By Allan Muir
Less than two weeks into this exceptional season and already the wolves are circling.
In Pittsburgh, Dan Bylsma is being pilloried for his in-game management. In Colorado, Joe Sacco’s toughness is questioned. In Dallas, fans are grumbling about Glen Gulutzan’s lack of bench presence. In Florida…in Carolina…
Anywhere teams are losing, panic buttons are being mashed by fans who are only too aware of the playoff implications of a slow start. Car pools are being organized to help ex-coaching staffs get to the airport. Wish lists of possible bench bosses are being drawn up on cocktail napkins.
Change needs to happen, and it needs to happen now, before it’s too late. Right? Right?
If it was up to the fans, half a dozen bench bosses would be looking over their severance packages right now.
But general managers, the men who actually have to make these decisions, tend to be a little more judicious, a little more big-picture oriented. They want results, but they grasp that these are unique circumstances. Which makes me wonder: Could this actually be the safest year in NHL history to be a coach? A season in which not one single coach gets fired?
Remember, this is not a traditional campaign we’re dealing with. Expectations have to be tempered accordingly.
Coaches are asked to create systems and prepare their players to execute them. Typically, they have three weeks of camp, a slate of eight or nine exhibition games and a light schedule early on to make adjustments.
This year, they’ve had their hands tied by a six-day training camp and a compacted schedule featuring 48 games in 99 days that reduces their practice time and minimizes their chance to address problem areas.
Hardly the ideal circumstances to address a man’s ability to pull a team out of an early tailspin.
Of course, nobody promised these guys a fair shake, and any one of them could be greeted by the HR rep with the blue folder the next time they walk into the office.
But given the circumstances, making a change might be far less effective than in a normal season…even if it is just change for the sake of change.
Replace Sacco with someone more demanding, and that guy still has to figure out how to squeeze wins out of a roster that lacks Gabriel Landeskog, Steve Downie and Ryan O’Reilly and has yet to get a hit on the APB for Paul Stastny. Turf Gulutzan and you may get someone more vocal, but volume won’t cover for a blueline that might be the worst in the NHL.
The only coach who appears to be in legitimate danger early on is Bylsma, who has entered his fourth season in a town where no coach has made it to five. The Pens, one of the favorites to win it all this season, look puzzlingly soft. Special teams are a mess and the defense and goaltending have been porous. The talent is there (mostly) but the results aren’t. That’s the recipe for a pink slip right there.
Still, as a not-so-long-ago Cup winner, Bylsma deserves a little more slack. Especially considering how difficult it would be for a replacement to come in and make any kind of significant changes with the limited time available.
Of course, that didn’t stop the coaching carousel from spinning during the last lockout-shortened season. In 1995, the Los Angeles Kings fired Barry Melrose, the Winnipeg Jets dismissed John Haddock, and the Edmonton Oilers replaced George Burnett.
But not one of those switches spurred the team into the playoffs.
Chances are the axe will fall somewhere this season. But given the unique challenges, it might not be the answer that fans think it is.