep Minnesota competitive in spite of a roster that is in dire need of a refreshing, it seems like there’s a natural separation on the horizon. Bill Guerin, who took over as Wild GM in the summer, has the chance to potentially bring his own hire into the mix and Boudreau could have the chance to head elsewhere and take a shot at winning a Stanley Cup.
Also excluded below are interim coaches, of which the NHL has a handful at the moment. Rick Bowness has taken over for the Dallas Stars, Geoff Ward is running the bench for the Calgary Flames, Alain Nasreddine has stepped in for the New Jersey Devils and DeBoer was replaced in San Jose by current Sharks interim Bob Boughner. There’s potential for all three to be shuffled back to assistant duty in the future, so that’s less a firing than it is a demotion.
With that said, in a year that has been among the most coach-unfriendly in NHL history, here are five candidates to be next in the firing line:
Jeremy Colliton, Chicago Blackhawks
When they gave Joel Quenneville the heave, the Blackhawks wasted little time labelling Colliton their coach of the future. He was promptly handed a three-year contract and given the reins of a Blackhawks team that the front office clearly believed had much more to give. And, hey, across his first 67 games, there were some notable positives. Colliton helped unleash Dylan Strome, oversaw an Alex DeBrincat 40-goal season and made Chicago exciting to watch, if not always for the right reasons.
But in his second season in Chicago, the relatively untested big-league bench boss’ team has again been middling at best. Through 48 games, the Blackhawks are 22-20-6 and their .521 points percentage is the ninth-worst in the NHL. Is there a chance that the top-end skill in Chicago still leads this team into a wild-card spot? No doubt. Is it far more likely the Blackhawks fall short of the post-season for a third consecutive season? You bet. And that would put Chicago’s front office in an tough position. The Blackhawks could be intrigued by the talent available on the coaching market and snap up one of the veteran bench bosses. It’s true, however, that the issues in Chicago run deeper than the coaching staff.
Jeff Blashill, Detroit Red Wings
Blashill has the remainder of this season and the entirety of next on his contract, but it’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario in which he’s back behind Detroit’s bench to finish out his pact. The truth is that there’s not much about this season that is solely Blashill’s fault. His roster is among the worst in the league, the Red Wings lack depth at all positions, the veteran players they do possess are on the back-nine of their respective careers…the list goes on. Those are all the failings of past management, areas that current GM Steve Yzerman has been tasked with addressing.
That said, it’s impossible to believe any coach, particularly one who’s not a first-year bench boss with the organization, is going to be able to survive a season that has been this abysmal. The Red Wings are on pace for the lowest point total of any team in an 82-game season in the post-lockout era. Detroit only recently scored its 100th goal of the season. The Red Wings have a minus-81 goal differential. If we wanted to keep piling on here, we definitely could.
Let’s just leave it at this: Blashill appears to be a sitting duck and it’ll be legitimately surprising if he’s coaching the Red Wings next season.
Claude Julien, Montreal Canadiens
Given the Canadiens are as banged up as they are – Montreal is still without Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron – maybe Julien has a bit more rope than most would expect, but the reality is that patience is likely beginning to wear thin with the bench boss’ performance over his three seasons with the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge.
After guiding the Canadiens to the post-season (but a first-round exit) in the back half of his return campaign in Montreal, the Habs have failed to make the playoffs in either of the past two seasons and are on the outside looking in with 49 games played this season. Making matters worse is that while they could be considered in the mix by virtue of sitting seven points out of a wild-card spot, the Canadiens actually have the seventh-worst points percentage in the entire NHL.
So, while true that the health of the roster and some of the front-office decisions haven’t done Julien any favors, he hasn’t been able to turn this team into anything greater than the sum of its parts. Anything less than a wild-card spot and we could be seeing the last of Julien in Montreal.
Jon Cooper, Tampa Bay Lightning
This seemed somewhat unfathomable at this point last season. The Lightning were a league juggernaut, one of the greatest powerhouse outfits the NHL had seen in years. They matched the league record for wins in a single season, putting up a whopping 62 last season. And then came one of the most catastrophic first-round playoff performances in history. After Tampa Bay’s cake walk to the Presidents’ Trophy, they were stunned by the Columbus Blue Jackets, dropping four straight and getting swept out of the post-season. That alone was cause for some to call for Cooper’s head.
Alas, he remained behind the bench to start this season and once again has the Bolts looking like one of the top Stanley Cup threats. Following a slow start, Tampa Bay has righted the ship and now has the sixth-highest points percentage in the NHL, a plus-30 goal differential and the up-and-down nature of the early campaign actually has the Lightning kind of sneaking up on the rest of the league.
It’s difficult, however, not to feel as though this has the makings of a season in which the playoff performance dictates Cooper’s fate. How will the Lightning respond to anything less than a conference final appearance?
Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets
This is a painful one, if only because there are few coaches in the NHL who are an entertaining as Maurice. There’s also a strong relationship between Maurice and the Jets’ brass. He’s been part of the process of building a consistent winner in Winnipeg and he’s forged a bond with his players. Take captain Blake Wheeler, who said following the Jets’ first-round exit last season that he didn’t “want to play for anyone else.”
Taking the emotion out of the decision, though, Winnipeg might be in a tough spot come season’s end. It’s evident right now that the Jets are a wild-card contender and not much more. Their underlying numbers are ugly, the defensive play – which is in part the result of the losses suffered on the blueline throughout the off-season – has been suspect and goaltending and timely offense is what has kept Winnipeg afloat. Add to it the overall decline, with Winnipeg on pace to post its lowest point total in three seasons, and the gradual closing of the Stanley Cup window and maybe management takes a gamble on a fresh face and new voice.
Rest assured, however, that if he survives beyond this season, the 2020-21 campaign will be a big one for Maurice’s future behind the Jets bench.