In the one full season that has been played since the end of the 2018-19 campaign and the beginning of this one, there have been a total of 18 coaching changes in the NHL, which lends credence to the notion that coaches in the best league in the world have about as much job security as crossing guards and telemarketers.
Last season was particularly brutal, with eight in-season coaching changes and one in the off-season. (It should be noted, of course, that the Calgary Flames and Dallas Stars changed coaches because of off-ice issues.) We can be reasonably certain there will be less bloodletting this season that last, but could 2020-21 mark only the second time since the league expanded 53 years ago that there will be no coaching changes during the season?
Well, first, let’s look at the most recent examples, neither of which suggests there won’t be any changes behind NHL benches. In 1994-95, the season was truncated to 48 games because of a lockout and three coaches were replaced during the season. It was the same thing in 2012-13, when two teams made coaching changes. And one of them was the Tampa Bay Lightning, who hired Jon Cooper, who is entering his eighth season and is the longest-tenured coach in the NHL.
So we probably shouldn’t expect it, but if there’s any season it can happen, this might be the one. Because, really, can any head coach’s work be adequately assessed on a season such as this one? With lineups so uncertain, a flat salary cap that has restricted player movement, the possibility of teams missing key players and games every other night could make this season so chaotic that teams won’t want to disrupt things even more by firing their coach. Of course, the great equalizer in this is goaltending, since coaches pay with their jobs more because of bad goaltending more than any other reason.
Or not. As one GM said told TheHockeyNews.com when broached about the subject, “The owners expect to win and when you don’t win, people pay for it. They don’t give a sh– if there’s a pandemic or six guys are hurt. That’s just the nature of sport. I would doubt there’s going to be any change in a quick trigger finger.”
And the one thing is it will almost certainly be quick this season than any other. With just 56 games on the schedule, if a team gets out to a 2-7-1 start, its season is probably over anyway and there might not be much use in firing the coach. “I would sit tight,” another GM said. “I don’t know how anyone can fire anybody now. At the end of the day, we’re starting in the middle of January, so make your change in June. It’s only five months away. If you come out of the gate 2-8, all bets are off, and if that’s the case you’re out anyways.”
Will economics play a part? After all, owners will be taking in very limited revenues so are they going to want to pay someone to not coach their team at a time when nobody is buying tickets? On the one hand, coaches and GMs have their contracts structured from July 1 to June 30, so unlike the players, the coaches entering this season have already received half their salaries. So that might mitigate the economics. But as another GM put it, “You’re losing so much money,” he said. “You go on the business side and take hockey out of it. You make the playoffs this year and you’ll lose more money than if you don’t because you’ve got all those expenses. So do you really care? Unless the guy is a criminal…by the time you need to pull the trigger to make the difference, the damage is already done, so do you really want to spend that money?”
Ironically, though, the fact that there has been so much hiring and firing done recently might actually work in the favor of coaches. Of the 31 coaches in the league today, nine are entering their first full seasons as the coach of their teams and another nine are entering their second full seasons. Another three are entering their third. So two-thirds of the league has coached his team for fewer than three full seasons. Given that the average shelf life of a coach in the NHL is about 3.5 years and the median is somewhere in the 2.5 range, that puts a lot of them still in the honeymoon period. And those with more tenure are there because they’re having some success or they’re viewed as elite NHL coaches.