By Stu Hackel
Coaches are hired to be fired, the cliché goes, and it’s a given every NHL season that some of the guys behind the bench will not make it to Game 82 while some will … and still be gone at season’s end.
Any team can go through a slump, and almost every coach’s job could be in danger if things go poorly enough, but some GMs are less patient than others for a variety of reasons. It could be pressure from ownership, the players, the media or the fans, or simply the GM’s belief that his team needs a new direction or a new voice. And there are a multitude of reasons why coaches get replaced. Sometimes he doesn’t get the most from the talent. Sometimes the players tune out his message or won’t play for him. Sometimes it has nothing to do with how good he is; if the GM guessed wrong on his players, the coach can become the scapegoat. Sometimes, if the team us underachieving, it’s easier to get rid of the coach than 20 players. And some GMs just feel the need to shake things up.
So it’s not always fair when the coach is shown the door. But pro sports isn’t always fair.
You never like to see anyone fired, but if a team falters or has a disappointing season or playoffs, these guys could be among the more vulnerable bench bosses. Here are some situations worth watching, in no particular order:
Bruce Boudreau, Capitals – Every indication suggests that the Caps are primed for a good season. All reports say they’ll come into camp as a determined group, eager to put past flameouts behind them. GM George McPhee has added a good amount of character to the roster. He’s also demonstrated that he’ll be patient with Boudreau and the players if they hit a bad patch, as happened last season. Still, the expectations here are quite high and there is additional pressure from an involved owner. If the Caps go into a bad tailspin, the vultures will circle again and McPhee will be pressured to pull the trigger. Boudreau is well-liked by his players, but his easy demeanor has often been identified as a shortcoming. In any case, McPhee’s real yardstick may be in the playoffs and if Washington fails to go deep next spring, that could be the deciding factor.
Ron Wilson, Maple Leafs – Toronto has missed the playoffs for six straight seasons, a franchise record, and Wilson has been in charge during the last three. He hasn’t had much to work with, but GM Brian Burke did try to upgrade over the summer. Whether Tim Connolly, John-Michael Liles, Cody Franson, a healthy Matthew Lombardi and a full season of James Reimer in net qualify as a major upgrade is debatable, but if the Leafs start to slip from the postseason picture, Wilson could take the fall. It is particularly telling that in June, Burke replaced Wilson’s assistants, Tim Hunter (Wilson’s sidekick since 1997 in Washington, and afterwards in San Jose) and Keith Acton, with Scott Gordon and Greg Cronin, and it reportedly wasn’t Wilson’s idea. Gordon has head coaching experience with the Islanders in New York, where he got mixed reviews. Burke has been telling the media he’s made changes that make Toronto “dramatically better” going into this season and the implication is clear: If the results don’t get better, the coaching drama will.
Davis Payne, Blues – St. Louis has been collecting young talent for a few years, but has only one playoff appearance in the last six seasons to show for it. The Blues have also had three head coaches in those six years. Payne’s season-and-a-half tenure has been filled with injury and roster turnover, plus underperforming and inexperienced players. None of the Blues’ forwards have yet become the consistent big-time producers they were projected to be and goalie Jaroslav Halak wasn’t quite the consistently heroic figure last season that he was for Montreal in the 2010 playoffs. But the fans are getting restless and the mandate from above calls for this team to start living up to its potential. A good part of that is going to be squarely on Payne’s shoulders. His and the team’s situation is complicated by a pending ownership change, which could eventually make everyone in the hockey department vulnerable. What that means for Payne’s future is unclear. Winning would make things clearer.
Brent Sutter, Flames – He’s coached Calgary for two years and missed the playoffs in each. That would be sufficient for any coach to have questions floating around about his job. But in Sutter’s case, GM Jay Feaster did not hire him — Sutter’s brother Darryl did — and there’s also the questions of Brent’s dour and demanding demeanor. The Flames went from Mike Keenan to Sutter, two ultra-insistent bosses, and this group may be ultra-weary of the strict setting. Of course, the Flames had a good turnaround last season under Brent after Feaster took over, which struck many as odd since the GM had no input regarding coaching decisions. In fact, some insiders attributed the change to ridding the club of Darryl’s micromanagement. Brent even improved his relationship with captain Jarome Iginla, which reportedly was strained early in the season. Still, the Flames fell short of the postseason and if they fall behind again this season, Brent could pay the price.
Terry Murray, Kings – On paper, this looks like the strongest Los Angeles club in a while (provided Drew Doughty signs a deal) with depth everywhere. GM Dean Lombardi has collected a good amount of talent and built a team that can force the issue. He improved last season’s offensively challenged club by adding Mike Richards and Simon Gagne and will get a full season from Dustin Penner. There are high hopes for the Kings and that will put pressure on the coach. Murray’s cautious approach behind he bench is designed to provide this team with the structure it needs to join the West’s elite, but it could backfire and result in inconsistent play. This is going to be a case of the coach and his entire team getting on the same page and the players adhering to what he’s selling. If they stumble, Murray could be in trouble.